When the Choctaw Princess first arrived, I was glad to see that she showed no signs of the corrugated hoof wall typical of laminitis despite her susceptibility top grass founder. She stood square with no attempt to bring her hind feet up under herself to relieve pain in her front end. Nor did she hobble along, flinching when she stepped on hard, rough or uneven ground.
When I picked up her back feet, I saw that her rear heels are level with her frogs. Her rear frogs are large and resilient. The rear bars and clefts are all clearly visible. Her rear soles are convex. Her rear hoof wall and the white line of the laminae that holds the hoof wall to the inner structures of the hoof are substantial and healthy.
However, when I picked up her front feet and saw that her heels were narrow and higher than her frogs, all my alarm bells began to go off. Horses that are shod year in and year out often have contracted heels as the shoes interfere with the natural expansion and contraction of the hoof at each stride. But contracted heels are uncommon in free-roaming barefoot horses.
I had to wonder why this mare had the flat soles, deep narrow clefts, shriveled up shortened frog and narrow hoof walls that went along with contracted heels. I could only speculate about the cause and then make sure that I addressed any environmental causes that I could. Idleness is one of the worst things for horse’s hooves, so perhaps standing all summer instead of moving around on varied terrain had taken its toll.
So I have made sure that she moves around every day instead of just standing. Although we are a long ways yet from the 20-25 miles a day free-roaming horses usually cover every day, I do what I can to get and keep her moving. Even in her pen, I make sure that she has to walk at least a few yards to get from her hay to her water.
Given the option, horses will stand around in water while they drink. Natural hoof care has shown that their hooves absorb significant amounts of moisture every time they do so. Since this mare was raised near the North Platte River, her hooves were accustomed to splashing through water on a regular basis.
I was contemplating how to get enough moisture to her hooves. Since she is prone to grass founder, I presume she was kept in a dry lot. Perhaps her hooves had dried up because she was standing in a small area of alkali clayey dirt that sucked the moisture from her hooves.
Standing in muck and mire is bad for a horse’s hooves, so I did not want to just flood her pen with the hose. I could make her stand with her front hooves in a bucket for a few minutes every day or I could sprinkle the sandy base of my round pen so she was trotting around in damp sand for a bit every day. Then the October rains hit.
Usually we get summer monsoons in July and August and then winter snows in December and January. But every so often the hurricane seasons manages to throw some wet weather our way in the fall. This fall we are getting a fair bit of rainfall. Now, the mare has a choice of clayey mud, gravely puddles and wet sandy arena footing.
And I decided to take advantage of the moisture to check her hooves. Any rasping or trimming would be much easier to do with a resilient moisture-filled hoof than one that has dried and hardened to a stone-like texture.
As soon as I picked up her front hoof, I saw that her heels had already expanded giving her frog much more room. The frog had enlarged and the bars and clefts were beginning to become visibly distinct structures But the hoof wall had grown so that her heels were not only taller than her frog, they were so long that they extended about halfway down it. Her frog was never touching the ground when both heels and the frog should all land simultaneously.
Now the reason I am a perfectionist about the hoof is because the horse’s hoof is a phenomenal bit of biomechanical engineering. The heel impacts first, followed by the quarters and finally the toe. The springy spiral proteins of the hoof wall compress vertically as the hard thick toe lands fractionally later at each stride, absorbing the forces of impact. The heel and quarters are thinner walled than the toe, so they expand horizontally, also absorbing energy.
Meanwhile the horse’s pastern is rotating, pressing the bones within the hoof down into the digital cushion, an intricate web of blood and lymph vessels, just above the sole. The laminae, frog and bars also absorb the forces of rotation and thrust. The bars bend down and tend to straighten as the pastern rotates under weight. The cushion expands outward, spreading the quarters of the hoof even more.
The complex structure acts much as a leaf spring in the suspension of car does, except it works even more efficiently. The horse’s hoof does a t least four things that car engineers never thought of.
As the horse pushes off, the hoof releases the stored energy as the whole process reverses.
The expansion and contraction of the hoof pumps fluid, blood and lymph, back up the leg so it does not pool in the horse’s limbs or hooves.
The expansion of the hoof wall and the flexing of the concave sole the hoof impacts and their springing back into shape as the hoof pushes off also serves as a self-cleansing mechanism, popping mud and manure out of the hoof at each step .
The energy the hoof capsule absorbs from the impact of the hoof on the ground so perfectly balances the energy of the horse’s body weight descending that is absorbed by the digital cushion, laminae, bars, and frog that the intricate inner working of the hoof are effectively at a zero point.
Zero point means that no matter how fast the horse is going or how hard the hoof impacts the ground, the forces cancel each other out so the inside of the hoof is always at equilibrium. The awe-inspiring biomechanical design of the hoof protects the inner structures of the hoof and helps to stabilize the tendons and ligaments of the entire leg, unless we humans mess it up.
The whole system is out of whack if a horse’s heels stay contracted. If the whole system is out of whack, injuries are inevitable. My first step was simply to take enough of the Choctaw Princess’s heels down so that they were in the correct relationship with her frog. This alone would change the entire dynamics of the hoof.
So we headed out to the round pen with my hoof pick gloves and rasp. I intended to clean her feet, rasp a bit off her heels and then send her around to trot a circle or two and see how she moved. I like to see how the horse moves after I make small changes on their hooves.
The first indication I had that she was not happy with her hoof care in the past was that when she saw the rasp in my hand and felt the glove on her leg when I asked her to pick her hoof up, she started yanking it away. Now, she has generally been cooperative about having her hooves picked up and cleaned. She lets her seven-year-old admirer puzzle out how to hold the hoof pick, hold her hoof and scrape away at her hoof with admirable patience.
So snatching away her hoof was a statement, even if it was not a statement I could let pass unchallenged. I needed to make sure she understood my intention was to get her hoof to where it felt right to her, not to where it fit some abstract ideal in my head. I managed to get the mud and manure that had been packed to a bricklike consistency broken up enough that I could clean her hooves.
Then I persisted until I managed to get the heels on one front hoof rasped down level with her frog. Since her hooves were resilient with the rains, I was able to get them down about 3/16ths of an inch pretty quickly. I made sure that her hoof wall was a smooth line from her heel to her toe, but otherwise left the rest of her hoof untouched.
Then I set that hoof down and went to work on the other front hoof. She was even more irritable, so after a few strokes on one heel I sent her around the pen for a few circles at the trot. Asking her to keep standing with all her weight on one front hoof that had just had such a shift in its inner dynamics would be inconsiderate.
We humans might not consider 3/16ths of an inch a huge change unless we go buy some heel lifts and shore up one heel on a pair of shoes but not the other. A few steps will convince most people that uneven soles are a problem. It certainly convinced this Princess that we were not done yet. Her imbalanced hooves made a noticeable change in the way she moved, but not a positive one.
She soon petered out to a walk, then a halt. Then I could persuade her to let me work in the second hoof and get its heels aligned with its frog. She was a little more patient with me, but was still relieved when I released her to trot a few more rounds. I saw that I had to do a little fine-tuning on each hoof so that she was breaking squarely over her toe on both front hooves.
Side to side balance is as important as front to back balance. Once I had the side-to-side AND the front-to-back balance correct, she set out around the circle once more. Her stride began to even out as she found each front hoof landed and pushed off correctly. She tried out her new balance by snapping her knees up to chin like a hackney pony for a few strides, then stretching out to take long low daisy cutting strides in a fast extended trot.
Then she settled into a nice steady even working trot and let me know that we were done for the day. For my part, I was glad that the mare’s hoof problem appeared to be due to the trimmer not the horse. In fact, her hooves had been trimmed just before she came down from Colorado.
A trimmer who had learned the ‘mustang roll’ was the best way to simulate natural hoof wear had trimmed this mare. Her hoof walls are smooth. Her front hooves are nice and round. Her back hooves are near ideal ovals. Both are symmetrical. They did a fine job as far as their understanding went.
What they did not appear to understand was the importance of maintaining the hoof’s natural balance and its ‘zero-point’ equilibrium. According to James Rooney’s ‘The Lame horse’ , contracted heels are one of the disorders that are primarily caused by poor trimming and shoeing. In a series he wrote for one of the (now defunct) online thoroughbred racing journals, veterinary hoof specialist Dr. Rik Redden speculated that most people at the track did not know what a healthy hoof looked like because so few of them ever saw one.
I suspect this trimmer fell into that category. They most likely learned to shoe working on horses with hooves that had either been shod or grossly neglected or both. They were so used to seeing horses with contracted heels and short toes that they thought that was normal. And so they trimmed the toe too short and left the too heels high when they worked on the bare hoof.
Like anyone who has had to actually move around in high heels, this Princess had found her them awkward and uncomfortable. Just imagine not being able to take off a pair of slightly too small shoes that forced your heel up so you had to stand and land with all your weight on the ball of your foot and your toes banging into the front of your shoes. It is no wonder she was footsore after having her hooves trimmed.
And it is no wonder she learned to resent having her hooves worked on. I prefer my horses to let me know when I have their hooves done right. My OTTB in particular quickly got to where he would show me which hoof I needed to work on and just where I needed to work. He decided of his own accord that, he did not have to trot around on an imbalanced hoof while I slowly figured things out.
Since I responded with concern when he dropped from the trot to a slow head-hanging walk and then heaved a great sigh, he knew that got my attention. Then he would stop, set the offending hoof out to the front and side. After rolling an eyeball at me to make sure I was watching, he would nibble on the high side.
Then I would pick up the rasp and the offending hoof, give it a few swipes and set it back down. If I had gotten the balance right, he sped around with ease. If not, or if another hoof was bothering him, he would repeat the whole show.
He taught me that the difference between a horse grinding his teeth in pain and one that was moving easily could be as little as 1/16th of an inch on one side of one hoof. Knowing that 1/16th of an inch is all it takes to throw off the inner equilibrium of the hoof makes me an unrepentant perfectionist when it comes to hoof care.
After the Princess’s first heel trim, we had another couple of very cool wet days where I, as good New Mexican desert rat, just could not see going out in the wet and trying to find some hoof through the thick layers of sticky mud. When I picked up those front hooves maybe four days later, the change was obvious.
Dropping her heels 3/16th of an inch was enough to get the blood flow moving through the Choctaw Princess’s digital cushion and frog. Her heels were now wide well angled struts that could absorb the force of each impact. Her frogs were double the size they had been and resilient instead of shriveled. And the whole hoof was expanding and contracting so much more that she had shed several layers of old sole. Her soles were now convex.
Movement, moisture and good nutrition helped make the changes visible faster. They also meant that I could still trim her hooves fairly easily. I got out the nippers as well as the rasp this time with the intent of making sure that her hoof walls were aligned with her sole.
Her soles were level with the hoof wall at the toe. But there was about ¼ inch of wall visible above the sole at her quarters. Her soles had been so flat that I had not been able to differentiate between her soles and her bars at the first trim. Now her bars stood about 3/8th of an inch taller than her convex sole.
Once I had the bars and quarters level with the sole, I ended up splitting the difference and taking the heels down about 5/16th of an inch with the nippers. When I sent the Princess around the pen to see how she felt, she offered and maintained a canter in both directions for the first time. She was also willing to settle into and maintain a long strided free walk both directions.
So I used the rasp to smooth the weight bearing surface of the hoof wall out, taking off perhaps another 1/8th of an inch at the heels so they were level with her frogs. If I had figured out a way to manage the camera, the light, the hoof and the horse I would have taken before and after pictures
Instead, I took a few measurement of her front hooves. Her heels have come down a little over ¾ of an inch. But her toes are still 3 ½ inches long from coronet to ground. Her convex soles are now 5 inches across the broadest part and just over 5 inches from heel to toe instead of a flat 4 inches. And her frogs are now 4 inches long and 2 inches wide and able to do their job of absorbing and releasing energy and moving fluids.
We are not done yet. The hoof is a living structure and it will take a while for these changes to stabilize. When she has soles that are convex instead of flat and her hooves are self –cleaning instead of each step packing her hoof full of mud and manure. I will have a good idea of what her hooves’ natural shape is. Then we will be on a maintenance program instead of a let’s make a radical change in hoof dynamics every few days program.
I am confident we are on the right track because, despite my concerns that each trim could leave her footsore and uncomfortable, the Choctaw Princess is cheerful and mobile. Since she does not have the option of cruising 20-25 miles a day over varied terrain, my job is keeping up with her hooves as they change their own balance according to their own inherent structure and function. Her hooves are making such drastic change with ease because I am following their own directions.
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