FAQ #16 – Can you tell me what to look for when looking at the heel?

“Doug, I attended your Horse Expo seminar this past March in Lincoln and really enjoyed your lecture.  I never thought that I would have to bring out notes from what you talked about in such a short amount of time, but we ended up having a horse go lame on us this spring.  We saw some signs around Thanksgiving but the horse seemed to get worse recently.

“After some tests and x-ray’s, the vet diagnosed him with Navicular Disease.  The x-ray showed some history of deterioration and such, but the concern that I have is even though the x-ray indicates a historical problem we haven’t noticed it until recently.  We bought the horse a year ago and rode him quite a bit with no issues.  This brings me to the comment you made about those who may shave off too much of the heel.  We have had the hoofs trimmed twice.  I’m suspecting the trimming job.  Can you tell me what to look for again when looking at the heel?  We do have him on Bute which seems to help, and I think when he was shod he was better.”

Answer:  When shoeing for navicular disease, the most important thing is the alignment of the axis of the pastern with the axis of the distal phalanx or coffin bone.  The front of the upper one-third of the hoof should be parallel to the front of the pastern when viewed from the side.  Sometimes it is necessary to use a wedge pad in addition to the shoe to achieve this.  When these are in alignment, you will have the least amount of stress on the navicular bone.  For more information, see pages 558-566 in The Principles of Horseshoeing (P3).

On April 10th, I did a full-day large group clinic for the New Jersey Equine Veterinary Clinic — among the topics I presented was one on the “Barefoot Experiment,” and the response from veterinarians and farriers alike was very positive!  Of the several farriers who visited with me after the clinic about experiences they’ve had rehabilitating lame horses from these incorrect procedures, one farrier in particular said he had conducted a year-long experiment with two of his own horses.  Please see his “Comments ” added to this blog post.

  1. Reid TottenApril 22, 2010   

    A friend of a customer came to me one day with a story that should interest anyone who gets under a horse for a living. She said her Mom had found this “natural hoof care person” and this was how their horses hoof care would be handled from then on. She Mom even bought a book about it. Their horses’ feet were trimmed and in less than a week, they could ride them again. The girl wondered, as I trimmed some pony party ponies, how they were going to work the next day after just having been trimmed. ”You know,” she said, ”they’re supposed to be trimmed like mustang feet”. This began to have a familiar ring and I started to get annoyed, but I remained calm and listened with feigned interest and strained curiosity. I knew what was coming.

    I had read the stories and letters in various horse publications. I had heard second and third person tales of similar situations from horse owners and other farriers, but this time it was real. Everything I had previously read and heard with disbelief was being told to me now with all the sincerity of a kindergarten teacher scolding an eighth grader. It was all there; paper thin and bleeding soles, heels chopped off, toes gone, hoof walls rasped away, tough love, jogged on rocks, mustang roll, don’t ride for a week etc. The book selling “natural hoof care professional” came from out of state, charged a barn call and mileage which, when added to the trim, amounted to $90.00 per horse and then complained that the horses wouldn’t stand still. I was very touched by the not standing still part. That hardly ever happens.

    (Doug Butler writes about The “Shoeless Experiment” here).

    As a reader of the Farrier’s Journal, I have followed with much interest and a sideways grin, the subject of hoof care in the “natural” Blah, Blah, Blah world. In all the methods and techniques out there, I notice they all have one thing in common. Mustang feet are the standard to which they aspire. I think it’s an excellent idea. If we want the best feet for our horses, why not emulate the horses with the best feet. Seems logical.

    I am a farrier and horse owner from New Jersey. Our State animal is the Horse and there is no limit to the breeds and disciplines represented here. I work on everything from backyard, miniature donkeys to world record holding Standardbreds, from barrel horses competing at the national level to eventing horses in three star competition. I own three Mustangs, four Standardbreds, two Quarter Horses and two Arabians. In all my dealings with this subject I have seen no examples that involve or document actual Mustangs, so I decided to conduct an experiment.

    One 12-year-old Mustang gelding, born wild and captured at four. Gentled, saddle trained, sound, healthy and in captivity.

    One 14-year-old Standardbred mare born in captivity, trained and raced. Retired as a broodmare, sound and healthy.

    Both horses’ feet were trimmed. Both horses are on the same 60-acre pasture. Both horses are on the same diet. No Blankets, no stalls, no riding, no driving, not much attention whatsoever.

    (You can view photos of these horses here)

    The North American Mustang is known for its heartiness and is thought by many, obviously, to have superior feet. This hasn’t come by chance. Nature’s first instinct is survival and we all hear that little pearl ”no foot, no horse” once in a while. It’s no mistake that wild horses have good feet. They don’t survive without them.

    I chose the Standardbred because it is a purely manufactured, American breed. Originally created for transportation, the breed has proven hearty and now exists primarily for racing. They are common throughout the country, and, after their racing careers, are found in many a backyard owned by people who, at some point, will be looking for a hoof care “professional”.

    I emphasize “professional” because that’s what farriers are. How long would I last if I lamed a horse so bad that it didn’t know which foot to limp on two days before the NBHA world show? Would the customer accept not riding for a week if her horse were too foot sore to compete in the Jersey Fresh, three-star event. How soon would the trainer call me back if “Darlin’s Delight” got scratched lame the day she paced a world record at Pocono Downs? Worst of all, what would you say to the little lady down the street if she couldn’t trail ride this weekend because her old Quarter Horse’s feet were so sore that it fretted itself into a colic, foundered and died? “Tough love”?

    This little experiment of mine, on the surface, is no big deal. It’s no great feat to trim a horse in a manner that mimics a Mustang, as long as we keep in mind that Mustangs have heels, don’t have paper-thin soles and rarely get their hoof walls rasped away in the wild. What I did differently is treat a domestic horse like a wild horse and documented the results. I did no hoof care whatsoever and those results are obvious: Domestic horses don’t have the genetics to hang with the wild ones in the foot department.

    If you want a horse that has Mustang feet, buy a Mustang. If you want your horse trimmed like a Mustang, make sure you use a hoof care professional that has at least seen one, or perhaps does enough work to keep their tools from getting rusty. In fact, it would be in the horse’s best interest to hire a farrier, not a person who does little more than peddle a book, sit on a silly stool and trim two horses a month with a Dremel. In my opinion, most of these holistic, hoof butchers wouldn’t know a Mustang if one came up and kicked them square in their high performance Strasser method. If you find yourself being lectured by one of these people, do what I do. Look down at their feet. If they are barefoot, hear them out, but I haven’t had to listen to one yet.

    How are they now?

    I did no service to the mare by letting her feet go the way I did. She was what you would call “less than sound”, but she’s fine now. After two trims and a shoeing she’s happily pulling a cart, chasing our weekend rides with the cooler. The Mustang? He’s great. Nothing ever bothers him. We ride regularly now and, oh yeah, I still haven’t trimmed his feet.

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