Foot Fetish: Hoof Health, Form & Function

Candace Wade interviews a couple of self-proclaimed “foot freaks” who live and breathe hooves and hoof health for the whole horse in any discipline.

Flickr/Joshua Ganderson/CC

Flickr/Joshua Ganderson/CC

Some horse people are captured by the eyes; some are muzzle mavens. I have a foot fetish. My continuing education on the effects of stacked shoes on Tennessee Walking Horses has converted me into a foot freak. When I see a horse, I look down. The soft curves, the defined, deep “V” of the frog, the sight of a healthy hoof all make me melt.

Two fellow equine foot freaks share their knowledge. Karen Hardy of The Cowgirl Coach, an intrepid cowgirl extraordinaire, and horse “shoer” Wild Horse Harry filled me up with their time-tested knowledge (and educational pictures).

Karen Hardy

“Welcome to the world of foot addicts!” says Karen. “Farrier work and shoes are like all tools and aids we use with horses. Used properly they will help the horse and the human work together not hurting either and benefiting both. Used improperly the effects can range from discomfort to torture. The responsibility lies with the human and unfortunately the effects fall squarely on the horse.” Karen owns and works draft horses, and once rode across Europe for 1700 with her daughter to raise awareness of unwanted and abandoned horses worldwide.

Karen Hardy and her daughter Olivia. Photo by Patty Black.

Karen Hardy and her daughter Olivia. Photo by Patty Black.

Karen’s horse “Lucy” is an example of the role feet play on the health of the rest of the horse. “Feet/hooves really start at the knees. Horses, like humans have very complex knees and seldom do they actually match. Lucy has fantastically awful knees. We have to keep her knees in mind when we do her feet. If we made her feet match she would probably be lame. Horses’ feet need to match the leg. Notice the angle of the hoof wall is different on her feet but it matches the angle of the pastern.”

Lucy and her "goofy" knees. Photo by Karen Hardy.

Lucy and her “goofy” knees. Photo by Karen Hardy.

“There is hoof and shoe under the leg bone that follows all the way through the shoulder. The hair line is symmetrical which indicates that no one part of the hoof is getting more pressure.”

“Horses carry the majority of their weight on their front ends.  The design of their front and back legs is different so their feet should also be different.” Draft horse “Buddy” models his feet four weeks from his last trim:

Buddy's hind hoof. Photo by Karen Hardy.

Buddy’s hind hoof. Photo by Karen Hardy.

“You can see the hoof growth and how healthy the sole looks. The bars are visible but not overgrown, the frog is healthy and the quarters haven’t cracked.”

Wild Horse Harry

Enter Harry T. Harry describes himself as old school. He’s been an all-breed shoer for 36 years. “I take the difficult cases, the horses that no one else wants, like the three-year-olds that have been penned up their entire lives.” He has also worked as a team driver in movies since 1983.

Harry evaluates the conformation first.   “The horse tells what he needs to run clean.”  Harry “shoes to the ease of the ‘go’ of the horse.”

Having worked on a range of horses, Harry shared that show horses often use “package” pads. “Saddle seat uses them for exaggerated movement in leg and knee action. Scotch bottom shoe on draft horses can make the feet into squares,” and exaggerate the gait for shows. “Others want elongated front toes to exaggerate what nature has provided.” The wedge pad on Arabians with weighted toes is for flick, but does not elevate the whole foot (as on the “big lick” Tennessee Walking Horses). “A horse can be lame after he is finished with the show ring shoes.”

I asked Harry about the “big lick” TWH shoes. I have been told that raising hoof angles in front artificially (allowing heels to grow too tall or applying wedge pads) alters structural balance. This imbalance can affect the shoulders and pelvis of the horse. When front angles get too steep, hind angles will get shallow in response. The whole base of the horse is changed.

Harry feels “shoes are for traction and protection. Some say correction — trimming is for correction. Exaggerated shoeing can cause stress to travel to hips and shoulders. The horse tries to compensate for the alterations.” Seems shoes can maladjust the entire skeleton of a horse.

I asked about the use of trailers — the extension on back shoes. These can be used to “make the horse’s step come around the barrel and to step higher.” Harry shared that they can also make the horse cow hocked.

Harry explained how anything that restricts the flex of the frog can retard circulation and hoof growth. “A horse has five hearts.”  Huh? He has the “one usual heart and the frog in each foot.” The frog needs stimulation to expand and contract – to pump blood to the legs. The heart pulls some blood, but not enough to compensate for the lack of frog action. Standing in a stall (with or without stacked shoes) does not stimulate a lot of blood flow and can cause contracted heels.

Thermal imaging by Andi Weishaupt.

Thermal imaging by Andi Weishaupt.

Karen and Harry encourage horse owners to become foot freaks and examine, or even better, photograph their horses’ feet and legs over the course of the summer. Observe how they change.  What do they look like after the farrier pulls the shoes and before he starts to trim? Take notes on any movement or problems the horse has between visits. The intimate knowledge of your horse’s feet will help keep your whole horse healthy and could save lots of money in rehabilitation later.

Go riding!

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