Healthy Bars

While a common toast may be “To your health,” it isn’t often we see these two words together. There are, however, hopefully healthy bars in your life: your horse’s. In this excerpt from The Essential Hoof Book, authors Susan Kauffmann and Christina Cline explain how to best manage the health and care of the bars of the hoof.

The bars on the bottom of the hoof are an amazing part of the complex support system that nature gave the equine hoof. They are also the source of much disagreement among hoof-care providers. While everyone concurs that the ideal bar is straight and upright, as this is the position that allows them to assist most in weight bearing, this is where universal agreement comes to a grinding halt.

Trimming the Bars: Listen to the Horse

One of the main areas of controversy is when to trim the bars, and how much to trim them if and when you do. Opinions are all over the map, ranging from aggressive trimmers who dig the bars down below the level of the live sole, to those who believe in trimming the bars flush with the callused sole, to those who say that the bars will usually grow the way the horse needs them to be with minimal, if any, interference from the trimmer.

So, who is right?

While carving the bars out below the level of the sole is very likely to make the horse sore and can cause serious harm, every other idea on the spectrum is likely to be right in some cases and wrong in others. A bar that is harmfully tall, lumpy or laid over on one horse might be exactly what keeps another horse comfortable.

Factors like the degree of concavity a foot has, the type of footing it travels on, how much moisture is in the environment and how healthy the other structures of the foot are, all play a role in determining the optimal bar height for a particular horse at any given time. Generally speaking, though, most horses appear to be comfortable when the bars are fairly close to the level of the sole, perhaps a couple of millimeters longer than flush.

Some instances where bar material may need to be removed include bars overgrown enough to cause excess pressure inside the foot, or bars that have laid over and are putting pressure on the sole—the latter being more likely to cause a problem on a flatter foot than a concave one. Such bars can cause bruising and subsolar abscesses under the bar area, and if this state continues long-term, the corium can be permanently damaged.

Long bars can also grow inward at their terminal ends and pinch the frog, affecting its growth and function, as well as the comfort of the horse. Another potential problem with bars that have laid over is that they can trap unhealthy muck that can be impossible to get at and clean out. The result can be a cesspool of “bungus” (bacteria plus fungus) that may lead to abcesses if the undesirable organisms invade the white line of the bars.

This horse has nicely straight, naturally short bars that require little, if any, trimming. Photo by Christina Cline

But it is critical to understand that the hoof can and often does attempt to support itself where it is weak by growing extra bar and/or sole material that can look like it shouldn’t be there. If overall management is helping the foot recover from that weakness, such anomalies usually go away on their own. Taking away this extra support before the foot is ready can cause pain and slow its recovery. This may be why we often see big, ugly-looking bars in feet with thin, collapsed heel regions. Such non-textbook bars may look like they should be pared down, but they are providing some support to very weak structures. As soon as the heels get a little healthier, the ugly bars may be able to go or may disappear on their own.

It can definitely be hard to know what should or shouldn’t be done when you see bars that are not ideal. Therefore, when modifying the bars, don’t forget to listen to the horse. Trimming is supposed to take the horse closer to optimal, and should therefore make him more comfortable, not make him sore. If the bars are being taken down and the result is that your horse is in pain, it might be best to rethink your trimming strategy. Also, if bar material seems to be growing back very quickly after a trim, this is an indication that the foot needs it there. It is not due to “compacted” bars popping out of the foot—the bars simply don’t grow that way.

This excerpt from The Essential Hoof Book by Susan Kauffmann and Christina Cline, reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (