Have you ever wondered if equine hooves can flex? Horses' feet do actually flex, quite a bit more than most people realize. Even shod hooves flex mid-hoof between the heel and the toe; nails are placed only in the front half of the shoe so the heel is free to flex where it needs to. In stride the heel comes up from the shoe while the toe stays in contact where steel and hoof are bound by nails. If nails were placed further back they would more than likely come away due to the movement in this area. But what about when the horse is on an uneven surface and one side of the heel is forced higher than the other heel on the same hoof? The shod hoof flexes between distal and palmer (front to back). But what about the heels moving up and down separately?
Imagine looking at the back of an unshod hoof. You would be looking at the medial and lateral (inside and outside) heel bulbs which are made up of lateral cartilages. Between the lateral cartilages is the digital cushion (above frog) which the coffin bone rests on. These fleshy materials make up most of the back of the hoof and they are designed to give to pressure. Again from the rear view, let's say there is a small rock under the left side of the hoof but the right side of the same hoof is still touching the ground. The left lateral cartilage would get jacked up but the right lateral cartilage would stay relaxed on the ground. Both heels have good contact to the surface of which they stand, one is just on a higher surface than the other. Also, the joints in the lower leg could stay aligned and comfortable. When the hoof flexes properly the bony columns get to keep their natural positions instead of bending in an unnatural way.
On the other hand let's think of a shod hoof, again the left side is jacked up on a small rock. The shoe forces the heels to stay aligned because the shoe is flat. So now the entire hoof is being forced to lean by the rock under the left side. The lateral cartilages don’t get to move much. To compensate, the joints are forced to bend in the the leg. Now think of the joints in the lower leg, they are hinge joints which now have taken on the strain of flexing in a way unnatural to them. Imagine having your foot and ankle completely fused. If you step on an uneven surface your knee is going to have to flex since your lower leg can’t. I am sure this would put a great deal of strain on your knee.
Cartilages that don’t get used lose their strength. The heel becomes low and the digital cushion becomes soft, also losing strength. This is why so many shod horses develop low heel and long toe; the back of the hoof becomes weak. Of course to every rule there is an exception, some horses are just born with low heels. On the other hand some have been shod for a long period of time and have tall heels. But most of the time I see many horses develop low heels after being shod for a period of time. While shoes are not bad, this is a big disadvantage to them.
There are many ways to encourage movement in the hoof. Leaving shoes off for a few months out of the year is always a good idea, especially for those of us not riding in the winter anyways. Leaving the hoof completely barefoot can benefit a horse in many ways but that’s not an option for all horses. Another way to go barefoot is to boot your horse on rides, there are many options as far as brand, type and size of boot. Boots can get pricey, but if the cost of shoeing is added up I’m sure the boots would soon pay for themselves. On the market today are multiple kinds of polyurethane shoes. These rubber shoes are flexible and can be easily glued or nailed on. Gluing isn’t the best option in wet weather, as water and glue are not friends.
I am a certified barefoot trimmer. I have spent a lengthy amount of time studying the equine hoof and teaching my findings. I am not against shoes but I am all for the comfort of our equines. This post is not to persuade anyone to go barefoot. I am just trying to encourage people to think about what is being done to the equine hoof.
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