Importance of Heel First Landing
This section will answer most of the questions people email me about.
Heel-first landing in the front feet is necessary for soundness, and indicates a correct trim. (Hind feet nearly always land heel-first, due to the zig-zag arrangement of the hind leg joints, and this is one reason why hind feet are more often sound.) (Breakover page has photos showing what toe-first and heel-first landing look like.)
Why? The horse's foot is built to land on the well-padded frog, similar to the biggest pad on a dog's or cat's foot. Heel-first landing gives correct circulation inside the foot, absorbs concussion to protect the leg joints from shock, and helps remodel deformed hooves.
When a horse lands toe-first, or flat-footed, over a long period of time, the laminar ("white line") tissue which holds the hoof wall securely to the coffin (pedal) bone is damaged by the excessive force on the toe wall; forward toe flare (mechanical founder) develops; and "navicular" or other heel pain can result from incorrect movement of the pastern bones.
If a front foot is landing toe first on level ground, look for one or more of the following -- these are the most common hoof difficulties:
1) Forward flared toe (see Flares page) causes late breakover, which in turn gives the front leg too little time to fully extend forward for a heel-first landing. (see Breakover page) Even a slight flare delays breakover.
Forward flared toe comes from:
a) the mechanical forces of horseshoes, which tend to deform the hoof capsule in a forward direction, over time
If your horse's toe-first landing is due to a forward flared toe, you need to "back up" the toe to the edge of the sole. (see Flares and Strategy pages)
b) on a barefoot horse, if we trim the wall to a flat bottom, as in preparation for a horseshoe, rather than using the rounded bevel we call a "mustang roll" (see Flares, Strategy, and Do Trim pages)
c) "grass laminitis" / insulin resistance / Cushings syndrome, all of which make the "white line" (laminar tissue) stretchy so that the toe wall is easily pulled away from the coffin (pedal) bone (see Founder page and www.safergrass.org and groups.yahoo.com/group/EquineCushings)
If you have been consistently applying a good mustang roll for many months, and the toe wall will not grow down straight, this points to insulin resistance, which becomes more common as horses age, or Cushings, an age-related change in pituitary gland function.
2) Fungus infection in the back half of the frog (peeling layers, inability of frog to grow strongly) often with a deep crease between the heel bulbs. Fungus is very painful, and the horse will land toe-first deliberately to avoid this heel pain. (For treatment, see Fungus section on More Topics page)
3) Soft, undeveloped digital cushion (a shock absorbing tissue just above the frog, which is supposed to be tough and fibrous), due to:
a) horseshoes, which prevent frog contact with the ground
b) horse did not go many miles per day as a foal, or currently does not go many miles per day, on firm ground, which toughens the digital cushion.
In most domestic horses, especially those that have been shod for a long time, the horse will deliberatelly land toe-first to avoid concussion on the undeveloped digital cushion. The heel should be left 1/8 inch to, in some cases, 1/2 inch (2 to 12 mm) longer than the sole in the seat of corn (after any chalky sole material is scraped away), to give some protection to the digital cushion while still allowing frog contact with the ground. Generally the horse will let you know, by increased or decreased lameness, whether you have trimmed the heel to just the length he needs.
Horses raised barefoot with sufficient movement, or those in ongoing endurance training, or that live in large enclosures in dry climates, often have tough digital cushions, and their heels can be trimmed (or will naturally wear) down to the level of the sole.
If your horse's front feet land toe-first, you need to find the cause and change the situation that is preventing heel-first landing. The hoof must land heel-first consistently to become sound.
For all of these conditions, hoof boots should be used for riding (except in soft arena footing) until the hooves are sound and the horse is able to land heel-first consistently.
It took me five years to think my way through to going barefoot, before there was any "barefoot movement" to point the way. I completely respect how long it takes to think this through for oneself. I am not in a hurry for anyone to make a decision, I would rather you "do your homework" and take your time.
-- I watched farrier Tony Gonzalez teach about balancing hooves, and saw an extremely fidgety horse suddenly become calm after Tony shaved a small amount off the outside toe of one of its feet. The horse stood quietly the rest of the day.
-- Becky Tober, a Gonzalez student, showed me how to see many kinds of imbalances in hooves.
-- A "pasture trim" on my first horse made me notice that you have to do something different, to ride a barefoot horse. She was very sore, and I put shoes back on her.
-- I moved to the east coast in 1998, had the shoes pulled, and started playing with trimming tools. I trimmed my two horses every 3 to 4 weeks for a year and worked my way through all the typical imbalances -- lots of observation, thought, and experimenting.
-- While figuring out how to trim, I found Jaime Jackson's first book, The
Natural Horse. Later I visited Jaime and saw his awesome set of wild mustang feet; looked at them for hours; took their shape deep into my core. There are photos of those hooves on www.tribeequus.com,
and of similar wild hooves on the "Hoof Shape" page of this website.
There are photos of another wild horse's feet on www.hoofrehab.com. Click Articles, click Wild Horses, click at bottom "more wild horse pictures," scroll down to "Tragedy in the high desert."
-- I heard of Dr. Hiltrud Strasser, a German veterinarian who developed a method for rehabilitating lame horses that includes a barefoot, short-heel trim along with 24-hour turnout and 24-hours available grass hay. I went to a seminar, was inspired by her knowledge of physiology and mechanics of the hoof and leg, and in 2001 took her 9-month Hoofcare Specialist course.
-- I found Dr. Strasser's "clinic" trim invasive of the hoof and inappropriate for horses with nearly-normal feet. My horses were unrideable for a year and a half, as were the horses of friends who took the course with me, so I went back to the wild horse trim. I terminated my certification with Dr. Strasser and do not recommend her "clinic" trim, though she has good ideas about "natural boarding" and the general care of lame horses.
Since then, there has been a steady flow of information and research, which I have tried to keep up with.
What we learn from wild horses
Jaime Jackson, a farrier, went out to study the hooves and living habits of the wild mustangs of North America (escaped domestic horses and their feral descendents). Their hooves were far different from anything he had seen in domestic horses; he decided that what he had been doing as a farrier was unnatural and harmful. He changed over to a barefoot trim practice, and found that when he trimmed lame feet to the mustang hoof shape, they would recover, even from severe lamenesses.
In The Natural Horse, Jackson describes the lifestyle and hoof shape of horses living wild in their natural environment. The tough, sound, beautiful feet of horses living in wild herds in the western United States are worn to an efficient, short-heeled trim by the many miles they travel every day.
The horse is a creature of wide-open, dry plains and mountain slopes (except for the wide-footed breeds of northern Europe, which are adapted to living in soft, wet footing). The horse's native environment includes extremes of heat and cold. The ground is dry, hard, and often rocky. Rivers or water holes are scarce. The wild horse's food is the dry, sparse bunch-grasses of low-rainfall areas, and a variety of herbs, shrubs, roots, and bark.
Wild horses walk a daily loop of about 20 miles (30 km.) to find food, water, and other daily needs such as minerals, herbs, shelter from storms, and safe places to sleep. All this walking wears and shapes their feet to perfection.
The horse is exactly designed to live well in that environment. Every part of his body, and the social life of the herd, are fashioned for a strenuous life -- and he requires extremes to stay in peak health. Horses have lived this way for millions of years, far longer than human beings have existed. The horse is a successful species -- the design works!
The horse's hoof is a masterpiece of living design, built to handle awesome mechanical requirements. We can sustain it by providing what it needs. We can set up "natural boarding" for our horses, to promote their health in captivity, so that they can have an environment similar to what they were designed for.
Jaime Jackson's Paddock Paradise explains the key to keeping horses moving -- a long, narrow, continuous loop or "track" which takes them to each of their daily needs in turn. Groups of horses that live on such a walking loop wear their feet enough that they need only minimal trimming. They get much more exercise than horses that stand around in a typical rectangular turnout.
When you "go barefoot" with a previously shod horse, your success will depend about equally on arranging for changes in the horse's lifestyle -- especially nutrition and movement -- and on trimming the hooves to the wild-horse shape.
Learning the barefoot trim and going professional
It's possible to learn to trim using this website and, if you want, some email conversation. I recommend you get at least one book or video and attend one or more clinics if available; the different points of view will help you fill in the whole picture. You will be "on a fast learning curve" for about a year before you understand the hoof with confidence; still your horse is better off with your "learning mistakes" than if he were shod.
Professional barefoot trimmers are making a good living. Pete Ramey talks about trimming as a business in his book, and see "Going Pro" page.
Barefoot trimming is a reasonable occupation for women. You are not using the heavy blacksmithing equipment, and you can handle the horses without force if you learn "natural horsemanship" skills. Horses generally become cooperative when you explain clearly (in their terms) what you want of them, and within minutes when they realize you are making their feet feel better. (See Photo Gallery 2, #19)
I encourage you to gradually start trimming for others when you have gained about a year's experience with your own horse and feel confident about handling, trimming, and figuring out sorenesses. Please email me if you're thinking about this; I enjoy encouraging people, and can point you towards further training.
BOOKS AND VIDEOS:
by Jaime Jackson, available from Star Ridge Publishing,
The Natural Horse Pioneering study of the lifestyle and hooves of free-roaming wild horses;
important pictures and data on mustang hooves.
Paddock Paradise: A Guide to Natural Horse Boarding Brilliant insight about what keeps wild horses moving. How we can trigger sufficient daily walking in domestic horses to keep their feet healthy.
The Natural Trim: Principles and Practice Brings together all that Jaime has learned about hooves, trimming, and lifestyle.