Elizabeth TeSelle hoof_maiden@hotmail.com
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Hoof Form and Mechanism:
The Keys to Healthy, Happy, Sound Horses
Be sure to also check out Peregrine's Case Study
Balance in the foot as seen from the side
The photos below demonstrate clearly an essential aspect of good hoof form and why it matters.  On the left is the foot of a 6-year old off-the-track Thoroughbred, in shoes most of his life.  His toes are long and his heels are long and underslung.  A line drawn from the point at which the back of his foot contacts the ground upwards clearly runs through the center of his pastern and the front of his cannon bone.  This means that his weight is tipped forward onto the toe, rather than being carried on the frog and heel as nature intended, and that it is not carried in the center of his leg.  The strain of 1000+ pounds coming down repeatedly on the wrong part of the foot and travelling up into the wrong part of the leg is tremendous.

The photo on the right shows the same horse 2 years later, after a performance barefoot trim has been in place for 1 year.  Toes are shortened and the heel has been brought not only down but back as well.  A line drawn from the point at which the back of his foot contacts the ground upwards runs through the back of his foot and up into the center of the leg.  His weight is now firmly on the back of his foot and is being carried in the center of the leg.
The foot below shows the same thing. In this case, the horse is a sturdy pony who has basically good feet and has always been barefoot, but who was previously trimmed with high heels and long toes.  Unlike the TB above, whose heels are severely underrun, these heels are forward AND high.  And yet, see how dramatically the balance point is moved back onto the heel after just ONE trim.  The line drawn from the back of the foot where it hits the ground up into the leg shows, in the before shot, that no part of the leg above the fetlock was supported by the foot!  In the after shot, the line almost bisects the leg, which is now securely and firmly over the foot, its base of support.
The end result is a foot that is contacting the ground firmly and evenly.  The heel contacts the ground first when the horse moves so that the frog and heel bulbs can absorb the shock of movement, and the horse then rolls to his toe.  We walk heel to toe, as well--try walking on your toes and dropping down to your heels with every step--you won't be able to keep it up for long!  But this is how most conventionally trimmed and shod horses are forced to move.  While the horse may seem "sound" at first, hoof form like that in the photos on the left can eventually result in low-grade lameness, founder, or navicular syndrome.  Sad to say, navicular syndrome has reached almost epidemic levels in the horse world--the fact is that it can be entirely prevented via a balanced performance barefoot trim.
Balance in the foot as seen from the heel view
The photos below are of two DIFFERENT horses. On the left is a Tennessee Walking Horse who, while barefoot at the time of his first performance barefoot trim, had probably worn shoes for many years prior.  On the right is a 5 year old draft cross who has never worn shoes and who has had a performance barefoot trim for the last 3 years.

Note the extreme difference in the width of the frogs, and hence, the width of the entire back of the foot!  The horse on the left has a small, weak frog, with severely contracted heels.  The horse on the right has a wide, firm, solid base of support.
Again, the photos below are of two DIFFERENT horses (although the coloring is very similar!). On the left is a Quarter Horse mare diagnosed with navicular syndrome.  Unfortunately, her owner chose not to pursue a BF trim with her, and I do not know how she is doing now.   On the right is the same 5 year old draft cross as in the righthand photo above.

The photos below should make a dramatic impression even on someone unused to looking at feet.  On the left, you can see that the heels are VERY high (magenta lines), resulting in the small, contracted frog being almost 1/2" from the ground (yellow line).  In the righthand photo, the heels are low, resulting in firm, supportive ground contact all the way across the back of the foot.  There is NO space under the frog:  the frog is in contact with the ground, as it should be.
The QH's quarters are dramatically "pushed up" (green arrows), from a combination of high heels and impacted bar material.  The draft X mare's quarters are low, with a gentle slope.

The QH mare has navicular syndrome because of her trimming/shoeing.  Her high heels tilt her onto her toes, thereby altering the angle at which shock is absorbed in the foot (and putting increased strain on the navicular bone and the DDFT (deep digital flexor tendon).  Navicular is, sadly, a "disease" caused almost exclusively by human beings.  In many cases, it can be alleviated and even reversed by a proper barefoot trim.

More on the heels:  What shoes hath wrought!
Below are 2 photos of the same horse, an off-the-track thoroughbred.  He was, like most TBs, shod at 18 months of age and trimmed with long toes and underslung heels.  When horses are put in shoes this young, the coffin bone (the main bone within the hoof capsule) and the digital cushion (the material above the frog which helps provide shock absorption) are unable to develop normally.  Although that is doubtless the case with this horse, much of the damage was repaired with a performance barefoot trim.

In the photo below on the left, you can see a crack running all the way up the back of the foot.  Caused by contracted heels and lack of digital cushion, this is a common problem in horses coming out of shoes, but this was a very serious case.  Although the foot is supposed to move and flex, a deep crack like this (I was able to get the entire blade of a hoofpick in the crack!) allows too MUCH movement, and consequent discomfort in the heel area.  Despite this damage, this horse was moderately sound barefoot throughout his transition.  The contraction and heel crack did cause ntermittant ouchy episodes, particularly on hard ground until, after almost 2 years in a barefoot trim, the foot had finally repaired itself.  The crack has filled in, the frog is stronger and more sturdy, and until his death from melanoma, the horse was completely comfortable on on terrain, including gravel and rocks. 
Balance in the foot as seen from the sole view
The photos above are of different horses.  On the left is the front foot of the pony mentioned above.  On the right, the foot of the draft cross mare.  Although the difference in frog width (and hence, back-of-foot width, is not as great as in the comparison with the Walking Horse, the frog on the left is still thinner and weaker than the one on the right, and the foot on the left has a crack in the heel, indicating contraction (less severe than that in the OTTB's foot above, but still indicative of weakness in the back of the foot).  The foot on the left also has quite a bit of white line separation, incicated by the blue arrows.  This can occur because of poor trimming, but also because of inappropriate diet (usually too much sugar/carbs/processed feed).  The foot on the right has a nice, tight white line all the way around.

Probably the most dramatic difference is in the overall shape of the feet.  The foot on the left is narrowest at the heel and flares dramatically towards the middle (and even the front quarters).  The foot on the right is narrowest at the toe, with far less difference between the widest part of the foot and the heel.   Again, this makes for firm, secure support for the weight of the horse at rest and during movement.

More information on hoof anatomy, proper hoof form, and proper hoof mechanism can be found
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