Thursday, March 27, 2008

Putting it all together...lightness, impulsion, lateral movement...

Rarely does a horse's training progress without having to go back occasionally to re-train or reinforce things that the horse had already successfully mastered. Usually it happens right when you have a breakthrough...you work and work and work to get a better bend to the right, and suddenly the bend to the left that was the GOOD side is gone. Two strides forward, one stride back. Is this the natural progression, or have we missed something?

Sometimes it is difficult to focus on a specific behavior or element of a behavior without letting something "slide". I don't believe that is a flaw...in fact I think it is frequently absolutely necessary for the horse to learn, and can be used as a tool for refinement. As long as you are aware, and promptly bring the issue into focus as soon as the breakthrough occurs.

I think a key to bringing a horse to his highest potential steadily is interspersing intense, focused work with relaxation. That means dropping contact. LOTS of breaks between concentration on a loose rein. I mean seriously loose. On the buckle. Get around the end of the arena with a beautiful bend, soft and supple, and drop the reins. Walk, trot or canter. I don't care. Drop them and let the horse go for a few strides. Then gather him back up. The softest, roundest, most beautiful collection comes right after those breaks. Continuous work demanding a frame is HARD. This is a workout. Treat it like one. If you go to the gym, you take breaks between strenuous sets, right? Same idea applies. Nothing makes me sadder than a good ride that ends with a heavy horse. And a tired horse is a heavy horse.

The one thing we DON'T want to strengthen or make dull are the bars where the bit lies; the quickest way to do that is to allow the horse to be heavy. It is a trick not to fall into the trap of allowing the horse to be heavier than you would like and continuing to work for the sake of achieving some small thing. It requires excellent finesse and, above all, restraint. NO goal is more important than preserving lightness. Lightness is the hardest thing to come by, the easiest thing to destroy, and the very basis for everything that is harmonious and exquisite about horsemanship. From lightness, that sensitive, soft responsiveness to the hands, the legs, the seat, comes impulsion, comes lateral work, comes refinement. Lightness is refinement. Let that be your mantra.

Hoof Angle, My Rasp!

A common thread runs through the thinking of the best of the best involved in the barefoot hoof care revolution: hoof function promoted by trimming that respects the internal structures. Traditional farriery relies heavily on angles and markers that can easily be misinterpreted. Dr. Doug Butler, author of “The Principles of Horse Shoeing II” (required reading for anyone studying for the AFA certification) stated recently in the American Farriers Journal that most farriers have difficulty visualizing the internal bone structures and their relationship to the hoof capsule. Not the fault of the farriers, clearly, but the fault of the methods they are taught.

While I am not a student nor a follower of K.C. LaPierre's High Performance Trim, I find much of his work regarding the equine foot and barefoot hoof care insightful and enlightened. This from a man who spent 24 years shoeing horses! (I love it when shoers go renegade! Come over to the Dark Side!! Heh, heh...) His paper in response to the common brush off often given to the success of physiological barefoot trimming (that it "is just the same as any other traditional trim, just applied well and that’s why the horses on it are going sound") makes a well-formulated, compelling argument. Read LaPierre's article here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Standard Pasture Trim vs. Physiological Barefoot Trim

I am frequently asked what sets the physiological barefoot trim apart from the barefoot trim practiced by most traditional farriers. Because many unshod horses suffer from the same sort of ailments the physiological trim successfully corrects or avoids, it is important to understand that there are a number of differences. It is a fact that farrier schools and texts seldom address the different needs of the bare hoof (although they ALL advocate leaving the hoof unshod whenever possible) and instead focus on shoeing techniques. As a result, many farriers simply trim the unshod horse exactly as they would trim the horse to shoe. Keep in mind that I have simplified these comparisons in that I have not gone into detail concerning any possible exceptions to the general idea in the interest of hitting the main points.

1. Farrier Trim (FT) trims toe from the BOTTOM of the foot, often taking a considerable amount of live sole with it. This is done to prepare a flat surface for shoeing. The Physiological Trim (PT) manages the toe by rolling the wall, mainly from the top. This dramatically improves breakover without creating thinned sole at the toe. Trimming toe from the bottom routinely can tip the coffin bone within the hoof capsule, create flared toe, and contribute to joint problems in the lower leg.

2. FT pares out sole material, carving concavity. This is done to raise the sole off of the ground and prevent bruising. Clearly, on some level, it is recognized that the sole of the horse's foot should be concave, but the erroneous assumption is that the concavity's purpose was to keep the sole clear of the ground. PT allows the sole to fill in, striving to develop an even sole thickness across the bottom of the foot. Healthy, adequate sole quickly takes on natural concavity, mirroring the shape of the underside of P3 (impossible to achieve with a hoof knife!). Recent research has shown that the sole is intended to be the primary loading surface on the bottom of the foot; the concavity is not there to lift the sole off of the ground. Carving sole weakens sole (support to the structures within the hoof is greatly compromised), makes sole tender, and disturbs the natural medial/lateral, anterior/posterior internal arch of the foot.

3. FT trims the bars level with the carved sole. PT lets the hoof decide the height of the bars. The bars generate much of the sole material that is then pushed forward under P3. In addition, the bars provide support to the back of the foot, particularly in young horses with immature hooves, and in horses with poorly developed digital cushion and lateral cartilages. Removing bar hinders sole growth, weakens the back of the foot, disturbs integrity of the internal arch.

4. FT trims a uniform flat surface around the wall upon which to fit the shoe. Farrier texts instruct the shoer to be especially careful not to trim the quarters even with the sole plane, or there will be a low spot which will not meet the shoe. PT trims the wall to the level of the healthy sole, where it is intended to be. The wall at the quarters will naturally be shorter, creating a curve up through the quarters. Leaving the wall at the quarters long produces pressure points at the quarters, disturbs even growth of wall, and leaves the quarters prone to flaring, chipping, and quarter cracks.

5. FT places high importance on toe angle, as well as dorsal wall height, and this is largely what shoers will base their trim upon. It is high time that we recognized the fact that trimming for toe angle is obsolete. It was probably invented as a "best guess" to match the angle of P3 within the hoof. PT uses the uniform thickness of adequate sole coverage and the depth of the collateral grooves at heel and frog apex to determine what to trim from the bottom. The wall is then rolled to prevent flaring, and the resulting tight, healthy connection of wall to P3 quickly becomes evident growing down from the coronet. This will hold P3 up within the hoof capsule, creating a short dorsal wall height and the optimum toe angle for the individual horse. Trimming for toe angle can quickly go awry and create runaway flare, coffin bone "rotation" (the hoof capsule is what has actually rotated - not the bone!), late breakover, and high, contracted heels.

6. As noted in #4 above, FT trims the wall (and edge of the sole) flat. PT creates a bevel, rolling the wall. Leaving wall flat creates a separation force, contributes to flaring, stretched laminae, laminitis; retards natural breakover; and makes wall prone to chipping and cracking.

7. FT frequently leaves the heels extremely long in an attempt to "fix" an unacceptable toe angle. PT trims the heels by gauging sole depth at the back of the foot, and puts the frog in contact with the ground. Leaving the heels long, or "growing heel" to change the toe angle, lifts the back of the foot (frog, digital cushion, lateral cartilages) out of engagement, contributing to heel contraction and atrophy of support structures at back of foot. It can also lead to underrun heels, where the point of heel purchase moves forward, away from its healthy position of support for the bony column.

8. FT routinely shaves much of the surface of the frog. PT only removes flaps and diseased frog material. Carving the frog exposes tender, untoughened tissue prone to infection; this can quickly lead to chronic thrush, which may be the leading cause of heel pain in domestic horses.

9. FT will often trim the foot in an attempt to "fix" angular limb deformities. For example, it is not unusual to see FT trim one side of the hoof shorter, changing the sole plane completely, to prevent a pigeon-toed horse from toeing in. PT respects that the angular deformity impacts the entire limb. The foot is trimmed for the optimum health of the foot. "Fixing" limb angles puts incredible stress on joints that are not aligned for a straight limb, and creates an imbalanced foot that will be prone to numerous problems.

10. FT rarely maintains the trim more frequently than every 6 weeks. PT trims as needed: at the outside, 4 weeks elapse between trims, and often trimming is on an even more frequent schedule. PT attempts to mimic natural wear. Extended intervals between trimming force the hoof and leg to adjust to the radically longer or shorter hoof.

That's a mighty long list, and I hope it makes the distinction between simply pulling your horse's shoes, and enlisting competent barefoot hoof care clearer!

Getting a horse good with his/her feet

Whose responsibility is it? And how do you go about making it happen?

A good trim is critical to your horse's hoof health. But a horse that has not been schooled to balance and give his feet for as long as one needs them makes it much more difficult to implement. Of course, sometimes it's hard to discern whether the horse has not been properly taught to help the hoofcare professional, or the last farrier made the experience less than pleasant for the horse. If the process has been painful, rough, or disrespectful, you certainly can't blame the horse. And generally, horses like this quickly figure out that there are no nails or hammering involved when I handle their feet (nothing makes a horse more reluctant to give his feet to a farrier than a nail driven through the laminae), and that I will work hard to find the position that is most comfortable for them.

The simplest single thing you can do to get your horse more relaxed about having his feet handled is to pick them up every time you get a chance. Don't just pick them up and immediately drop them. Pick them up, hold them braced against your thigh, move them into different positions as your trimmer will need to do. If the horse begins to resist, rock or circle the leg gently until the horse relaxes again. Only give the foot back when the horse is relaxed, and then let the hoof down gently. I like to put one hand behind the knee, or in front of the hock, as I take the other hand off of the foot, and let the leg down softly.

Some horses have a difficult time holding a hind leg up, due to pain in the hip, back or haunches. If that's the case with your horse, teach him to cock a back foot for you, resting his toe on the ground, and get him used to having the foot handled in that position.

Be mindful, also, that frog infections can be painful and cause a horse to yank his foot away when the hoofpick hits a tender area. If that's the case, we absolutely understand, and do our best to be extremely gentle cleaning out the frog.

A horse that will allow his foot to be picked up, but then becomes impatient and yanks it away should be taught that grabbing the foot away before you give it to him results in more work for him. Take him in a roundpen. You can work on this with a halter and lead rope on the horse, or, if the horse is reliable enough and you are competent enough, do the exercise with the horse at liberty. Ask for a foot. If the horse yanks it away before you're ready to give it back, immediately and vigorously drive him out around the roundpen (or in a circle around you, if you have him on a lead rope). Don't be unreasonable about how long you try to keep the foot at first, but gradually build the length of time. Give the foot back occasionally and then ask for it again. When you drive him out, it doesn't have to be a marathon; a lap around the roundpen at a good brisk trot is fine; then draw him back to you and try again. When he yields the foot and is standing comfortably and relaxed, praise him verbally, and by stroking him (not patting him -- I hate it when people do that -- horses are very tactile creatures and respond much more favorably to a caress than a smack!)

Kicky horses are not only frustrating, but dangerous. The safest way to work through that issue is by roping a hind foot with a soft cotton rope. This is not something you should try without supervision, if you have never done it, as it can be dangerous for both horse and human. Many of the better natural horsemanship clinicians teach this method of teaching a horse to yield all four of his feet. If you're not sure how it works, find someone experienced and don't hesitate to dig in your wallet to have them handle the issue for you. If you're confident you can handle this, you can buy a nice, soft cotton foot rope from Houlihan Horse Gear here:

Soft Cotton Foot Rope

Some barefoot trimmers may offer to teach the horse good foot manners if the horse is difficult or young. Be prepared to pay them an hourly rate beyond their trimming fees -- this is training, and who better to teach the horse to have his feet handled than a professional hoof handler?

The bottom line is, no matter how you accomplish it, it is your responsibility to make sure your horse is reliably safe and compliant with his feet. Please don't expect your trimmer/farrier to train the horse at the same time he/she is supposed to be applying a balanced, healthy trim to your horse's hooves!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Hoofcare Mythology: Growing Heel and Fixing Toe Angles

Now there's a recurring theme with new barefoot clients.

"My old farrier was trying to grow heel."

"Don't we need to grow heel to stand his foot up and correct the toe angle?"


Here's what I want you to do:

FORGET EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ABOUT THE HOOF. Especially anything your last farrier told you. Please. I'm sure he was a nice guy. He may have even been well trained in farrier science. But if we're sitting here having this conversation about growing heel, your farrier was trying to fix something. And if he was trying to fix it by growing heel, he was barking up the wrong tree.

Okay, let me edify that before I get flamed up one side and down the other:

If he was growing heel to allow the sole to fill in to an adequate depth at the back of the foot, then he was barking up the right tree. If he was growing heel because the posterior internal structures were still developing and the horse needed a little extra heel height (beyond about 1/16" longer than the healthy sole plane) to land comfortably heel first, he was barking up the right tree. If he was growing heel for ANY other reason, he was on a fool's errand for sure.

Most of the time, growing heel is an attempt to create a steeper toe angle. Let me state right here that I disagree entirely with the practice of basing how much and what to trim off of the hoof by looking at the angle of the toe. But the real problem with growing heel to create a steeper toe angle is this: if the toe angle is too low, then the hoof capsule has been distorted forward. If the hoof capsule is distorted forward, the heel will have migrated forward as well. The heel purchase -- where the back of the foot lies flat on the ground -- will be pulled forward along with the rest of the capsule. At this point, growing heel will only result in the heel purchase moving even farther forward.

A really classic example of this type of foot is the typical racehorse foot. All those flat footed Thoroughbreds, right? Right, but not because they were born that way! Gallop training, it has been shown, "flattens" the hoof capsule, by pulling the toe forward, and dragging the heel along with it. (1) (Keep in mind that they were galloping in aluminum racing plates! By the way, there is a growing community in the racing industry training their horses barefoot with great success. In fact, the California Horse Racing Board was recently advised by Northern California track vet Dr. Diane Isbell that some trainers have had success training their horses without shoes and urged the CHRB to allow horses to race barefoot.(2))

So how DO we fix what has been dubbed "forward foot syndrome?"

Pretty much the same way we fix everything else. The image below illustrates how it works. We roll the toe aggressively, so that the wall can grow down without being stretched forward with every stride. We allow the sole to find its optimum depth, and we trim to that guide religiously. Sometimes a slight bevel at the point of heel purchase helps; possibly the heel bevel simply relieves some of the pressure pulling the heel forward under the foot, or maybe it encourages the foot to acclimate to a more natural plane; either way, it can be very effective with stubborn under run, or crushed, heels.



1. Peel JA, Peel MB, Davies HM, The effect of gallop training on hoof angle in thoroughbred racehorses. Equine Vet J Suppl. 2006 Aug;(36):431-4.

2. Ganz, T, Santa Anita to Replace Surface. The Bloodhorse; Feb 20, 2008

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Addressing Flare

Flare is bad, we all know that. Flare left unchecked literally pulls the wall away from the inner structures, and stretches and weakens -- sometimes even tears -- the laminae. It is critical to keep any portion of the wall that is flaring very strongly beveled, in order for the wall to grow down from the coronary band with a healthy, tight laminar connection.

It is also important to preserve the integrity of the hoof wall, and this is why I strongly oppose "dressing" flare above the mustang roll. The wall is, as Dr. Bowker and others will remind us, simply a protective covering, like an eggshell. But also like an eggshell, part of its' job is to hold the inner structures in place. I absolutely believe that rasping all evidence of flare from the wall can considerably weaken the wall and compromise the overall integrity of the hoof capsule. Not to mention the reduced protection from kicks and blows offered to the inner structures.

I am often shocked at the amount of wall that is removed by some farriers and barefoot trimmers. Owners are effectively fooled into believing that the horse has "nice feet", because the wall is aggressively removed to shape the hoof the way it should be shaped; the way it would be shaped if the flare was addressed properly, and allowed to grow out. Rasp marks less than an inch below the coronet are not uncommon. Look at some of the case studies on my site, and you'll see that most of the horses just out of shoes have considerable rasped reshaping, some of them clear from heel to heel. It takes months to grow full thickness horn down from the coronet on hooves like that.

If you are an owner, be very critical of "dressed" flare. Your hoof care provider is trying to hide the problem, rather than correct it. If you are a hoof care provider, don't be tempted to make the wall pretty by rasping off anything above the mustang roll!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Breaking it down for the horse -- Mixer's right lead.

So my very favorite-est horse (and I only feel comfortable writing this because I'm pretty sure my beloved herd does not read my blog), my 6 yr old home bred Paint/Quarter cross, Mixer, and I are currently on a little learning journey. Mostly -- historically, anyway -- I haven't been one for doing much arena work since my days riding hunt seat as a teenager. And Mixer fairly early on had expressed his enthusiasm for exploring -- he was bred to be my trail horse, and he definitely excels as such. He will literally gravitate to new trails he has not been on yet, and unlike his predecessor, Johnny No Spots, Mixer actually -- slows down -- when he realizes we are heading back home. But it was time to advance his education, and I thought it would be fun to see him dressed up in dressage attire, plus we had never settled this right lead thing, so off we trotted to the arena.

I have to say -- boy is he adorable in his new outfit. Well, okay; he's adorable to begin with. But seriously. He is the freakin' bees knees in tux and tails.

He absolutely thoroughly enjoyed his first dressage "lesson". I swear. Not being one to force a new vocation on my horses, I gave him a couple of opportunities to choose the arena or not in the week following his first lesson; mind you, he had studiously avoided the arena up until this point, and even expressed a STRONG disdain for anything involving a roundpen about 3 rides under saddle. He is that sort of horse...I don't believe in drilling my horses, and I'm very careful not to, so I'm pretty certain it wasn't that I bored him to tears in either venue. Mixer is just very sure of himself. If he is ready to move on, he says so. And he is very often quite right.

So we set about re-establishing this thing called BEND, which he had learned the rudimentary elements of in his earliest days under saddle. We worked on cadence. We started "talking" about lateral movement. And we REALLY started discussing the right lead.

Now, it's not that I didn't think leads were important. But honestly, I wasn't entirely sure he COULD pick up a right lead with my weight on his back. My brief sojourn into the breeding shed panned out fabulously in regards to temperament (which was my number one criteria), and color (which I really gave not a rat's ass about), and pretty good, but not completely spectacular in the conformation area. All bias aside: he is actually very nicely put together: lovely neck, nice shoulder, back not too long, nice hip without being a "baby got back" QH type. His hocks are better than adequate from any angle. Good pasterns. Flat knees, not back nor over. Big feet (good, in my book!). Good chest. But gosh darn it, in spite of a beautifully straight legged daddy, he got momma's reeeeeallly turned out left front foot. *Sigh*. And while he canters all over the pasture, changing leads fluidly, he refused to pick up the right lead in the round pen at liberty, or under saddle. I just had a niggling feeling that maybe it was easier on the joints in that left front leg to be the lead, instead of the support. But we had to try.

In the past, I have used all of the common methods to get proper leads; one that always worked well was putting the horse over a cavalleti placed just before a corner. I tried that a couple of times with this horse; he would get the lead with the cavaletti, but never without it. So somewhere there was something missing. Bend was surely part of it, but there were still plenty of times when he was supple and curved around my inside leg, but STILL took the left lead. Clockwise counter-canter will not be a problem for this horse!

After about four more sessions, the right lead was still elusive at best. And then it dawned on me. The back feet -- the hip. That was the missing variable. After all, the lead starts with the outside hind. We went back to kindergarten -- pick up a rein, ask for a bend in the neck and disengage the hindquarters. I tried it first with my right rein, moving his hip to the left. No problem. Step across with the inside hind, step over with the outside. Then I tried the left rein, ask for a bend, and step the hindquarters across. Well, I'll be darned. He had a tough time with that. Couldn't get his hip up under himself and step across. No wonder the right lead wasn't available to me. I gave it another shot, hung in there and waited for those back feet to find their mark. He finally got it -- step across, step out.

I went back out on my circle to the right. Circled at the walk, very supple, and then asked for the right lead canter. And there it was.

It's still not polished -- most days I need to do the hindquarters stepping across exercise first -- and when I do, the right lead is at my disposal! Breaking it down into its fundamental pieces set us up for success.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Can you identify a healthy frog? You may be surprised.

So, remember when we all thought your horse only had thrush if his feet smelled nasty and he had that oily black sludge along his frogs? And that it usually meant your horse was living in soggy, less than adequately clean conditions?

(Crickets chirping.)

You mean that's still the only thing that tips you off to frog infection??

Wake up, kids. This is a freakin' epidemic. Probably one in five horses that I trim DON'T show signs of chronic thrush, and we live in the desert! Some studies indicate as many as 90% of our domestic horses suffer from some degree of bacterial/fungal hoof infection related to thrush. And it's not just a cosmetic issue, or a nuisance...it can be excruciatingly painful...painful enough to make the horse toe-walk to avoid weighting the tender, infected heel. Painful enough and so easily ignored that it may very well be one of the leading causes of heel pain. And heel pain is the first flake of snow in the monstrous snowball generally diagnosed as navicular syndrome. Are ya pulling on your muck boots to run out and check for deep fissures between the heel bulbs yet??

Thrush is an infection of the central and lateral sulci (clefts) of the frog of the horse’s foot. Although the name "Thrush" implies a fungal infection, what we call thrush in a horse's frog most often involves bacteria, although it is occasionally a fungal infection. One species of bacterium (Fusobacterium necrophorum) is particularly aggressive, invading and destroying the frog, sometimes exposing the deeper sensitive tissues.


(click image to enlarge)

If you see a deep crease between the heel bulbs, with or without heel contraction, start treating for thrush infection. You probably have seen more hooves with this type of pathology than you have seen hooves with healthy frogs. There is some debate as to whether heel contraction predisposes the hoof to thrush, or whether thrush contributes to heel contraction. I'm decidedly leaning towards the latter, because eliminating the infection causes the frog to widen, and the heel with it, providing the hoof is trimmed to allow it. But before you reach for the bleach, or the Coppertox, think about what you're about to pour those very caustic substances on: living tissue! Let's be aware that the very best way to invite thrush is to provide it with some dead tissue, or some very tender live tissue, to feed upon.

Keep in mind, too, that while it is best to keep the frog free from flaps that could harbor thrush, trimming the tough, calloused layer off of the frog reveals tender tissue that may be more susceptible to infection. So be diligent about keeping the central sulcus open, and the flaps over the collateral groove trimmed back, but leave as much of the tough stuff as you possibly can.

An effective remedy is "Pete (Ramey)'s Paste," a 50/50 mixture of 1% clotrimazole cream (labeled for athlete's foot, jock itch, or yeast infections) and triple antibiotic ointment (like Neosporin). Since we're not likely to culture every infection to determine whether we're dealing with bacteria or fungi, this may address either problem. At this point, all I can tell you is that it WORKS. I'd like to say I'd taken the time to test each ingredient seperately, but I'd rather eradicate the infection as soon as possible, so I'll stick with the combination for now. Use a 60 mL, catheter tipped syringe to penetrate deep into the groove, and use your thumb to push the goop deep up into the central sulcus daily for 4 to six weeks. I've found that with really stubborn cases, booting the hoof for at least an hour (or even leaving the boots on around the clock, but be sure to remove the boots and clean both hoof and boot thoroughly daily, checking for rubbing) after applying the paste hastens healing.

(click image to enlarge)

Read Pete Ramey's article for an in depth discussion on frog management.

An interesting footnote to this blog entry: after writing this post, I was really bothered by the idea that the most common underlying cause of thrush is the SAME bacterium responsible for "foot rot" in cattle and sheep. Foot Rot, or interdigital dermatitis (which, by the way, is the same technical name for equine thrush) has long been identified as a cause of severe lameness in cattle and sheep. It is also widely accepted that overtrimming the soft tissue of the feet of sheep and cattle predisposes the hoof to the disease. (Read this page on Foot Rot in cattle and sheep.) And yet most farriers still pare away frog tissue with aplomb. That thrush has not been more aggressively treated, or more widely recognized as a possible cause of foot pain in horses is more than a little baffling. I'm off to do a little more research, and to see if perhaps there is an even better over-the-counter anti-bacterial for Fusobacterium necrophorum. I'll let you know what I find out!