The Importance of the Balanced Equine Foot

By James Bryant, DVM, DACVS, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital

The old saying “no hoof, no horse” still holds very true in this age of advanced diagnostics, improved treatments and increased endeavors for the equine athlete. As we have expanded our understanding of the equine foot over the last 20 years, we still encounter numerous lameness issues related to the foot. The importance of conformation, landing forces on the foot, and balance have become even more important. Proper trimming, balance and selection of the most beneficial shoes are just some of the ways we can support the foot.

Farriers also continue to advance their understanding of the foot and how best to support that foot to maintain proper balance and function. As the owner, you are reliant on the skills of your farrier and veterinarian to ensure that your horse remains sound and performing well. 

With the advent of portable digital radiology equipment, it is now possible for your veterinarian and farrier to work together on maintaining the proper balance of the foot.

Properly positioned lateral and AP radiographs of the foot can provide your farrier with the internal alignment of the bone. He/she can apply that with the external appearance of the foot to provide better functionality to the foot. If your horse is having difficulties with the feet, the application of proper foot care will be vital to its success. 

A quick anatomy lesson: The hoof capsule is an extension of the foot and dictates the effect of forces upon the leg. The relationship of the toe length to the heel length is vital to which part of the foot will take the most pressure. A long toe and low heel will result in excessive forces on the flexor tendons and suspensory apparatus. A thin sole depth can lead to bruising of the coffin bone. A contracted upright heel will not expand on landing and lead to excessive pressure on the navicular bone. Multiple abnormalities can affect all the structures. The pictures included here show what can be seen radiographically.

How do we determine if we should be concerned about abnormal balance? First, we look at the horse’s foot from the side. We evaluate the heel height compared to the toe and the distance of the heel bulbs from the ground. If the heel is very short or the bulbs are touching the ground, then there is a concern. Also, we check the foot from the front. Is the coronary band parallel to the ground and are the inside and outside lengths of the hoof wall the same? If any of these are abnormal, then radiographs will provide the guideline for positioning, and assist the farrier and veterinarian in making recommendations.

When horses have a negative palmar angle (see image below) and lack of heel depth, they are at risk for certain types of injuries, including:

  1. tendonitis of the DDF tendon due to excessive pull near the insertion on P3;
  2. all forms of navicular bone damage due to constant pressure and pounding;
  3. coffin joint inflammation due to excessive wear on the joint (leads to arthritis); and
  4. collateral ligament injuries.

The risk of collateral ligament and coffin joint issues can be increased when there is also medial to lateral imbalance. Therefore, the consequences of the unbalanced foot can be devastating to the career of your horse. The good news? There are ways to decrease these risks:

  • Be observant: Watch the angles of your horse’s hooves as they grow and are trimmed.
  • Point out to your farrier or veterinarian when the foot appears to be changing.
  • Have radiographs taken of the angles once or twice a year, especially when problems are noted.
  • Correct the angles as quickly as possible; the longer the foot receives abnormal forces, the harder it is to correct.
  • Develop a good relationship with your farrier and veterinarian so you can stay on top of changes in your horse and correct them early.

Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital, Snohomish, offers ambulatory, referral and 24/7 emergency care for equine patients. Call 360.568.3111 for appointments.