What's the first thing you check when something is off with your horse?
They’re not acting like themselves, are acting a little more crabby than usual and aren’t too keen on moving out under saddle. Could your horse be in a mood? Or are you dealing with an actual soundness issue?
What some brush off as minor mood swings, laziness, or “just too tired to move” could be clear indications that your horse is unbalanced in the hoof, causing a domino effect of stiffness, sharp pains or long-term soundness complications.
How often do signs like these get brushed off? Or assumed to be a worst-case scenario? Quite a bit, actually. Either owners don’t consider that something may be wrong and don’t take action or they think the worst so they overcorrect and do something like put steel shoes with pads on. Both reactions can cause severe lameness, or even navicular-like symptoms to flare up.
Suddenly, our horses are wearing iron shoes with pads, starting a new prescription to lessen their pain, and eating the world's finest feed with herbs (as if they weren’t already eating top shelf).
But what if we as owners reacted more cautiously, jumped to conclusions less often, and got a clear picture of what’s happening internally with our horses hooves before prescribing a treatment?
The best way to figure out why a horse is seemingly sore is to observe them while under saddle and while they’re socializing in the pasture.
Are they kicking dirt ahead of their toes on landing under saddle or while free lunging? Is their entire body stiff? Have you noticed a lack of socializing with other horses and humans? Even gut pain and TMJ pain are more prevalent in heel-sore horses.
If you answered yes to any (or all) of these, your horse may be landing toe first. Don’t panic!
Because even if you’re struggling with a worst-case scenario, like navicular syndrome, steel shoes with pads are not the best way to help ease the pain. So before making any rash decisions, and strapping rigid materials onto their hoofs, channel your inner hippology expert and ask - what’s really going on here?
Why are my horse’s feet sore?
Your horse’s hoof is made of dynamic materials, which allows them to cover multiple types of terrain usually without issue. But when they’re unbalanced or have a long toe, their ability to move properly is hindered.
Mentally, your horse will adapt to a bad or unbalanced trim, but physically, their body will not. If the cause of their pain goes on too long, bones in their feet will begin to shift, which can lead to your horse favoring one leg or another, causing shoulder muscles tighten and a shift in their mood. Eventually, being irritable will become their new normal, especially under saddle.
Experienced horse owners recognize their horse are clearly uncomfortable and may suspect sore heels but symptoms like these can easily be brushed off.
At some point, the vet is called out because the owner knows something is wrong, but still isn’t sure what. More times than not, the vet recommends putting steel shoes on, and maybe a rubber pad, to relieve heel pain because that’s what time has taught to be a reasonable treatment.
But in no way can steel shoes compliment a dynamic system. When your horse is showing signs of discomfort, it's important to help them rebuild soft tissues to build performance and comfort. What you’re using to do that needs to make sense with your horse’s biomechanical system.
So what does it all mean? Your horse was not built to wear steel shoes, ever. They’re not even built to walk 100% of the time on a flat or firm surface. So when our first reaction to correct a foot issue is to use inflexible materials, the problem can worsen over time.
Humans have been shoeing horses for hundreds of years; steel shoes are an old world fix to a formerly unknown problem. But with advancements in science and a greater understanding of how our horses move, we can help them feel better faster by changing the way we treat hoof discomfort.
Plain and simple, there are a lot of reasons why your horse’s feet are sore but the former “only way” to treat a foot problem is no longer nailing shoes on.
A Balanced Trim Is Key
If you compare mustang vs. domesticated horse hooves, you’ll see a noticeable difference in how the toe is shaped. A mustang’s toe is naturally rolled due to their environment and the fact that they never really stop moving. But a domesticated horse’s toe has a harder edge, and is longer. That difference makes it almost impossible for domestic horses to land heel first under motion.
We’re not saying all domesticated horses are improperly balanced, or have excessively long toes. But they do have a higher chance of struggling to break over because they don’t cover the same amount of ground the wild horse does. Their hoof wear is completely dependent on their environment, which is less active or harsh than the mustangs.
Does this mean a horse should never impact the ground toe-first? No—the locomotive system and the feet are strong enough to withstand some toe-first impacts.
Healthy horses use toe-first impacts to navigate slippery terrain, to accelerate, and to travel uphill. This is normal. The real damage is done to hooves, joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles over time, when the horse impacts toe-first all or most of the time. Not only does this cause the horse pain, but it also can shorten the horse’s usable life.
If you take anything away from this article, remember this: a clear sign of a balanced trim is when your horse’s foot lands heel first 90% of the time. The other 10% of the time, toe first is acceptable under certain circumstances.
The goal behind our Scoot Boots is to give you options when it comes to keeping your horse sound with healthy hooves and support their barefoot lifestyle.