Heels first ... heels down (riding), heel-first landing (horse's loading of hoof), tap with your heels (riding), heels ... FIRST (health of hooves)
We all hear and read about heels. They are all important - not just in riding (even though I like to teach "toes up!" rather than heels down -- brings a whole different light to the energy and balance of riding) and recently we've heard all sorts of things about heel height of the horse's hoof.
In order to place shoes on the horse's hoof many farriers simply take the heels all the way down so they're nothing left but nubs (if even that) at the back of the hoof. Others are not maybe quite so drastic and do leave a little bit of heel but then farriers generally slap a shoe on top of the heels so really, why are the heels on a hoof even needed?
Barefooted horses absolutely, positively need their heels! If you're trying to transition a horse from shod to barefoot and you have an owie horse then, most likely, your horse has no heels left on this hoof!
The opposite may be true, as well. I've seen plenty of shod horses with heels that are so high that the horse appears to have soda cans at the bottom of his legs!
BOTH situations, no heel/tall heels, cause issues for the horse. Not only in just his hooves and comfort in movement but also throughout the rest of the body!
There are general 'rule of thumb' guidelines for trimming barefooted horses' heels. The following photos will explain in a general way. It's important to remember that each hoof on each horse is individualistic ... and one must keep in mind to trim the "hoof-in-hand" on the "horse-in-hand".
But here are some pictorial guidelines:
The first photo shows how one should be able to SEE the heel and be able to slip a credit card underneath the frog while the horse is standing square on solid, level, hard surface --
You can see, as I've lined, the height of the heel from the ground to the start at the heel bulbs. You'll also notice there's a TINY bit of space between the frog and the ground surface. This is a very, very nicely trimmed hoof heel-wise.
The photo directly above shows heels and heel buttresses ... the frog is in a bit of distress but notice at the arrows (heel buttress) that they appear a bit taller than the heel platform. The heel platform actually could stand some beveling so it angles down and back to the widest part of the frog here. But at the buttress (seat of corn as shown by arrows) there should be, generally speaking, an inch of depth between the buttress and the deepest part of the collateral grove at that point. The beveling is done from that point down and back to bring the platform of the heels to the widest part of the frog. But wanted to show the heel height here ... if your horse doesn't show any heel height then, most likely, you're going to have a tender-heeled horse.
When transitioning a horse from shod to barefoot, if there are no heels then boots would be a good way to provide comfort for your horse and also allow optimal hoof mechanism (functioning) for healthy heel growth. When I'm transitioning a horse with no heels I may not even touch the heels for 3 - 4 months. I would trim the toes back and keep them back over that period of time. I would also balance the heels but only to bring down the taller heel to even them out. I would also encourage the owner to get some boots for his/her horse and ride as long as the horse is comfortable in boots. The more movement the better!
To the left you'll see a hoof with a nice, full healthy frog. I've outline the heels to show the shape of a relatively healthy rear hoof.
The next photo will show contracted heels that are seen frequently when removing shoes:
The outline shows the ideal shape of the hoof along with the frog width. You can clearly see the weak, ineffectual, narrow frog here.
This photo above is a front hoof that had recently come out of a long life in shoes. You can clearly see the depth of the collateral groove at the heel buttress [A]; the heel platform that is taken back to the widest part of the frog [B] (as it is shown currently), and then I've noted the heel height [C to B]. These heels were tall when this hoof came out of shoes and that is a major reason for the contraction. This is 3 months out of the initial transitional trim. Still some way to go but this "navicular" horse was 100% sound at 4 months after removing shoes and trimming correctly.
The following photo is of the same hoof, shown above, 6 months after transitioning to barefoot. Now we see a gorgeous, health, wide, frog, the horse was worked on hard surfaces so the heels and frog are well calloused and strongly supportive of the back of the hoof.
This horse that was pronounced 'incurably Navicular', had always been in shoes (If I remember correctly he was about 16 years old at the time) was, after 6 months of good care, totally sound and able to work and move on all terrain. Being a New England horse that meant LOTS and LOTS of rocks ... and he crushed them -- BAREFOOT -- when he was able to move comfortably on any ground prior to having his shoes removed and his heels brought back (no pun intended) to correct 'guideline' parameters.
This week coming we’ll be going over some of the functions of the equine heels and see just how important it is to focus on establishing a good, strong heel base. So, stay with me! And if you have any questions or comments, please don’t be shy! Simply comment below or email to me: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Gwenyth Browning Jones Santagate is the best-selling author of 10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves as well as a noted author for various international equine publications includingThe Horses Hoof, Equine Wellness, Natural Horse Planet as well as a contributing author for the 2001 United States Federal Mounted Border Patrol Training Manual. For the last 37+ years, she has maintained healthy hooves with natural trimming on thousands of horses and specialized in pathological rehabilitation hoofcare for the last 18 years. She and her husband John keep a small herd of their own equine in SW Florida and continue to offer consults for horses in need. For further information please click here: www.thepenzancehorse.com/2012/RESUME.pdf