Healthy hooves require well developed heel structures to ensure optimum suspension and shock absorption. This is achieved by encouraging your horse to land on his heels rather than his toes. Here is how you determine if your horse lands toe-first or heel-first and what you can do to improve it.
By Helle Maigaard Erhardsen
Does your horse suffer from lameness, thin hoof soles, back problems or ligaments and tendon damage in his legs? Chances are that it is related to your horse having developed a tendency to land on his toes rather than his heels. As such, paying attention to how your horse lands after a stride is perhaps more important than you’d think.
A toe-first landing is when your horse first touches the ground with the front part of his hoof after a stride and thereby lands with all his weight on his toe. This landing is perfectly normal in some circumstances, like when he maneuvers through rocky terrain, climbs uphill or moves across slippery, muddy ground. However, this movement becomes unhealthy if your horse uses toe-first landings consistently.
When your horse lands toe-first, he’s landing on the thinnest part of the sole where the concussive forces are unable to be dissipated and thus are absorbed by the horse’s lower limbs, which are not designed for this. Additionally, the thinnest part of the sole has the least amount of protection for the most sensitive parts of the hoof such as the pedal bone/coffin bone.
Over time, excessive toe-landings can lead to a myriad of painful conditions such as arthritis, navicular and pedal osteitis. So, let’s take a look at how you can help your horse develop strong heels and frogs to encourage the natural heel-first landing and thereby prevent damage to his feet, legs and eventually his back.
Former farrier and barefoot trimmer Dave Macdonald, who is also the co-founder and designer of Scoot Boots, demonstrates the importance of heel-first landings in this video.
Is your Horse landing Heel-first or Toe-first?
There are a number of visual signs which can reveal if your horse has a tendency to land toe-first. Among these signs of toe-first landings are narrow, soft frogs and worn down toes, whilst the back of the hoof is growing high. However, the best way to determine how your horse lands is by filming it:
First, you find a nice even and level surface such as the hallway of your stable or a flat road.
Set up a video camera at ground level that can capture your horse walking past, or have a friend record it with her smartphone.
- Then you walk your horse past the video camera at an active pace, so he is able to extend his strides.
You can use an app to create a slow-motion video or watch the video frame by frame, so you can capture the position of your horse’s feet as they are about to land. For inspiration, watch this amazing footage by the renowned hoof rehabilitation facility Rockley Farm in the UK, or join the Facebook group Barefoot Method for Navicular, where many horse owners post homemade footage of their horse’s landings.
In the still photo above, you’ll see that the grey horse is about to land with his toes first, whereas the bay horse has his knee fully extended to land with his heels first.
What is causing your Horse to land Toe-first
Once you have determined that your horse has a tendency to land on his toes, you need to figure out the cause. Since horses are designed to land on their heels which are their natural shock absorbers, horses will usually only choose to land on their toes in order to avoid putting weight on their heels due to pain. This pain can be caused by various conditions such as thrush, contracted heels or under-run heels or even soft tissue or bone damage in the hoof.
Horses that are shod are more likely to prefer toe-first landings, as their heels and frogs rarely touch the ground. Stimulation from the ground is needed to grow a wide, healthy frog and to develop a strong digital cushion for shock absorption. As such, if your horse is shod, the first step is to remove the shoes and have a qualified barefoot trimmer to assess his feet.
Long toes can also be causing your horse to land toe-first, as the breakover will be delayed - the breakover meaning the point where the hoof will tip forward and propel itself onto the next stride. This can be corrected by regular trimmings and so can under-run heels, by trimming them back to support better heel growth and correct balance.
However, any hoof rehabilitation should always start with taking a good look at your horse’s diet to make sure it supports healthy hoof growth. In the following, we will look at what else you can do to get your horse to land on his heels again.
Consistent toe-first landings can be particularly harmful for the coffin bone/pedal bone and is likely to damage the Deep Digital Flexor Tendon (DDFT) over time.
How to get your Horse to land Heel-first
Ironically as it may seem, the best way to make your horse land heel-first, is by helping him to load weight back onto the heels - yes, the sore heels that he has been avoiding putting weight on by shifting to landing on his toes. The reason is that the caudal heel needs the loading force and stimulation from the ground in order to regain its health and strength.
As hoof rehabilitation expert Pete Ramey says, symptoms such as narrow, underdeveloped frogs, high bars and worn down toes, are not only the cause of improper movement, but also an effect. As such, putting your horse on stall rest or propping him up on remedial metal shoes will not condition his feet to become sound enough to land heel-first again.
On the contrary, once you have determined the cause of his pain in collaboration with your barefoot trimmer and/or equine veterinarian, you’ll need to provide an environment for him in which he is comfortable enough to move around and land on his heels. Depending on the level of pain your horse is in, this surface environment could be sand, soft grass or spongy sawdust. As he becomes more comfortable, you can slowly progress to walking him on asphalt, pea gravel and rockier terrain.
However, most horses will benefit from the extra protection that shock absorbing hoof boots can provide. Using hoof boots will optimise the recovery process from toe-first landings, as the extra protection will in most cases make the horse comfortable enough to start loading his heels again straight away.
Hoof Boots encourage Heel-first Landings
You can help your horse recover effectively from toe-first landings by letting him wear protective hoof boots. The greatest advantage is that hoof boots encourage heel-first landings by cushioning your horses feet and adding extra shock absorption, whilst still allowing the frog and caudal heel area to be stimulated and thereby begin the recovering process.
Hoof boots such as Scoot Boots are lightweight, flexible and offer unsurpassed ventilation, which means your horse will be able to keep them on 24/7 during recovery if needed. The soles in Scoot Boots are shock absorbing in themselves, but you can also add extra pads inside them if your horse is particularly sensitive.
If your horse was shod and has now come out of his shoes to rebuild the strength of his heels and frogs, hoof boots are particularly helpful to ease the transition from shod to barefoot. Getting your horse comfortable enough to get moving and start conditioning his feet healthily, is the main priority in the recovery process from toe-first landings.
Ideally, once your horse is comfortably landing heel-first in his hoof boots, you should start walking him barefoot as well on an appropriate surface. As he regains his caudal strength, his frogs should widen and you should be able to see his heel bulb increasing, as his digital cushion develops accordingly. Your horse might always need protective hoof boots on some surfaces and that’s perfectly fine. The main objective is to get him back to landing on his heels and regain his natural shock absorption.
About the author
Helle Maigaard Erhardsen is an investigative journalist specialising in environmental issues. Her devotion to the outdoors includes a life long passion for horses of which she has three: An off-the-track Thoroughbred, a paint horse and a Shetland pony, who are all bitless and barefoot. Helle is born in Denmark, where she graduated from the Danish School of Media and Journalism in 2015. Her work is characterised by comprehensive research and she was nominated for the special media award Bording Prisen for her investigative reporting with the newspaper Ing.dk. She later obtained a Master’s degree in Journalism, Media and Communication from UTAS, when she relocated to Tasmania.