Hoof Conformation vs Horse Conformation

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Which Comes First; Hoof Conformation, or Horse Conformation?

Can trimming affect both?


The short answer is... yes! Sure can! 


How does that happen? Isn't a horse born with its conformation? I mean... we judge horses on their conformation!  We assess the value of a horse with the basis being their conformation, so, does that conformation change?


Of course it does! It will change as the horse grows older, as it is utilised in specific riding disciplines, if it is nutritionally fed properly or improperly, and more!


Rasping the hoof wall during a barefoot trim on a horse


You see, I keep on harping on this, you cannot separate the hooves from the horse!


Is the horse fed enough protein for its current status? Is the horse allowed plenty of movement, or is the horse stalled for hours on end? Is the horse emotionally sound? Is it well connected to another 'being'; whether equine, human, or goat.


The most important factor is, are the hooves being trimmed and cared for appropriately according to the individual horse?


A simple trim of the hooves can, and does, affect the horse all the way up its body. To the shoulders and the hips/pelvis, as well as the spine, itself. Not only does trimming affect the horse's bone structure, but, primarily, the musculature structures. Just as you, or I, will hold our muscles to a certain position in order to hold our balance, depending on our shoes being worn, the horse will hold its muscles which, in turn hold their bones. That being said, the way the muscles are being held can even force the horse's bone structure out of place (this can cause subluxations), as well as remodelling.  If the muscles and bones are out of place for a long period of time, the positioning becomes more than a position of habit, it can actually become a permanent displacement.

Grade 4 club hooves, the most severe of the classifications, will not only affect positioning and muscles of a horse, but will also cause deterioration of the coffin bone, in the hoof, as well as excessive strain and possible deterioration of the Deep Digital Flexor Tendon and other supportive tissues in the hoof and lower limb.


Club Foot Grading

Grade of Club Foot Description
1    (Mild)
A hoof angle 3°-5° degrees greater than the opposite foot. The coronary band is pronounced.
A hoof angle 5°-8° degrees greater than the opposite foot. The hoof rings are wider at the heel than the toe. When trimmed, the heel might not touch the ground.
A notable concavity of the dorsal hoof wall. The hoof rings are approximately twice the width at the heel compared to the toe of the hoof.
4 (Severe)
A severely concave dorsal hoof wall, with a hoof angle of at least 80° degrees. The coronary band is horizontal with the ground.


Grade 4 Club Hoof

A horse with a grade 4 club footAn x-ray of a horse with a grade 4 club foot 
Figure 15: Photo and x-ray of a grade 4 club hoof. Note the heel length is almost equal to the toe length. There is extensive bone remodelling, which is characteristic of most grade 4 club hooves.
Photo and text courtesy of nanric.com/grades_club_foot_syndrome.html


I would daresay that many early arthritic conditions in younger club-footed horses are caused by inadequate or incorrect barefoot trimming or shoeing of the hooves.


That's a bold statement to make, but I believe it to be true as I've witnessed, first hand, the changes that can take place in the hoof over time. The careful barefoot trimming of a foal's hooves is imperative to the healthy growth of the hooves and limbs as the foal progresses in age.


Can negative consequences of inadequate trimming be reversed so the bone structure and musculature structures return to 'normal'? 


That depends on each individual horse, its hooves, its discipline under the saddle, its hoof care and all the other factors that I first mentioned above! 


The pictures below are of a  six year old horse that was diagnosed with permanent supra-scapular nerve damage and shoulder atrophy. She had a very difficult time turning to the left and would not move on a left lead, under saddle or at liberty. She was very short-strided on the left and the foot adapted to a steeper angle to compensate. The hoof was being allowed to flare to make the wall angles match. This brought her break over forward and shortened her stride even more, resulting in even steeper growth and a lame horse that was seldom rideable. This creates a snowball effect.

A comparison of a horse with a club foot prior to treatment, and the result of that treatmentPhoto courtesy Pete Ramey, www.hoofrehab.com/ClubFoot.htm


Studying her upper growth angle at the setup trim, you might think that if you grew out the flare, the new hoof would almost be vertical. Five months later, as the flare was grown out, the upper growth angles had 'normalised' as the stride was lengthened and more natural movement was working on our side. As the break over comes back (relative to picture 3), the stride lengthens. As the stride lengthens, more natural angles emerge, a better type of 'snowball effect'.


This front left hoof was routinely 'mustang rolled' at the toe and the heels were continually maintained at the callused sole plane. They practically lowered themselves and were never lowered into healthy sole.


Meanwhile, massage and stretching of the limb was being performed by a professional sports massage therapist. The result was two or three degrees of remaining difference between the hooves and a very sound balanced ride. She now willingly picks up either lead and turns to the left with fluidity and ease. The reddened, rippled walls and divergent (fan-shaped) growth rings have almost grown out, replaced by smooth hoof horn growing at the same rate at the heels and toe.


It is doubtful she will ever have 'normal' hooves or body, but is happily working with what she's got.   -- Pete Ramey, http://www.hoofrehab.com/ClubFoot.htm


Over the years, I have witnesses a couple of examples:

  • an older horse with grade 3 club foot. He was unable to be ridden due to extreme discomfort during movement. Careful barefoot trimming not only reduced the grade of 'clubiness', but also allowed the horse to comfortably go back under saddle for light work. When the barefoot trim was changed, due to having a new barefoot trimmer, the horse progressed backwards. So, he was then incapable of moving without pain and the hoof returned back to a grade 3 club foot, and even more so, almost a grade 4 club foot.
  • A mare with a grade 2 club foot that progressed to a grade 3 club foot over the course of its first 5 years of life. She had inconsistent hoof care throughout her life to the age of 18 and now has large arthritic changes in the knee of the club foot.


A brown horse with arthritis in a joint in its leg

  • A horse in its teenage years with a grade 3 club that was consistently being trimmed and cared for but incorrectly. The horse was lame and progressing towards severe lameness. The trimmer was trying to get the club foot 'normal' by trimming, thinking she could trim away the club foot. Once she began to trim the hoof as the individual hoof was needing, the horse became sound and was able to go back into work as a driving horse. The club was noticeable, for sure, but at the point of being maintained properly, was no longer in any discomfort because of it. 

The 3 horse in the examples, that I have witnessed above, also changed 'conformation' in their bodies as the hooves were corrected. Muscle spasms were released and their movements became more fluid. Flanks filled in, shoulders released and changed angles. Their hips realigned and 'crooked knees' were straightened. In Example 2, the mare is very bowlegged in the club-fotted limb, however, the limb does straighten out with correct trimming and she was able to stand 'straight'.

Keep in mind that there are some potential complications that could develop in a horse with a club foot, especially one that is not maintained properly:  

  • An overloaded toe can result in the decreased sole depth and pedal osteitis mentioned;
  • Decreased weight-bearing at the heel causes capsular distortion and the classic concave dishing of the dorsal hoof wall due to more weight-bearing at the toe. Less weight-bearing of the heel also means the foot has a smaller surface area for absorbing and dissipating energy and vibrations during weight-bearing. These vibrations transfer instead to the bony structures, resulting in excess stressing of the bones;
  • The change in angle between P2 and P3 seen can result in potential joint inflammation due to the abnormal alignment. As with any joint, inflammation can quickly spiral out of control, resulting in osteoarthritis;  
  • Inflammation of the navicular’s suspensory ligaments;
  • A toe-first landing pattern during locomotion. In turn, hoof wall cracks, demineralization of P3 at the toe, hoof wall separation, and white line disease can occur; and
  • At least in part due to inflammation in the hoof, some club foot cases have the potential to become laminitic, complicating the clinical picture immensely.


On the other hand, if the hooves are properly maintained and trimmed correctly, then less damage is likely to occur, and the horse can remain sound throughout its lifetime. However, understand that there is no cure for a 'club foot'. This condition is purely a maintenance situation.


 Gwenyth Browning Jones Santagate is the world-renowned author of "10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves" and "Natural Hoof Anthology" as well as a noted author for various international equine publications including The 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 hoof care for the last 18 years. She and her husband John keep a small herd of their own equine in NE Connecticut and continue to offer consults for horses in need. For further information please click here:  www.thepenzancehorse.com


Gwenyth is available for freelance assignments, contract work and consulting.



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