Lunesdale Silver Belle has the kind of hooves that make her toes look long unless you stay on top of trimming them. She was bred by a Fell Pony breeder who is very focused on proper movement, and I’m enjoying studying her conformation and leg action. I’m also very aware of my role in maintaining her movement by making sure her hooves are trimmed correctly.
Because of my interest in using my ponies for my work, I pay a lot of attention to every aspect of their physical well-being that I can. For them to be able to work for me, they must be physically up to it; I don’t want to keep a client waiting because of a health issue in my draft animals. Perhaps it’s because of my own history wearing high heeled shoes and then suffering back problems as a result that I’m particularly aware of hoof care and its impact on mobility. (I now wear flats exclusively, though when I was much younger I remember feeling particularly smug about walking the length of the Mall in Washington DC in three inch heels!)
Several years ago we took a course where we evaluated the musculo-skeletal health of horses by observing their movement. We got to observe a number of horses who had been trimmed and/or shod by a number of different farriers. A few of the horses were being used for barrel racing and eventing while others were being used for pleasure riding. I was surprised how much the hoof care varied. In some cases toes were long, in others toes were different lengths. Whenever there was a trimming irregularity, there was related impact on movement. It was clear that not everyone pays attention to the connection between hoof care and performance.
Perhaps the irregularities in hoof care wouldn’t have bothered me so much if they hadn’t been done by professionals. But my own experience with farriers also illustrates that relying on ‘professionals’ isn’t sufficient for ensuring our friends’ hooves are properly maintained. I once hired the only professional farrier in our county to trim a few of my ponies, and I was immediately sorry. He lamed one of my work ponies ten days before a job, and it was touch-and-go whether my pony would be able to perform. This farrier had a belief about proper hoof angle that had nothing to do with the particular pony’s conformation. Obviously that farrier has never been invited back. One other farrier didn’t like horses, and he was never invited back either. I had one farrier that did a great job, but when fuel prices skyrocketed a few years ago, he decided that I lived too far away. I took over trimming out of necessity. Fortunately a friend had taught me the rudiments of proper trimming several years before. He told me at the time that it would be at least ten years before it made sense, and he was definitely right. I was pleased when the course instructors complimented me on the trimming I’d given the ponies I took to the clinic. And I know I still have a lot to learn.
While it seems really obvious to me that toe length and hoof angle impact performance, I learned from the clinic and my own experience that not everyone sees the connection. So I was pleased recently to read about some research that affirmed the connection. An observational study was done on seventy-seven horses. An objective measure of ‘long toes’ was defined, and a correlation was conclusively established between long toes and pain in the gluteal muscles. Dr. Richard A. Mansmann led the study from his joint positions at a private clinic and at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Excessive toe length in the hind feet might be accompanied by pain in the gluteal region,” Mansmann wrote in the study. “Shortening the toe can alleviate this pain within days or weeks.” Dr. Mansmann’s team added that “in cases where the toe length or gluteal pain was adversely affecting the horse’s comfort or function, one could also expect an improvement in the horse’s gait and performance after remedial trimming or shoeing.” (1)
It is great news that this study confirmed the connection between gluteal pain and toe length. The unfortunate part is that 50 out of 67 horses in the study (nearly 75%) showed signs of gluteal pain and needed remedial trimming. It’s clear that just relying on one’s farrier to do the right thing isn’t enough to ensure our equine friends are getting proper hoof care. Owners need to at least ask questions of their farriers and preferably have some knowledge of what an appropriately trimmed hoof looks like. For the sake of comfort at a minimum and towards the goal of optimum performance, our equine friends deserve nothing less.
I recently trimmed Lunesdale Silver Belle because her toes were getting too long for my tastes. She was fabulously cooperative, despite lots of ‘help.’ I trimmed her in the turnout, and we had six audience members. I was terribly impressed that Ellie was as cooperative as she was given the close proximity of our lookers-on. The picture shows me trimming Ellie’s near-hind with four paddock-mates watching closely.
(1) “Long Toes: A Pain in the Butt?,” http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=18195
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2011