Form & Function of a Healthy Bare Hoof.
Horses have depended on the health of their feet to keep them alive for millions of years. And their hooves have been
forged by the environments that they have adapted. It has been in comparatively recent years that humans have stepped
in and taken control of how the hoof is shaped. Have we done the best job for the horse?
Hooves created in the wild have many aspects that are similar whether they are Mustangs in the American southwest,
Chincoteague Ponies, Mongolian plains horses or Brumby’s of Australia. Healthy hooves have no breed or geography
barrier. Just looking at a hoof that can easily withstand the terrain it is adapted one sees a compact capsule that is very
understated. It is durable and elegant with a simple design that is a mechanical marvel.
A thick sturdy wall protects inner structures from the environment. A short hoof wall that is close to the sole is one
common element which prevents the hoof from accumulating debris such as rock, dirt and snow. Walls that grow too
long start to crack and chip, which is a very natural form of hoof trimming that is ideal for any horse. For our part in
hoof care Dr. Robert Bowker, professor at Michigan State University in his lectures given in conjunction with Pete
Ramey, stresses a wall length just above the sole so that it and wall share responsibility for support of the horse. Walls
that are far longer than the live sole, this includes the additional height of a shoe, cause the weight of the horse to be
completely supported by the laminae. This “peripheral loading”, as Dr. Bowker calls it, can contribute to decreased
circulation into the smaller vessels of the hoof as well as stress to the laminae which is not designed to carry the entire
weight of the horse.
Heels that are fairly low to the ground allow the coffin bone to be near horizontal, a natural position for the bone which
allows weight to be distributed evenly over its bottom surface. Raising the heel through excess wall growth or other
mechanical means changes the angle of the rest of the joints up into the pastern and fetlock which increases the stress on
the ligaments and tendons and decreases the shock absorption capacity of the hoof and leg. The efficiency of circulation
into the hoof is also compromised when the bones of the foot and pastern are not alignedoptimally.
Shock absorption is an extremely important function of the hoof and there are many mechanisms in place to dissipate
energy. A collection of various mechanisms work in tandem not only in the hoof but also up the leg into the rest of the
body. Upon a proper heel first landing the initial shock is absorbed by the frog and digital cushion. As primary striking
area a wide, uncontracted heel filled with broad thick bulb and frog tissue is crucial for absorption. The digital
cushion, which lies between the frog and the coffin bone and navicular bone juncture, as well as thick lateral cartilages
also absorb concussion on a proper heel first landing. The hoof capsule itself distorts slightly and the sole lowers, the
fetlock and pastern joint angles are also changed to further release concussion. The quick release of impact energy from
movement is vital to protect the rest of the body from damage. Reduction in the effectiveness to even one of these can
result in structural damage to the horse which would in the wild make them vulnerable to attack.
Soles callous and become tough enough to handle the sharpest of gravel yet sensitive enough to feel what is under the
hoof and be able judge the stability of the ground below. Sole concavity aids in traction as deeper soil conforms into
the hoof and creates some friction. On slick surfaces the cupping and the frog in the back can create slight suction cup
affect that can reduce the chance of sliding. Lateral cartilages help stabilize the hoof during tight turns and on ground
that would not allow the foot to land levelly. Hoof walls are strong but still malleable which can improve traction by
slightly conforming to uneven surfaces the horse is traveling over.
Healthy hooves can be conditioned over time to withstand any amount of work or type of surface. A wonderful example
is that of the horses of Darolyn Butler, a champion endurance rider who in 2000 transitioned her horses to barefoot. In
training her horses many miles everyday she not only conditions the body but also the hooves. As an informal
experiment Darolyn tested the idea that horses can wear their hooves too quickly. She measured the length of the wall
at different points around the hoof of one of her competition horses. She then took the horse into a 200 mile ride. After
the ride she measured the same points around the hoof and found that the wall was actually longer after the ride. Wall
production was increased to compensate for the increased wear. A picture of the horses hoof after the ride is featured
on the cover of “Shoeing as a Necessary Evil” by Hiltrud Strasser.
Horses have the most efficient footwear that nature can design. The resilience of this amazingly dynamic organ is
essential for health and survival of horses. We are very fortunate that there are examples of the best hooves and we can
duplicate them in our domestic horses to give them the same advantages as their wild counterparts.
Ann Marie Larson
Natural Barefoot Farrier
Side angled view showing concavity of the sole.
Sole view of a foot adapted to softer terrain
Pastern flexion to
Side view showing low heel height