Shoe for Soundness and Performance

Last Updated on February 22, 2022 by Allison Price

Horse care is not complete without proper trimming and shoeing. Knowing the core principles of horse care will enable you to identify a job that is done well.

The correct trimming and shoeing of a horse can spell disaster for another. It is important to be familiar with the fundamental principles of farriery in order to apply them to your own practice. (c) Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

A horse’s health and performance can be maintained by trimming and shoeing at the right time and in the right manner. What is “right”? How can you tell if your farrier is properly shoeing your horse?

Each horse is unique, so what works best for one horse might not work for another. The principles that guide farriers are the same regardless how the horse behaves or what work he does. This article will explain the basic principles of trimming and shoeing. You’ll learn how to identify and handle common problems in this field.

Shoe for Soundness and Performance

Balance and Breakover

Biomechanical efficiency should be the guiding principle in trimming and shoeing.

Biomechanical efficiency simply refers to the ability of a horse to complete each stride at any gait with minimal effort. He doesn’t waste energy so he tires less often. Horses that move efficiently are better athletes.

How a horse’s hooves look influences how they land on the ground and how well they perform. His hooves should be balanced in order for the horse to perform at its best. This means that they should land flat (or slightly heels first), with the outside and inner portions of their hoof walls meeting the ground simultaneously. They roll over easily and leave the ground with little resistance.

It is important to determine the location of the breakover (the point at which the sole of the foot or shoe touches the ground) as it is a crucial factor. The best breakover occurs near the toe. It is also important to have the right length toe. Long toes can delay breakover by acting as levers on the feet. They also put stress on the walls, bones, ligaments, and tendons. Balance and breakover can be affected by 1) the trimming and 2) the shoe type and its placement on the hoof.

The Trim

Over the years, ideas about hoof balance and how to achieve them have evolved.

The standard for hoof angles is time-honored. Traditional horse trimming meant that the angle between the front (or front) hoof walls and the ground was between 50 and 55 degrees in the front hooves, and 55 to 56 degrees in the back hooves. Today, farriers don’t follow this same standard as they did in the past. This is because the hoof angle should be equal to the angle of the coffin bones inside the hoof. This can vary between horses by as much as 10 degrees. Without an X-ray, it’s almost impossible to determine what it is.

Another traditional standard is Pastern alignment. The farrier trims the horse’s hoof to match the angle of its dorsal wall. This concept is still very popular worldwide. However, there are downsides. One of the biggest is the possibility of removing too many soles or walls in an effort to match the angles. The horse will feel discomfort if the hoof capsule is removed too often. It protects the coffin bone, the soft tissues of your foot and limits concussion. For horses to be able to perform, they need strong hooves that are solid and have good integrity.

The key to an incredibly popular system was created by David Duckett, a farrier and educator. It was developed in the 1980s. Farriers don’t focus on the hoof wall. Instead, they look at the sole and identify the point that corresponds with the central balance point of the feet, located directly below the center line of the coffin joint. Simply locate the broadest part of your sole. The central balance point will be reached by drawing a line across the sole.

The farrier will then measure the distance between the line and the toe in order to ensure that the length of the hoof is equal to the distance between the line and the heels. The heels will have the support they require and the toe won’t act as a lever on internal structures if there is equal hoof between the lines. Duckett’s system has a simple yardstick that can be used to determine the horse’s breakover point. Adjusting breakover was a guesswork before this system was created.

The farrier trims the hoof wall to ensure proper medial-lateral balance (side-to side) so that the weight is evenly distributed across the coffin bone, and other structures in the feet. The hoof wall should not be equal in height, unless the horse is perfectly conformed (which is very rare). Horses can toe in different ways, which causes their hooves and feet to meet at an angle. They will land unevenly if the walls are not at the same height. This can cause unnatural stress to the feet.

The hoof should be trimmed so that both sides meet the ground. This is the way the horse’s feet would look if he was not shod. To make a horse work effectively, his hooves must be adjusted in proportion to his conformation.

The Shoes
Shoes are important for the health and efficiency of the foot and are an important part the farrier’s role when addressing hoof-capsule issues.

Each horse’s individual conformation should dictate how the hooves should look. (c) Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Fit. Shoes should support the entire wall from heel to heel. They should be shaped to fit the horse’s feet. Feet should not be cut to fit shoes. The toe of the shoe should be directly below the wall in front of the hoof. The shoe will become slightly wider as it follows the contours of the hoof towards the heel. This allows for space for the hoof and heels to grow. To provide more support, a horse with low heels and weak hoof walls might need wider shoes.

Design and placement. You can design and place shoes to increase biomechanical efficiency. For example, it is not always possible to trim the hoof to the perfect breakover point. There might be limits on the amount of hoof that can possibly be removed. Deformations of the hoof capsule could make it more difficult to locate landmarks such as the largest part of the sole. The farrier can reduce foot stress by using shoes that have rolled or rocker-toes, or by placing the shoe back below the hoof capsule.

Nails. You should place nails only where the hoof wall allows. They should be in the front half the hoof capsule and no further back than the hoof’s widest point. A well-finished shoeing job will have nails clinched at the wall and aligned parallel to the ground. These details aren’t important for function but they do indicate high quality craftsmanship.

After Farrier Leaves

Shoes should be made to fit the feet of horses, and not vice versa. (c) Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

You don’t expect your horse to call your farrier if he has new shoes. Keep that number handy in case of any problems.

Soreness: If a horse is sound before being shod, I believe he should also be sound after. Your farrier should be contacted immediately if your horse feels sore after shoeing. The farrier will need to apply an anti-inflammatory product to the feet until they can reach the horse. A hot nail can cause the horse to become irritated. A farrier may pull the nail. If the farrier did a lot of corrective trimming, a horse might be sore.

Inflammation can be reduced by keeping the foot covered for a few days. If the horse has persistent soreness after shoeing, or if it lasts more than a few days, your vet should examine him. The vet and farrier should collaborate to fix the problem, no matter what it is.

Lost shoes. There are many reasons horses lose their shoes. Shoes that are properly applied won’t just drop off but can also be pulled off by horses. Conformation can play a role in horse behavior. A horse with a long back and a longer step will be more likely to slip and fall off the front shoes. To help horses get out of trouble faster, the farrier can ease breakover in their front feet. Bell boots can be used by owners to help.

A controlled turnout can also prevent the possibility of losing your shoes. Your horse should graze with other horses so that there is minimal racing. Dry feet will help you keep your shoes on. Also, make sure your horse has his shoes tucked in so they don’t slip. Even if the shoes don’t fall off, loose shoes can cause injury. A broken nail can cause damage to the hoof wall and push into sensitive tissues.

Owners and trainers should always pack the hoof as soon after a horse loses a shoe. This will prevent the wall from crumbling and allows the farrier to place the shoe back on the horse with minimal to no damage.

Trouble Signs

Even though small hoof imbalance problems can be difficult to spot, the imbalance over time will cause distortions in hoof capsules, such as vertical cracks at your toe. (c) Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Although small problems in hoof balance may not be obvious as horses move, over time, imbalances can cause distortions in the hoof capsule. These changes can be seen if your horse is held squarely so you can view each foot from every angle. Next, pick up each foot to examine the underside. You should look for:

* Flavor or dish placed at the toe, or on one side. Stress can cause distortion in the area.

* Vertical cracks at your toes or quarters where there is excess pressure on the wall.

* Compacted growth rings. The growth rings, which are the lines running horizontally across the hoof wall should be equally spaced and parallel with the coronary band. If one foot is heavier than the other, the growth rate will be slower and the rings closer together. (Remarkable growth rings can sometimes develop after an injury, a change in diet, or exercise.

* Sheared heels are a sign that there is a medial-lateral imbalance. The heels should be equal in height. One heel should be equal in height. If it takes more weight than the other, it will push up over time. This is called sheared heels.

* Collapsed (underrun) heels are caused by a low-heel imbalance and long-toe. The heels fall forward over time, and become part of the weight-bearing surfaces.

Contracted heels are caused by horses putting more weight on their toes than usual. The foot becomes more boxy over time, and the frog and heels become narrower and taller.

* A distorted sole or foggy. A healthy, plump frog with a symmetrical sole should have similar hoof lengths on both sides. An imbalance can be signaled by a frog that is too wide on one side or with a fissure at its base. Thrush may also be present.

These problems are often caused by conformation. Consider the following example: Let’s say that your horse has toes in. The hooves won’t be balanced if they aren’t adjusted to this conformation. Flares, other hoof-capsule distortions, and unnatural stress on joints, tendons, ligaments, will result. This can cause unsoundness.

Hoof-capsule distortions can also be caused by unsoundness. To ease pain, the horse may place his foot differently or weight it. The hoof capsule then responds by changing its shape. Clubfeet, which are narrow, boxy feet, and those with high heels and nearly vertical walls at the toe, can often be indicative of underlying problems. To determine the root cause, consult your veterinarian and farrier. Before any work can be done, X-rays must be taken.

Horses’ front feet (or hind) are often not equal. Sometimes one front hoof is slightly flatter than the other, or may have a different shape. Poor shoeing or conformation may be the reason. The farrier might be able force the hooves to match the horse’s or trim them so that the horse appears to be standing straighter. However, artificially changing the foot is a quick way to get lame.

You are in Charge

Your farrier can adjust your shoeing more effectively if you provide as much information as possible. (c) Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

You, the horse’s owner or rider, or all three of them, know your horse better because you see him every single day. Your horse’s well-being is also your responsibility. You are responsible for keeping him on a regular shoe- and trimming schedule.

Adult horses often require the farrier once every five to eight weeks. However, the time between shoesings can vary greatly. You should keep an eye on the horse’s hoof growth and establish a schedule to get the farrier to your barn before your shoes become loose or your feet grow out of them. Your farrier can ensure your horse is properly shod by setting up safe working conditions, adequate lighting, and making sure that your horse is well settled before they arrive.

Your farrier will only be successful if you communicate well. Your farrier will be able to adjust the shoeing of your horse to his needs if you provide as much information as possible. Before the farrier begins to work, be sure to describe any lameness problems, changes in the horse’s attitude towards training or other concerns. Ask questions about how the horse is shod. Good farriers won’t be afraid to answer your questions.

Inside and Outside the Hoof

Illustrated Atlas of Clinical Equine Anatomy

The hooves of your horse are designed to support weight and absorb shock.

From the outside:

* The hoof capsule acts as a shield to protect the vital structures of the foot. It is made from horn, which is a tough tissue that’s packed with keratin, an amino acid, and it has no nerves nor blood vessels.

* The average monthly rate at which the hoof wall shrinks from the coronary band is a quarter of an inch. The hoof wall is thickest at the toe, and slowly thins towards the quarters (sides and heels). The wall curves inward at the heels to form the bars and two ridges on each side.

* The sole and the frog are covered with thinner layers of Horn. The most flexible part of the frog has a consistency that is similar to hard rubber.


* The core of the foot is the coffin joint. Here, three bones meet: the coffin bone and the small pastern bone. The navicular bone is tucked behind the coffin bone. The hoof wall is secured to the coffin bone by interlocking structures called laminae.

* The deep digital tendon is a tendon that supports and flexes the leg. It runs behind the coffin joint, attaches to and goes under the coffin bone. The navicular Bursa, a fluid-filled sac between the DDFT & the navicular bones, is located between the DDFT & the navicular bones.

* The digital cushion is a fibrous tissue pad that sits underneath the heels and the feet. It is nestled between two large wings of cartilage running back to the coffin bone.

All these structures are activated when the horse’s foot is lighter. The DDFT supports the joint, while the navicular Bursa protects the bones from pressure. The digital cushion flattens, pushing out the cartilage wings. It also helps circulation by forcing blood from the foot up into the legs. The hoof wall expands slightly because it is thinner at the heels. Everything springs back together as the weight of the foot falls off.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!