Tuesday, 14 September 2010

How to "balance a hoof"

There is something about human nature that loves being in control, and hoofcare is no exception. Both in farriery and in barefoot you will find practitioners who set out guidelines or protocols and who predict that if you shoe or trim following these, then a better hoof will be the result.

You will struggle to find agreement amongst these hoofcare professionals about the whys and wherefores of what they do, but there is one constant - their intervention - whether by trimming or shoeing - is absolutely vital.

A key question is how to achieve "hoof balance" - which is something of a holy grail in the hoof world. You will find countless farriers and trimmers talking about the importance of "balancing" a hoof, describing how they "balance" to their protocol and shaking their heads over the doomsday scenario: which is that unless the hoof is (regularly) trimmed or shod to that protocol, the result will be an "unbalanced" hoof - horrors!

Guidelines and protocols are very comforting, because they give practitioners structure and allow them to feel in control of the hoof in front of them, but there is a problem: horses and their hooves haven't always read the guidelines or signed up to the protocol.

Hooves are dynamic, and for the horse, "hoof balance" means one thing - having a hoof which supports the load of the limb and the body above in a way that allows the horse optimal movement.
The other problem with human ideas of trimming and shoeing is that implicit in the human idea of balance is symmetry. So we attach enormous importance to hooves being a "pair" and in our minds we equate balanced hooves with symmetrical hooves. On that basis, we might well think that the hooves in the photo are "unbalanced" and in need of some attention.

Remember though that for the horse,"hoof balance" is about function, not appearance - the hoof will do whatever it can to support the limb and enable movement - for the horse, it doesn't have to look pretty but it DOES have to work.

In practice, if the limb has suffered an injury, or the horse has less than perfect conformation, or has suffered lameness, then "balance" for that hoof may look nothing like the textbook "balanced" hoof of the horse standing next to it. And because horses aren't perfectly symmetrical, a balanced hoof on a right limb may look different to the balanced hoof of the left limb

The great danger with hooves like this, which don't easily fit into protocols or guidelines, is that a well-meaning trimmer or farrier will come along and "re-balance" the hoof so it conforms to the protocol they subscribe to. I speak from experience here, because its something that I was once guilty of and its something I have seen other trimmers and farriers do too - with the best of intentions.

I learnt the hard way that imposing my ideas of balance on hooves like this impaired their function so I didn't do it again and I learnt to respect how horses balance their own hooves, because they do it FAR better than we do.

The rule is - horses shouldn't be less capable after ANY trim, but if you have a horse who has odd-looking feet which perform brilliantly before a trim and pretty-looking, "re-balanced" feet which need a few days off work after a trim, then believe your horse - he is probably far more competent at balancing his hooves than his trimmer or farrier is.

ETA: Since posting this Julie Bailey highlighted this very interesting paper, research done into injuries on TB racehorses. She summarised it on the UKNHCP forum:

"The results showed that horses being euthanized due to catastrophic musculoskeletal injury were more likely to have symmetrical feet...

It is often recommended that the hoof should be
trimmed to axial symmetry for the optimal mediolateral
balance. In the study presented here, however,
mediolateral symmetry was more characteristic
of injured horses than of controls. This suggests
that trimming the hoof to perfect mediolateral symmetry
may not be the best approach to preventing
catastrophic injury."

The paper can be found at http://www.ivis.org/home.asp

ETA: Since posting this, I've put up a more recent entry which gives more detail: http://rockleyfarm.blogspot.com/2011/02/hooves-and-symmetry.html


Deered said...

Having read the other thread from yesterdays post, and seen the angles/lines, I remeber what a ledgendary old shepherd/drover/cavalry man (he was 90 odd when he died and I would have been between 10-13)told me once, when looking at a horse to buy - take a plumb line - the legs should be straight, apparently it was a trick he learnt in WW1 for selecting horses. He was also a great believer in shaping a hot shoe to a horses foot - not the shoe to the foot, and that horses only needed shoeing if they were wearing their feet too fast... I guess there were barefoot fans way back when... I knew him in the 80's, learnt a lot from just listening to him talk.

Nic Barker said...

Deered, I learnt the same trick from a farrier over here :-) The old boys knew their stuff!