Low Heel

InfoHorse.com | 2009

Q. My 9-year-old Thoroughbred mare has very low heels. I've heard low heels might cause soundness issues, especially in dressage horses. Since I've started to ride her on a daily basis, at First Level, I'm concerned. What is the best solution to deal with low heels?

A. Long toes usually accompany hooves with low heels. It is the combination of a long toe and low heels that creates lameness issues in horses. The long toe leverages the foot backward against the heels causing crushed and collapsed heels. As the angle of the hoof lowers the weight placed on the heels increases. A horse with a hoof angle in the low forty degrees will have over 70 percent of the weight on the heels. A horse with a hoof angle in the mid fifties degrees will have less than 50 percent of the weight on the heels. Increased weight bearing on the heels creates a host of lameness issues for any horse.

Your horse's low heels may be a matter of genetics or farrier induced. Horses with excessively long pasterns will have a tendency for long toes and low heels. This type of conformation makes it more difficult to resolve low heels than a farrier induced low heels.

A long toe/low heel horse will have a tendency to land toe first. That toe first landing will shorten your horse's stride and is considered a precursor to lameness. In addition the long toe/low heel will dramatically increase the pull of the deep flexor tendon on the navicular bone. The increased heel weight will cause the horn tubules of the heels to bend and collapse forward, toward the toe.

A horse with low heels develops a cycle that hinders the rehabilitation of those low heels. Hoof growth is slowed by compression. If a portion of the hoof, in this cases your horse's heels, receives an abnormal amount of weight, then the hoof in that area grows slower. The toe will grow faster, causing more of a lever action that increases the weight on the heels, causing them to grow slower, etc.

I would recommend that you get radiographs of you horse's feet to evaluate the alignment of the long pastern bone, the short pastern bone and the coffin bone. Your farrier will use the radiographs to assist the trimming of the feet so be prepared to have them done regularly. Realize that resolving low heels may take many trims and shoeings to accomplish. The radiographs will also tell the farrier how much of the dorsal (front) of the hoof wall can safely be removed so that the dorsal surface of the hoof is parallel to the dorsal surface of the coffin bone, thereby removing excessive toe.

Hopefully the radiographs will not show a negative palmar angle. A negative palmar angle is when the back of the coffin bone (the part toward the heel) is higher than the front of the coffin bone. This condition is more serious than just low heels and treatment is difficult.

You should avoid using wedge pads if possible. Wedge pads are a quick fix that usually creates more problems down the road. Be careful with the use of long egg bars as they will alter your horse's stride and cause an increase in the 'crushing' of the heels.

I would advise the use of heartbar shoes to help resolve low heels. Be sure to use a farrier that is experienced with the application of a heartbar shoe. A properly applied heartbar shoe will use the frog to assist in the weight bearing, taking weight off the heels and allowing them to grow without excessive compression. This would allow the heels to grow faster and stop the forward crushing.

In addition to the heartbar shoe your farrier will needs to aggressively address your horse's breakover. Besides using the radiographs for dressing back the toe there are several shoes (rocker toe, half round) that will assist in moving the breakover back and reducing the lever effect of long toes.

Do not panic if your farrier removes heel in the trim. This is necessary in many instances. The hoof above follows the hoof below in growth. Removing the crushed and collapsed heels in necessary to interrupt the cycle and move the heels under the leg.

You can ride and show your horse in properly applied heartbar shoes. Remember that this will probably be a lifetime of management for you and your horse and you should never go over eight weeks between shoeings.