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
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.