If you really look around, you’ll be amazed at the number of horses who have heel problems. Some of them are simply cosmetic, but most signal serious problems right around the corner.
Many competitors simply insist on eggbar shoes to protect the horse’s heels. This is not in itself a bad choice, but it is more expensive and may not be necessary. Instead, learn what healthy heels look like, then work with your farrier to determine if your horse’s heels are in alignment and the right height. Finally, keep an eye on them to be sure they stay that way.
When the horse’s heels are narrow, appearing to almost point in toward each other with the bulbs shriveled, they are contracted. The heels may also be longer and straighter than normal. Contracted heels are a classic sign of navicular disease. Heels may also become contracted over time due to trimming a foot to fit a shoe that is too small.
Horses with poor or small frogs often have contracted heels. When a healthy frog hits the ground it expands up into the hoof, pushing the heels apart. If the frog is not doing its job — and there isn’t enough frog pressure — then the heels are not getting worked and may contract.
Before attempting to reverse this condition, be sure the horse is not in pain and is willing to bear weight normally across the heels. Once this is accomplished, the usual treatment is to fit the shoes slightly wider and longer at the heels (i.e. the shoe will stick out slightly beyond the edge of the hoof) and possibly leave out the last heel nail. These measures encourage the heels to expand. You can also allow the horse to go barefoot until the heels have re-expanded. If the heels need to be lowered, this should be done gradually to avoid overstretching the tendons or developing other problems.
Prevention includes avoiding overdry hooves, especially the frog and bulbs, which help the heels expand easier. The frog has a hard-rubber texture and should look like it, too. If overly dry, the frog and bulbs will be shriveled and may develop cracks.
When the bulbs of the heels are uneven, with one higher than the other, the horse is said to have sheared heels. Heels are usually defined as sheared if there is a 0.5 cm or greater difference in their height. The higher, “jammed-up” side will usually have a straighter hoof wall as well. The opposite side is usually flared.
Sheared heels may be caused by the horse trying to land on one side of his hoof before the other, whether due to a conformation defect or pain. The pain is most likely in the hoof, but it could also be in the pastern, fetlock or knee. Sheared heels can also be caused by improper trimming — the farrier doesn’t level the heels correctly.
Sheared heels cause uneven force distribution inside the foot, a serious consequence. Because the horse is landing hard on one side of the foot, the navicular bone is jarred and its supporting ligamentous structures receive uneven loading. This can be the beginning of navicular spurring. “Sidebone,” calcification of the normally supple lateral cartilages of the foot, may also occur. In fact, multiple problems may develop in any lower-leg joint or the knee. In horses that are worked, these secondary problems can develop quickly.
In addition, a common complication of uneven/sheared heels is the development of a deep, open cleft between the bulbs. Secondary infection frequently sets in on top of the inflammation, which may spread upward and cause a persistent form of “scratches” that will not be easily cleared until the deeper infection in the cleft is treated.
Correcting sheared heels comes down to a correct trim. The higher heel will drop back to its normal position more quickly if the farrier trims it slightly shorter than the other (“floating” the heel), so that there is a small gap between the heel and the shoe. A straightbar or an eggbar shoe may be used for added support and stabilization.
Balancing the foot, then allowing the horse to go barefoot for four to six weeks, also allows rapid correction and has the added benefit of showing how the horse himself would prefer to move and wear his feet in accordance with his natural conformation. Keeping the feet moist and pliable, through poulticing and hoof dressing on the bulbs and frog, may help the heel expand easier.
Unless it can be established that improper trimming caused the problem, a careful search must be made for the source of the pain that made the horse move abnormally and develop sheared heels in the first place. Chronic, low-grade infection should be suspected until proven otherwise. A bruise or corn could also be the culprit, or even a painful condition higher in the leg. However, the original cause may be gone by the time a search is made.
Any secondary arthritic changes may be more active and impressive than the original problem. Remember, the heel will be higher on the side where the horse lands, so the search for the root cause should center on the opposite side.
Heel pain can be caused by the low-heel/long-toe method of trimming that is popular for making horses move with a long, low stride.
A normal barefoot hoof has well-developed heels and digital cushion. The point of the frog lines up with the center of the coffin bone — the point through which weight/force is transmitted. Heels and toe normally bear equal weight.
When the heels are cut short and the toe gets so long that it isn’t directly bearing weight, more weight comes down through the heels. The heels then have a tendency to bruise, flatten/shorten even more from excessive wear and may even curl under the foot.
The overloaded heels wear excessively and begin to take on a shape/direction that reflects the direction of the forces they receive — angled forward and more under the coffin bone rather than growing down toward the ground from the bulbs.
“Heel-Pain Syndrome” is used to describe horses that exhibit pain across the heels on hoof testing, block sound with a posterior digital nerve block (heel nerves) but have no obvious bony changes on X-rays. In addition to severe bruising of the heels, there may be a component of pain coming from irritation of the navicular bursa. Navicular bursitis occurs because the fetlock, pastern and coffin joints overflex when there is insufficient heel support. This results in the deep flexor tendon being pulled tightly across the underlying navicular bursa. In time, this can lead to overt navicular disease.
Correcting these underrun heels is a long, tedious process. A quick fix can be attempted by raising the heels using wedge pads or “degree pads.”
This will raise the angle of the shod foot and temporarily reduce pain but does nothing to correct the underlying structural problem of the hoof. The weight is still coming down more through the heels with the heels forced forward and under the foot.
The best way to get the foot back to normal configuration and normal weightbearing is to progressively back up the toe and use an eggbar shoe to help with support of the fetlock and lower structures. If the heels are badly damaged and sore, the farrier may decide to float them so that they do not have direct contact with the shoe. Taking weight off the damaged heels alleviates pain and allows them to grow down in the correct direction.
If you suspect your farrier is not encouraging good heel growth, get a second opinion. If necessary, get a new farrier. While problems take time to resolve, ignoring them can be expensive. Don’t neglect time frames between farrier visits. Those couple of licks of a rasp may be exactly what your horse needs to develop normal, healthy heels.