2024: March 18 - May 10 & Sep 23 - Nov 15
Signed in as:
2024: March 18 - May 10 & Sep 23 - Nov 15
Signed in as:
by Mark Plumlee, CJF, RJF, CFP, CLS, FE
and Karen Plumlee, CNBBT
** This article has been edited for content and clarity since its original publication date.
Perhaps no issue related to horse husbandry creates more dissension among friends than the subject of barefoot versus shod and the appropriate use of boots. At Mission Farrier School we focus on sound shoeing principles, sound barefoot trimming and the appropriate use of boots and glue-on shoes when needed.
Horses that can be successfully maintained barefoot have a couple things going for them. They are endowed with hard feet, thick healthy soles and robust frogs overlaying thick and fibrous digital cushions. You can’t see the digital cushion as it lies internally proximal to the frog and between the wings of the coffin bone in the back half of the foot. However, by placing your thumb in the depression made by the heel bulbs and your index finger in the center of the cleft of the frog, you can get an approximate measurement as to its thickness. A horse with a good digital cushion will have a measurement greater than 2”. While you can encourage a more vibrant frog, as the frog is always laying down tissue and exfoliating just like the sole, I have yet to see evidence of anyone being able to “grow” a digital cushion. I believe the conformation of the digital cushion is determined by genetics and perhaps by the stimulation of the environment in the first few hours and days of life.
If your horse has soft feet, thin soles and a poor quality frog and/or digital cushion, you can still maintain him barefoot if you give careful consideration to his environment. If he lives in a soft pasture and you do an occasional trail ride, then the use of boots is great for providing temporary protection for the sole. Boots may also help provide stability to the back of the foot. Proper use, however, is critical.
First, boots must fit. This requires a fresh trim prior to measuring. All boot manufactures have a measuring chart to insure proper fit. It is important to note that hooves grow throughout the trimming cycle so what fits on day 1 may not fit 6 weeks later. If you wish to maintain your horse barefoot and use boots on an “as needed” basis it will be important to pay attention to your trimming cycle. Ideally, your horse should have a conservative trim every 3-4 weeks.
Here in Western Washington, we see all kinds of equine feet and not all can maintain soundness when barefoot. While it is true that stimulation is good for the hoof, inflammation is never good. If you have a soft footed, thin soled horse you are walking a critically thin line between stimulation and inflammation. This is where the appropriate use of boots can be beneficial, but you must use common sense. If your horse is sore, use a good boot or have him well shod. If your horse is showing pain and tests positive to hoof testers through the anterior sole, then it is likely that the perimeter of the coffin bone has become inflamed. Left in that condition, this can lead to a loss of vasculature and, ultimately, remodeling and bone loss at the tip of P3 (the coffin bone).
Sole protection is a common reason to use boots. And while this is a good choice, boots also have their drawbacks. Not all boots offer appropriate anterior/posterior balance parameters as needed for healthy hoof mechanics. It is rare to find a boot that does not extend the breakover point, and thus adds undue leverage to the entire limb. Remember, the health of the lower limb is predicated on establishing and maintaining proper equilibrium around the coffin joint. This allows the limb to move forward without abnormal tension on the extensor and flexor tendons. To get an idea of what we are talking about, picture jogging in a good running shoe with breakover built in underneath the ball of your foot vs. jogging in a flatter bottomed work boot (or as an extreme example, a ski boot) which substantially extends breakover. When breakover is extended by a poorly fit boot or shoe it can be detrimental to the entire lower limb. In my opinion, inappropriate balance
parameters are a leading cause of tendon, ligament, osteo arthritis and other joint ailments including the onset of navicular disease.
As seen here, boots rarely allow for the positioning of proper breakover. The red line is where breakover is on this boot, the green line is where it should be, if positioned correctly on the foot. The orange line is the center of articulation of the coffin joint, and the yellow line is posterior support. Keep in mind that in our “model” hoof, the distance from center to posterior support should be “more” and from center to breakover should be “less”.
This boot is just the opposite. Many boot manufactures are now attempting to
design boots with at least SOME breakover advantage built into them, like the boot shown here. While that is certainly on the right track, most still fall short of ideal balance parameters.
-Good boots provide protection for barefoot horses when needed.
-Boots can be a great temporary support for sore footed horses.
-Boots can benefit horses with poor digital cushions.
-Horses cannot live in boots full time without soring the heel bulbs.
-Boots generally extend Breakover (the pivot point for forward movement) which adversely affects the equilibrium around the coffin joint, leading to tendon tension and poor hoof mechanics.
In researching boots for this article, most of the pictures we found had balance parameters that, in our opinion, were unfavorable. Choose your boots with care.
Mark Plumlee is the founder of Mission Farrier School and has been trimming and shoeing horses for over 50 years. He is certified through three national farrier associations and has been a pioneer in the advancement of farrier
education. He and his wife, Karen, have educated over 900 students from across the United States and 10 foreign countries. The Plumlees compete in a variety of equine events, including Reining and Cowboy Mounted Shooting. They have a passion for maintaining soundness in their equine partners. For more information visit MissionFarrierSchool.com and find them on Facebook.
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