The object of this article is to help you learn to recognise healthy hooves and posture and think of them in terms of a ‘hoof score’. This article outlines the method and guidelines we use, which to our current understanding, offer our best approach for objective assessment and help inform on which intervention might be appropriate.
The hoof morphology and resting posture of a horse is changeable, and the hoof capsule and posture will adapt according to the stimulus received from the horses environment, and in accordance with the horses individual genetic make-up and health status. It is possible to score a hoof (which is reflective of the whole horse) and help us all make better decisions.
But how do we know what is healthy?
We provide evidence based whole horse equine podiatry and therapy and believe an integrative approach to hoof care provides the most efficacious approach to creating and maintaining sound, healthy horses. This means effective teamwork or an approach such as ours which facilitates optimum balance and functionality of the hooves AND body within a session.
We study ever evolving modern podiatry and farriery sciences and while we observe published peer reviewed studies, we also document and observe first hand the evidence in front of us and present our findings to clients to help us all monitor changes. This is important not only to equine professionals but to help empower owners to make informed decisions about their horses care and without objective evidence this is arguably more difficult, if not impossible.
To help horse owners and professionals understand modern podiatry and farriery science, we signpost to farrier Yogi Sharp (The Equine Documentalist). Here you can learn in great detail about healthy and unhealthy hoof morphology and how this relates to posture, and therefore performance and soundness. We also write articles and lean upon modern science to guide us in our work helping horses and owners around the UK and online.
With so many hoof care methods being used in the UK and around the world, how can an owner make a truly informed decision on behalf of their horse if the options are not being presented in an unbiased way?
What is healthy’ ‘deal’ hoof and posture?
According to modern podiatry and farriery, the following are considered healthy, which we currently agree with and can help you identify a healthy hoof (although the ideal hoof shape or morphology will change somewhat according to the individual horse and even the individual hoof):
Straight (within 3 degrees if observing externally and not from a high quality, properly captured radiograph) hoof pastern axis (or HPA)
Healthy phalangeal alignment and appropriate palmar or plantar P3 angle (as assessed on quality radiographs. This would present as a straight HPA when viewed externally
Appropriate vertical depth, dorsal-palmar and medial-lateral balance – this is also assessed by radiographs and present in healthy phalangeal alignment and morphology
Minimum of 60:40 toe to heel ratio around the centre of rotation of the coffin joint for the barefoot horse, and closer to 50:50 in the shod horse
Maximum of 5 degrees difference between the dorsal wall hoof angle and heel angle
Healthy posture and gait with cannon bones perpendicular to the ground (on a level, firm surface) and ability to stand and remain square when invited
A hoof free from pathology/pathological morphology, in other words, free from disease, infection, flares, cracks or other signs of distortion and unhealthy growth
A hoof score appropriate to the use of the horse, age and health.
You might note we haven’t outlined an ideal palmar or plantar P3 angle (the angle the bottom of the pedal bone sites in relation to the ground surface). We don’t believe there is an ideal angle per se as this will be determined by the healthy HPA and when there is healthy phalangeal alignment which is subjective and as individual as horses. We vehemently believe the pedal bone should not sit at 0 degrees or even between 0 and 5 and have yet to see evidence that this correlates to a horse with ideal development, posture or healthy hoof morphology.
Finch – hoof score 5/10 and near ‘ideal’ hooves and posture considered healthy for his well-being, soundness and comfort
In this example, we feature an 11hh 12 year old Dartmoor Hill pony called Finch. He has a history of acute and chronic laminitis and is now 100% sound, living out on a grass track 24/7 in a stable herd of 4 ponies. You may recall Finch in this video where our hoof care approach helped resolve his ‘mystery’ lameness in a very short space of time: https://youtu.be/YLk3UzAeUxw
In the picture above, you can see he stands comfortably ‘square’ with both front and hind cannon bones perpendicular to the level ground surface. From this stance, we can take a photo of the hoof from the ground surface, directing the camera at the approximate centre of rotation of the coffin joint (the green circle in the next image) for objective hoof assessment. His withers are higher than his croup and his pastern and shoulder joint are at similar angles. His thoracic sling development could be improved, which would positively impact his hind quarter development and ideal centre of mass, however it could be argued that for a pony not being exercised to improve his development, this stance is reasonably healthy and certainly adequate for his well-being.
In the photo above, one could discern that:
His dorsal hoof wall angle is 62 degrees (number in red at the tip of his toe)
His pastern angle is 65 (red number in the centre of his pastern)
His heel angle is 62 degrees (red number at the base of the heel)
His coronet angle is 15 degrees (red numbers at the coronet band)
His toe:heel ratio is 60:40
His cannon bone is 90 degrees to the ground
There is no evidence of pathology, however there are very minor growth rings in the top third of his hoof
He presented sound, was able to stabilize and balance very well on 3 limbs to be trimmed and showed no signs of physical or emotional discomfort or distress on the day
From this we consider these within healthy ‘ideals’ previously outlined and can confidently provide Finch with a hoof score of 5/10, which as a guide, we consider sufficient for general low intensity, compassionate ridden work 100% barefoot on all surfaces, where a horse or pony properly developed for and accustomed to this role.
We score hooves based on the guidelines above and although this chart is outdated, it outlines the principles we demonstrate here. As Finch doesn’t have maximum depth sole, digital cushion and frog depth, we haven’t scored him above 5/10 – but that’s not to say that he could not have a higher hoof score with further conditioning, should this be necessary, and it must be noted that he has sufficient hoof and body health ‘fit for purpose’, which is to be a pony, living on a track, in a herd environment! If Finch were to be trained compassionately for ridden work for instance, we have no doubt that he would develop these hoof tissues and his hoof score would increase accordingly and he would be capable of greater performance, as long as his level of performance didn’t exceed his hoof score at any time.
Most horses we meet which are ridden, intended to be ridden, or non-ridden equines have a hoof score lower than 5/10, and this score is what we consider the minimum for base level of soundness in hoof and body, which is also required for horses to SAFELY commence low intensity ridden or other performance. We consider this the minimum score for all equines living in domestication and nearly all horses all capable of this, but often don’t achieve this unless provided with an appropriate environmental stimulus for this level of health.
The environmental stimulus is everything the horse touches, breathes, smells, eats, hears and experiences – so every aspect of how we decide the horse should live, rest, play, socialise, and work– this includes the diet, the footing, the hoof care, the training method, the rider, the saddle and everything else in our power to influence. The hoof care is highly influential in impacting BOTH hoof morphology AND posture and development of the body.
The overall lack of awareness of unhealthy 'ideal' or pathological hoof and posture in domestic horses is a REAL concern for us.... asking horses to perform or even exist where they have hoof scores of less than 5/10 could and probably does lead to disease, lameness and premature death.
It is critical that owners and equine professionals (vets, farriers, trimmers, EP’s saddle fitters, body workers, dentists, behaviourists, etc) learn to recognise when a horse has adequate AND inadequate health for the role asked of it, even in the non-ridden pet or retired equine. This can be assisted by studying modern podiatry/farriery, using tools such as HoofmApp app in the field, and documenting to objectively monitor health and changes in response to changes in environmental stimulus and intervention used.
We invite you to document your horses hooves and posture, or those of your clients horses hooves and posture and use HoofmApp app or Metron-Hoof to help you assess objectively, and relate what you find to modern farriery and podiatry science. From this we would encourage you to provide a hoof score and ask whether the horse is being asked to work, perform or live beyond its hoof score. If the answer is 'yes' then question the environmental stimulus and hoof care intervention currently employed.
In order to recognise a problem, we first have to look. Be honest, be open and be non-judgmental, and always, try to be objective in your assessment.
Additional resources and assistance
We take an integrative and holistic approach to whole horse hoof and body health. We appreciate the relationship between body, limb and hoof and seek to address imbalances while positively influencing appropriate static and dynamic hoof balance and biomechanics.
If, like our clients, you want to learn a PRO-Active approach to hoof care and wish to prevent lameness in your horse, consider booking us for an Integrative Podiatry Consult, Educational Event, Mentorship, or On-line Course
We also recommend you learn how to document horses hooves and body, whether you trim your own, your clients horses, are an equine professional (in any capacity/field) or simply want to track and monitor progress of your horses hooves and the impact their hoof care has on their posture.
Further information, recommendations and links
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Beccy Smith BSc ADAEP EBW
Diploma in Advanced Applied Equine Podiatry and now an Independent Integrative Equine Podiatrist, Consultant and Therapist
CEO and Founder of 100% Non-Profit Community Interest Company Holistic Reflections CIC
Holistic Reflections CIC – a 100% non-profit organisation promoting wellbeing and resilience in people, horses and the environment - for the benefit of all.