Farriers agree on the definition of top dressing as the practice of rasping the top side of the hoof to remove any flares or other distortions before shaping the shoe and putting it on. Not all agree, though, that it’s the right thing to do.

Chris Broadus, a Shelbyville, Ky., farrier who shoes Thoroughbred horses, says he caught a lot of flak about a year ago when he posted on a farriers’ social media site that he doesn’t top dress his horses’ feet.

“I don’t do that,” he says. “I take out all of the flares and distortions from the bottom, running my rasp around the edge to shape the foot that I want.”

Farrier Takeaways

  • Top dressing involves rasping the foot to remove distortions and achieve uniform hoof wall thickness before the shoe is applied.
  • Top dressing should follow the coronary band and the inside of the white line to conform with the shape and location of the coffin bone.
  • Correctly done, top dressing enables solid nailing and better-fitting shoes.

That’s the way Broadus was taught to do it, he adds, “but more importantly, I believe it leaves a stronger foot on the horse. I’ve found with my horses that not top dressing creates a stronger foot over a period of time.”

Broadus believes his approach removes less of the hoof, and his goal is “to leave as much integrity in the foot as I possibly can.” He says top dressing often removes too much hoof wall.

Industry Differences

Broadus’ views have been shaped by his experience in the Thoroughbred industry.

“What steers me away from top dressing is shoeing a lot of horses that come out of horse training sales, where the sellers want to make the feet look as pretty as possible,” he says. “They don’t want any blemishes or flaws in the feet.”

Many times, the shoes aren’t clinched down very much, Broadus says, and when horses are obtained after a sale, the first thing the buyers want to do is turn them out, and their shoes start flying off because their feet are weakened.

“They look beautiful,” he says, “but in my experience, it takes a long time to rebuild a strong foot that might not be as beautiful.”

Their feet, Broadus says, “are more something to put on a shelf and look at, than they are functional. They’re trying to make the horse look really good while it’s standing still.”

In contrast, he says, “When I shoe a horse, I want to be able to come back and get a better result the next time and the time after that. I plan on shoeing a horse for the long-term. But in my line of work, that doesn’t happen a lot because I work for people who move horses a lot.”

Broadus also notes that top dressing is not necessary in his work as a track farrier because he shoes Thoroughbreds that are maintained on a 30-day shoeing cycle.

“So the foot doesn’t migrate as much as on horses kept on a 6- to 8-week cycle,” he says.

Broadus doesn’t ignore the appearance of the hoof after a shoeing. He “finishes” the foot after the shoe is on, sometimes with light rasping and usually with a buffing of the wall.

“You would be surprised how little I use the rasp on the top side of the foot,” Broadus says, “and I think it looks as good as anybody’s.”

The bottom line, Broadus says, is “I believe in leaving as much wall as possible while still keeping the foot underneath the horse.”

Original Foot
Trimmed Foot
Shod Foot

Kentucky farrier Chris Broadus removes the flares and distortions from the bottom, running his rasp around the edge to the shape of the foot he wants. This technique leaves a stronger foot, he says.

Much More Than Cosmetic

John Voigt, a Carbondale, Ill., farrier with more than 50 years of experience shoeing horses of all types, says some farriers might understandably but mistakenly believe that top dressing the foot is simply a cosmetic issue.

“We’re selling appearance, especially with show horses, but really with any horse,” he says. “That’s as far as many clients’ eyes go.”

But there’s a real functionality to dressing the outer side of the hoof wall, Voigt says. The point is to match the hoof wall thickness at the toe with the wall thickness at the quarters and sides.

“If you don’t do that,” he says, “the toe continues to run out in front of the horse.”

Top dressing also avoids a potential trimming error. For example, Voigt says, if the wall is 3/8-inch thick on the sides, an undressed wall might be ½-inch or 5/8-inch thick at the toe. Farriers looking at such a foot might think they need to trim more off the bottom, but there is a limited amount of sole that can be trimmed before hitting sensitive tissue, he cautions.

The Top Dressing Process

Top dressing begins with finding any distortions in the wall. Voigt uses his rasp as a straight edge to check the hoof for any flares, dishes or other distortions.

“Those should be removed as much as possible,” he adds.

Distortions typically occur in the bottom half of the foot, and top dressing is usually needed only in the affected areas, Voigt says. In cases when distortions run all the way up to the coronary band, he says he sees nothing wrong with rasping all the way up the foot, taking care not to disturb the coronary band.

“Sometimes those dishes and flares can be so severe that if you rasp them off in their entirety, you thin the wall to the point that you can’t safely drive a nail,” Voigt says. “So the rasping needs to be done with discretion.”

If a horse’s feet have been neglected and distortions are severe, farriers should not expect to achieve symmetrical feet in one trimming, he says, “but you can make headway on them.”

Dress to the Foot

A foot without any type of distortion is “seldom seen,” Voigt says, “But if there are no flares or other distortions, and the hoof wall is pretty uniform, then dressing the foot is pointless. There’s no reason to do it.”

Voigt also stresses that although the goal is a symmetrical foot, the shoe should be shaped to the particular foot, not nailed on and followed by rasping that follows the shape of the shoe.

Top dressing should be done before a shoe is fit to the foot. Voigt notes that top dressing can remove as much as a ½-inch from the circumference of the foot, enough to change the size of the shoe needed.

The finishing touches — a final light rasping or sanding — can be done after the nails are clinched, he adds. Farriers typically finish the dressing with the fine side of the rasp, although some use power tools or hand-held sanding sponges, Voigt says. He favors a rasp and sanding sponge.

Some Farriers Resist

Although the concept of top dressing seems straightforward, Voigt notes that he still hears resistance to the idea from some farriers.

“There’s an old school of thought that dressing is damaging to the hoof wall,” he says.

“People tell me not to rasp the periople,” sometimes mistakenly defined as the shiny outer surface of the hoof, he says. “That is not the periople. The periople covers and protects the coronary band.”

Top dressing takes a long time to rebuild a strong foot that might not be as beautiful …

Voigt concedes that top dressing can change the appearance of the foot by removing areas of the shiny outer surface that helps retain moisture in the hoof. If that is a concern, he suggests applying products that are themselves, perhaps confusingly, referred to as hoof dressings.

These products are available in two categories: moisturizers and sealants. Voigt recommends using a sealant to preserve the hardness of the outer hoof wall and thus it’s usefulness as a weight-bearing structure. Sealants also protect against possible bacterial contamination, he adds.

Moisturizers soften tis­sue, he notes, making them inappropriate for the wall; they should be reserved for the sole and frog, and possibly the coronary band.

Top dressing the hoof “makes a much more appealing finished project,” Voigt says, while also nurturing the proper growth and functioning of the feet.

Maintaining the Foot as it was Meant to Be

Robbie Hunziker, a 20-year veteran farrier who shoes mostly hunter and dressage horses in the Tampa, Fla., area, is a three-time winner of the American Farrier’s Association’s Jim Linzy Outstanding Clinician Award.

He believes strongly in top dressing and says it has a direct connection to the health and functionality of the foot.

“If you don’t dress out distortion, you’re going to have to fit distortion with the shoe,” he says. “For example, if you fit a large or small flare or distortion with the shoe, it will not fit or nail to the foot properly. I believe in fitting the non-distorted foot with the shoe. That’s how I shoe.”

It’s important to note that the foot dictates how it is dressed.

“I don’t just dress a foot to make a shape that I want,” Hunziker says. “I dress the foot by the shape of the horse’s coronary band and its white line. That’s what determines where and how much I dress.”

Dressed Hoof View

Florida farrier Robbie Hunziker dresses the foot by the shape of the horse’s coronary band and its white line because they have the same shape as the coffin bone.

Follow the White Line

He says the coronary band, the inside of the white line and the coffin bone all have the same shape.

“That’s the anatomy of the foot,” he says and has been confirmed through many hoof dissections.

The foot is centered and shaped around the coffin bone, he says, “and that’s what the capsule should be. It’s our job to keep it together the way it was meant to be.”

“If a horse’s hoof has a straight medial side, pushed-up toe, and a really dropped-off, straight lateral side — and that’s the shape of his white line — then that is the shape of its ‘true hoof,’” Hunziker says. “If I follow these hoof wall dressing principals and removed its coffin bone, P3 is going to have that shape. That’s the shape of his foot.”

Effective top dressing depends on an accurate reading of the individual foot, Hunziker says, “but the foot tells it to you because everybody can see the white line. If you’re going to dress a foot with the shoe off — which is when you should do it — then you can see the white line. It’s visible to you.”

The Goals of Dressing

Hunziker tries to dress to a uniform hoof wall thickness around the circumference of the foot, if possible.

“I’m not saying you can achieve that perfectly on every foot, every time, but I dress every foot that I shoe, every single time,” he says. “Sometimes very little and sometimes it’s a lot, depending on the amount of distortion.”

When you pick up the foot and see the hoof wall is 3/8-inch thick in one spot but it’s ¼-inch thick everywhere else, “to me that’s a big flare, and I would dress that down,” he says.

Also, “I want the hoof wall to be as straight as I can possibly get it, from the hairline to the ground,” Hunziker says. “The straighter the hoof, with less dishing and distortion, the easier and better you can nail up the shoe.”

Occasionally, he admits, “There are places on the foot I end up doing some dressing after I nail up. It happens. But then it’s harder to get the straight line because you have nail clinches in the way.”

Hunziker notes that some farriers prefer a convex, outward bulging line on the hoof wall, believing it provides more strength. He disagrees, saying the convex shape is an advantage on a horizontal plane, but not on vertical structures, such as a horse’s hoof.


Gain more insight about trimming and dressing the foot by reading:

  • “Forget Disciplines When Trimming.”
  • “Back Up the Entire Foot, Not Just the Toe.”

Access this exclusive content by visiting americanfarriers.com/0519

Hunziker cautions that top dressing is not a generic process, and he doesn’t believe in rules such as dressing only the bottom half or bottom third of the hoof wall.

“Sometimes I’ll dress the bottom third, sometimes I’ll dress from the coronary band all the way to the ground,” Hunziker says. “It depends on the foot; the condition it’s in, how well it’s been taken care of before it gets to me. That will dictate how I dress it.”

The farrier is limited by the amount of foot available. If there is little growth to work with, the only option might be therapeutic shoeing, he says.

Conversely, “If the horse is overdue and you can take ¾-inch with the nippers, you’re going to have way more foot to do things with and adjust for distortions and do whatever you want to do to alter that hoof capsule than if the horse was done three weeks ago.”

An Ongoing Process

“It’s a process, and it never ends,” Hunziker says. “You could be the best farrier on the planet, just because you shod it one time doesn’t mean there won’t be distortions and things to work on when you come back. A foot is a living thing. It’s always moving around, for good or bad. Keep in mind that the conformation of the horse can dictate the way a horse’s hoof grows and distorts.”

Although he firmly believes in dressing the foot, he concedes dressing can be detrimental when done incorrectly.

“You can dress too much; you can dress flat spots into the hoof,” Hunziker says. “Or you can dress one side and make it super thin. It’s a technique, and it takes time to learn. It can be extremely helpful. It’s all in how you do it.”

He says many farriers think “dressing” is cleaning up the foot.

“They think it’s just cosmetic, like all they’re trying to do is get the dirt off,” Hunziker says. “It’s bigger than that.”

Some farriers might avoid dressing the feet because they wrongly believe that different types of horses, such as hunters and reiners, should be shod in ways particular to their type. But, Hunziker says, “That reining horse doesn’t know it’s a reining horse. That dressage horse doesn’t know it’s a dressage horse.

“The distortions that horses get in their feet are not from the job they do, it’s from them being horses and bearing weight. It’s from them standing around 23 hours a day, supporting the mass that’s above their limbs. Their conformation, a lot of times, determines what their foot shape is.”

Farriers who don’t top dress the hoof should reconsider, according to Hunziker.

“All dressing does is take out distortion,” he says, “enhance the foot you have, and make it easier to fit and nail up the shoes.”


May/June 2019 Issue Contents