Forward Foot Syndrome (FFS) is a common hoof condition that can and does strike all breeds, shod or barefoot. It's all too prevalent, it leads to serious problems, and for the sake of our horses' comfort, we should know how to recognize and prevent or fix it.
The first thing we need to know about FFS is that it is probably the most common and insidious problem for domestics' hooves. It sneaks up on our horses over time — yet not all horses are doomed to develop FFS. So how does a horse, born with feet destined to look and perform like a healthy feral foot, end up with FFS feet, always tender-footed, and always in some pain? Well, the cause is simply its lifestyle. An afflicted horse is typically underexercised, too fat and not trimmed frequently enough or properly.
Feral hooves, by contrast, are in almost constant motion, receiving continuous natural trimming from the terrain. The result is the natural foot condition of a horse that lives the life into which he has evolved. Most of us can’t do much about the domestic horse’s home terrain — it is what it is — but we can and should make sure it gets plenty movement, preferably on varied terrain. We can do that by riding it frequently, and we can ensure it gets the most possible movement at home by allowing maximum turnout. We can’t overstress the simple secret of healthy feet — movement, movement, movement.
That leaves us with the trim
What does a good trim look like? Well, a good model is the feral horse foot. It’s not that the domestics' feet should look just like feral horses' — even the best rarely do — but feral horses' feet don't suffer from FFS, and there are lessons to be learned from them. Feral horses are well-exercised, certainly not too fat, and they have functionally excellent, natural trims.
Many owners are diligent about getting their horses' hooves trimmed. Unfortunately, diligence alone won't cut it. Consider a foot that starts out in good condition but then starts receiving an improper trim. It may take months before it's noticed that FFS has developed; when it's finally discovered, we scratch our heads and ask ourselves, "How could this have happened? He’s always had such great feet." Well, it's sneaky, it takes time to develop, and we just don't notice it happening. The irony is that we may have been diligent, paid out plenty in farrier fees or sore backs in our efforts to ensure good feet, yet there we see FFS, while all that was needed to prevent it was to observe a few critical aspects of the trim itself.
Barring unrelated complications, the prevention is as straightforward as the fix. The fixing process involves numerous proper trims over time, but that's OK — the feet will be better at each trim than they were at the previous trim, and we'll get there step-by-step. We've just got to take that first step. You know the Oriental proverb about how the longest journey starts.
What follows are the general trim steps specifically intended to prevent or correct FFS in a barefoot hoof. It is not intended to be a how-to on trimming. It is assumed that a knowledgeable and experienced farrier will perform the actual trim. It is also assumed that, other than FFS, the hooves are healthy and in virtually normal condition.
First, during the repair phase, trim frequently. A three-week cycle is a good compromise between overworking your back or pocketbook and running the danger of letting hoof growth get away from you.
Second, be observant. At each trim study the feet on the ground before you pick one up. Make a mental note about what doesn't look quite right so that you're sure to address it when you have hoof in hand. Continue the study when you pick up the foot: using your pick, clean off the bottom thoroughly, including the commissures; remove any loose flaky sole that comes off readily, so you can see all foot and no dirt. Now look to determine the cause of any anomalies you saw before picking up, and note the condition of the sole components.
Finally, go to the trim. Address any specific problems that you spotted during your evaluation phase, then give the fores the 1-2-3 treatment. That is:
- Trim the walls — you’ll want wall height to be very close to live sole plane; bring that long toe back; rocker the toe and apply quarters relief (not on shod hoof); address any flaring by flat-rasping the outer layer of wall at the flare (using the fine side of your rasp); this will usually require several trim cycles.
- We need short heels — take the buttresses down to perhaps a quarter-inch above live sole plane in the seats of corn; if the bars are making initial ground contact, shave them back a bit using your hoof knife — but don’t remove them.
- Rocker the toe as needed to allow proper breakover, and apply a mustang roll (not on shod hoof).
And that’s about all there is to it!