BENT FOR EFFECT. A rocker-toe shoe, which bends up about half an inch from a flat shoe often helps a horse that knuckles over.
When a person stubs his toe, it’s more embarrassing than painful. But when a harness horse stubs its toe, it’s called knuckling over, and it can be not only painful, but also may have serious consequences.
Trainers and farriers have tried to combat knuckling over for decades and Lexington horseshoer Steve Stanley thinks that a rocker-toe shoe can alleviate the problem. He admits that he’s not the first farrier to try this method, but previous efforts used a rolled-toe shoe, which wasn’t sufficient to cure knuckling over.
Stand by a drawgate at any harness track and you might see a horse knuckle over as it leaves the track after a work mile. Fatigue is a factor that causes knuckling over.
“A horse can actually knuckle over at any time,” says Stanley, who has driven horses himself. “I’ve had trainers tell me that horses prone to knuckling over have done it during training miles. When horses stumble, sometimes they even drive the front of the ankle right into the ground. They can get hurt really badly that way.”
Stanley says that trainers traditionally sought to cure knuckling over by keeping a horse’s hind toes short and also squaring them, if necessary. Some trainers have also used the Memphis bar shoe, which has a bar welded across the widest part of the shoe.
“A horse carrying too much toe or one due to be shod, is most susceptible to knuckling over,” Stanley says. “Some horses will knuckle over if they’re being jogged too slow. They’re just shuffling along lazily, and they can easily knuckle over. You need to keep those horses up on the bit more when they’re jogging.”
Veteran trainer Dan Shetler says that a horse can break sesamoids and pastern bones when they knuckle over.
“I’ve had 2-year-olds that are a little weak behind and you’re going along with them, then they knuckle, and you wind up with a hairline fracture in a pastern,” says Shetler.
Knuckling over is most often a secondary problem caused by a primary problem such as weak stifles or hindquarters, he adds.
Stanley says that rocker-toe shoes have been part of a farrier’s arsenal for decades and were often used on foundered broodmares. They were seldom seen at tracks, but Stanley has used rocker-toe shoes on both trotters and pacers and watched them race successfully.
When Stanley first thought about using a rocker-toe shoe to alleviate knuckling over, he worried how it would affect a trotter’s hind gait. The rocker-toe shoe does quicken a trotter’s hind gait.
“I was afraid that trainers figured that trotters would start banging their shins,” he says. “With a rocker-toe, a trainer might have to quicken a horse up front, but that’s not as bad as knuckling over.”
Using the rocker-toe shoe, the horse still lands flat on the ground, but with no pressure on the front of the shoe, the toes rolls over quickly.
“I think this will also help horses that have a bulging toe and a run-down low heel,” says Stanley. “The rocker-toe shoe will take pressure off the toe where the hoof wall is bulging out. It might also be good for horses with corns and bruises in the heels. I just don’t know about that yet.”
Stanley admits that traction may be a concern for trainers, too, since the front part of the shoe doesn’t grab the track surface. He suggests putting borium at the front of the shoe that is in contact with the track.
Traction is more worrisome with a flat rocker-toe shoe than a swedge. Any type of shoe can be rolled in the toe, but the hoof, of course, must be trimmed to accommodate the angle of the shoe.
Horseshoeing is a time-honored trade, but that doesn’t mean a farrier can’t try new ideas.