Although farriers widely recognize the importance of balancing the equine hoof, it’s not always well understood — but can be if you have a balloon.
That’s right. A simply party favor can help you gain a better understanding of equine hoof balance. You won’t even need helium.
“There is no science in this, as the science community understands science,” Frederick, Md., farrier Doug Anderson told attendees at the 13th annual International Hoof-Care Summit in Cincinnati, Ohio. “There’s no research project related to this. There are 47 ways to skin a cat. There are 47 ways to shoe a horse. I’m not saying this is the only way to balance a foot. This is how I understand to balance a foot.”
First Thing’s First
Before delving into balance, it’s important to keep basic anatomy in mind.
“First, we have a coffin bone,” he reminds. “Around that bone, along with many other things, is the venous plexus and blood flows through it. That is surrounded by a deformable hard mass called the hoof wall. It’s these three pieces of anatomy that I’m considering.”
Equally important is how that anatomy responds to forces placed upon it (Figure 1).
"Mass, being body weight, goes downhill,” Anderson says. “Everything goes downhill. We can’t avoid gravity.”
Knowledge of foundational anatomy and how it responds to the forces placed upon it are important to understanding equine foot balance.
Placing pressure on a lightly inflated balloon illustrates how weight bearing affects the hoof capsule.
An ergot that drops in the center of the bulbs is an indication.
Center Of Weight Bearing
With foundational anatomy and gravity in mind, how can an ordinary balloon reveal such a complex topic? As Anderson explains it, the concept revolves around weight bearing.
While holding a lightly inflated balloon, push your finger in the middle of it. What happens?
“The balloon compresses in the middle,” he says, “and expands in all directions at the same amount (Figure 2).”
What happens when you move your finger to one side or another?
You have a good foot when you can divide a foot in half …
“One side expands more than the other,” Anderson says. “One side compresses, the other side expands, which means that the air — or blood — is pushed to the side of expansion.”
This is how Anderson understands horses’ feet to work.
“Feet work like balloons,” he says. “You will have a pretty good foot when you can draw a line down through the center, the central sulcus, the front of the foot and can divide it in half (Figure 3). That’s a pretty balanced, happy, well-proportioned foot. It only got that way because of the trim. It only got that way because I have the center of weight bearing in the middle of the foot, where it belongs.”
Out Of Balance
Balance can be elusive, though. Different horses bear weight in different areas of the foot — dorsal, caudal and diagonal. An example would be a base-narrow or toed-out horse.
Dorsal weight bearing. Keeping in mind the foundational anatomy that Anderson reviewed earlier, dorsal weight bearing presents stark differences in the health of the foot.
“The bony column pushes forward — expressing more weight in the front of the foot — (Figure 4) and the hoof capsule compresses the blood in the center and pushes it to the back of the foot,” he explains. “The hoof wall in the back of the foot is getting all the blood (Figure 5). It’s getting all the benefits of blood — being food, reduction of compressive forces, shock absorption, dampening the vibration, as well as less weight bearing. All that wonderful stuff is happening in the back of the foot.”
The opposite end is another matter.
“The front of the foot is doing all the work,” Anderson says. “It’s carrying all the weight. What happens is, all of the blood gets pushed to the back. All the benefits of having blood in the front of the foot are gone. Not only is all of the front part of the foot being starved, but it’s being compressed because the weight bearing is in the front.”
Caudal weight bearing. A horse that bears weight on the back part of the foot (Figure 6) is going to experience problems, as well.
“Look at the back of the foot (Figure 7),” he suggests. “Part of this is because he’s over grown his shoe, but part of it isn’t. Look at the toe (Figure 8). It’s all stretched out. It’s being pushed forward. It’s doing no work.
“When hoof wall has weight over it, it’s harder for it to grow. The more weight it has over the top of it, the more difficulty it has pushing that hoof up to grow. The less weight, the easier it is.”
Diagonal feet. Much like a horse that presents dorsal weight bearing, those that have diagonal weight bearing feet often will display a healthy foot on one side.
“The principle works the same,” Anderson says. “Even though the balloon is diagonally off center (Figure 9) and we have a diagonal presentation in the balloon, we also have a diagonal presentation in the foot (Figure 10). Look at how wonderful the left side of the foot is, however misshapen it may or may not be. It’s still a very healthy, very happy part of the foot. The right side of the foot? Not so healthy and happy.”
The Finger Game
Carrying balloons around in your rig and having a horse step on it simply isn’t practical. It certainly won’t turn out well for the balloons. So, Anderson plays what he calls the finger game.
“It’s something I do,” he says, “as I’m walking up to a horse for the first time.”
The object of the exercise is to determine the position of the bony column in relation to the hoof capsule. How do you play?
“I stand in front of the horse, and using one eye, I cover the bottom of the foot with my finger (Figure 11),” Anderson explains. “That bony column is coming into the center of the coronary band. On the other hand, as soon as I move my finger up a little bit and cover the coronary band (Figure 12), does the center of the bony column come into the center of the weight bearing surface of the shoe?
“This tells me exactly what I need to do. This lets me understand what’s happening in the balloon of the hoof capsule.”
There’s an important landmark that Anderson keeps tabs on while trimming.
“I work on my horses when they’re facing away from me, so I can watch where the ergot drops,” he says. “If the ergot doesn’t drop in the center of the bulbs, then I have some work to do. And there’s no way the foot is in balance. The ergot is a direct, active indicator.”
After trimming the horse that’s the subject of the aforementioned finger game, Anderson wasn’t satisfied with the balance.
“I watched the ergot drop and I wasn’t happy with how the foot was accepting the load of the bony column,” he says.
If the ergot doesn’t drop in the center of the bulbs, then I have some work to do …
“I walked around the front and played the finger game. Sure enough, I had this disparity between the red and yellow lines (Figure 13).”
Anderson carries a 3-degree wedge pad for these types of situations.
“I can stand the horse on the pad, turned any which way, and I can look at the horse from any direction and see if my trim is going to work,” he says. “So, I took a pad and turned it 45 degrees. I nailed it on and this is what we get (Figure 14).”
We all learn differently. While this is just scratching the surface of understanding balance through weight bearing, this is merely another tool that might be helpful in that pursuit.
“It helps me out,” he says. “It’s the way I understand it. I’m not under any kind of illusion that I can teach anyone how to better run a rasp or how to better nail a shoe on a foot.
“But, hopefully I can help you use the best tool that you have, which is right between your ears. Much of the time, it’s not what I do, but it’s what I think before I do that is the make or break deal in horses.”