About Natural Balance

 

"The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking." ~Albert Einstein

 

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Q) Natural Balance is a frequently discussed topic in the horse world.  I hear comments like, “horse’s don’t have square feet”, “the Natural Balance® Shoe is a gimmick or a fad”, “if I need a squared toe shoe I’ll make one”, etc.  However, in my experiences and talking with you, there is a lot more to Natural Balance than just a shoe.  Can you address some of those common misconceptions and explain the difference between Natural Balance Hoof Care and Natural Balance® Shoes?

A) You are right; there is a lot of discussion about Natural Balance in both the farrier industry, and the horse industry as a whole.  I can address some of those issues you mentioned, for example, the idea that Natural Balance is about making feet square.  That is not now nor has ever been a goal of Natural Balance Hoof Care.  People sometimes refer to Natural Balance shoes as square, but actually the foot side of the shoe is quite round and not that different in shape from most conventional front pattern shoes.  The main design feature that differs from other shoes is the rolled toe that is seen as the gradual arc across the ground surface of the toe of the shoe.  Even that is not square across the front, it actually continues around the toe quarters so that the horse can easily fine tune the direction in which his foot naturally breaks over.  As far as Natural Balance being a fad, we have been in business for almost 10 years and have grown steadily.  I think it is common for new products especially to be called a fad or gimmick in their infancy.  Many of the common and accepted hoof care tools and products, especially for lameness treatment, were considered fads in their early years, but are now as common as televisions and microwaves, which were also considered fads.  It’s all part of being fairly new in the market place I think.  Actually, many of the tools and guidelines we use in Natural Balance are not new ideas.  Sound and important protocols for treatment or for looking at the foot are frequently revisited and improved upon each time they resurface.  I’m sure Natural Balance will continue to evolve and change as new information becomes available. There are many good blacksmiths that do a nice job of making rolled-toe shoes that mimic the look of the Natural Balance shoes.  The Natural Balance shoe itself is a consistent, well made, manufactured product with many features and safeguards built into it.  They have been designed to go hand-in-hand with Natural Balance principles as a tool to get the job done more easily and consistently.  I personally use them because it saves wear and tear on my body by not having to forge each shoe as much and it allows me more time to spend getting the foot prepared properly, which is the key to any successful shoeing job.  Each farrier has to make those choices on what shoes and other supplies they use.  We’ve tried to develop products that help make the farrier and the horse more comfortable and successful.  The information behind the products has always been my primary focus because I believe they have some contribution to the hoof care industry.This leads me to establishing a clarification between Natural Balance Hoof Care and Natural Balance® Shoes.  Natural Balance principles and guidelines for hoof care are tools that farriers can use on a daily basis that are complimentary to good, conventional trimming and shoeing practices.  Natural Balance guidelines can aid farriers in evaluating and treating various types of feet, healthy and pathologic.  The latest scientific and practical information that has evolved over the last 15 years, as well as sound practices revisited from the past, serve as the basis for the Natural Balance hoof trimming and shoeing guidelines.  Although studies of feral horse hoof patterns and anatomy were the original catalyst in the development of Natural Balance, continual research and studies are ongoing with emphasis on where the domestic horse fits in with the feral horse information, and visa versa.  It has become clear that the principles of Natural Balance offer information that will simplify many issues that pertain to lateral/medial hoof balance, anterior/posterior hoof balance, as well as establishing a reliable formula for detecting and treating hoof deformities and distortions before they affect the performance and soundness of horses.  Natural Balance Shoes are tools to help get this done in the most effective manner.  Although many farriers have used the shoes with success and not really followed the Natural Balance guidelines, we do find that successful implementation of the guidelines for evaluating and preparing the foot yields the best results, especially when a properly designed shoe is used in conjunction with the principles.  Using the shoe alone without regard for the corresponding guidelines may yield mixed results and have proven to be the primary factor why a shoeing procedure using Natural Balance shoes has been deemed unsuccessful.  Basically, following the directions is always a good choice with any product.

PolySteel® Plastic Natural Balance® Shoes

Steel Natural Balance® Lite Sport

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Q) Why should I consider Natural Balance for my horse? He is not a feral horse, he lives in a barn, not in the wild, and he has to carry my weight and perform.

A) Well, perhaps your horse may not even need Natural Balance. If he lands slightly heel first, does not stumble or forge, if his feet map out to the ratios I discussed, which indicate he has no hoof distortion, and he is free of heel pain or other minor problems then he is probably already being shod to adequately meet his needs.  But on the other hand, if he routinely stumbles, forges, has back problems, lands toe first, or his feet have subtle distortion such as flares or under run heels, then he probably could benefit from Natural Balance principles. Take for example Dennis Reis’s own horses. He believed they were doing fine. Then after they were done according to natural balance principles, he realized that they had been previously held back from reaching their full potential of comfort and performance.Natural Balance is not intended to make a feral hoof out of a domestic one. That would be impossible in a domestic environment. The goal of Natural Balance is to supply the biomechanical needs of the domestic hoof in as optimal a manner as possible in a domestic environment, using information gathered from wild horse research. Moreover, ongoing scientific research is uncovering how and why these parameters fit into the domestic hoof.   

 

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Q) I have heard many huge success stories with Natural Balance but at the same time heard of less than success, and even failures. Does that mean that Natural Balance is not right for every horse?

A) Well first, let’s look at all farriery as we have known it in the past.  Most horses do quite well for their entire lives in whatever type of shoe they wear.  However, many others eventually develop various kinds of lameness. Stumbling, forging, Navicular syndrome, coffin joint pain, ringbone, and tendon & ligament issues are common.  So what common factors keep horses sound and some not? It boils down to good basic farrier practices.  Some of the common factors in keeping horses sound are maintaining heels that do not distort or run under.  Keeping toes from running forward or flaring, along with allowing the foot to break over where it would wear naturally, and allowing the frog to function as it was designed.  Balancing the hoof capsule or shoe around the coffin bone, and preserving strong functional hoof structures are necessary as well.  All those things help maintain a healthy, strong hoof.  The best traditional farriery addresses those things.  Natural Balance is a simple way of addressing those issues and also provides the farrier with good parameters to get this done, and at the same time it individualizes each foot.  

 

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Q) What do you mean by individualizing each foot?

A) This is one difference between traditional farriery and Natural Balance. Traditionally, farriers are taught to apply similar parameters such as hoof angle and toe length to try to make pairs of feet match, even if the horse came naturally supplied with a mismatched pair.  With the newer science it is becoming very clear that doing so may end up compromising the health of both feet.  Natural Balance parameters supply the farrier with guidelines to maintain each hoof as an individual.  The results have shown that by doing so, both feet benefit, as does the whole horse.  Engaging the ground with unequal footfalls in the attempt to make both feet appear the same has negative effects on the whole horse.  Just try walking with one foot landing on the toe and the other slamming down flat.  See how that affects your entire body.  One goal of natural balance is to allow both feet in the pair to land equally heel first, even though they are not necessarily built the same or look the same.  

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Q) Explain why it is important for the feet to land slightly heel first.

A) Landing slightly heel first assures several things. The frog helps in coffin joint alignment, or pastern -hoof alignment. It is important for facilitating shock absorption through the back of the foot, digital cushion and lateral cartilages, rather than letting the coffin joint take a jamming. The frog helps in circulation, and a heel first landing insures the horse is reaching his fullest length of stride.

 

 

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Q) I can understand why Natural Balance would be helpful, but I don’t want my horse’s toes chopped off.

A) Well, I agree. A horse’s toes should never be over trimmed, either in the sole or from the front. Doing either only weakens the entire foot and can make the horse sore. Also if the sole callus or the dorsal hoof wall is weakened repeatedly, it actually creates the forward stretching in the toe and can cause the toe flares to keep occurring.  The recommended procedure for applying Natural Balance leaves the hoof functional and strong and does not dub or overly dress the front of the hoof wall. Only the flares in the lower half or third of the hoof wall are dressed, and the sole callus is to be left strong and intact.  Any bit of hoof which may overhang the front of the shoe is simply rolled a bit.

 

 

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Q) What exactly is the “sole callus” and why is it important?

A)  The “sole callus” is a specialized area of sole which grows around the front edge of the coffin bone. The horn tubules of the hoof wall and sole each grow from individual microscopic structures called papillae. The papillae which are situated around the tip of the coffin bone are much longer than those on the bottom which create the rest of the sole. That makes the horn tubules around the tip also longer than the rest of the sole. Longer horn tubules in that area create the raised area you can see and feel in the sole. We have studies which illustrate the importance of this callus in supporting the bone upward in the capsule. As well, it is the only thing protecting the circumflex artery which is located between the bone and ground. Continually paring into this structure places the bone and the artery at risk of trauma.

      

 

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Q) Many farriers say that the frog should not be on the ground because the foot has to flex outward at the bottom and to do that the sole has to flatten when he bears weight. They say this is necessary for circulation and shock absorption. So why would I want to leave all that frog there? Wouldn’t having the frog on the ground prevent this?

A) Well, think about this. If the frog was not supposed to be on the ground, why does it always do so in bare feet, and why is the foot designed to fill up with dirt when it gets long? Doesn’t the packed dirt support the frog even when the hoof wall has grown longer than the sole? The old theory about the foot flattening and flexing outward at the bottom is based on incomplete information about what the foot needs and how it functions when left to its own maintenance. Although horses have managed to survive the practice of removing frog for years we need to remember that horses manage to replace the frog support rapidly. The frog always rapidly grows back when pared away and in shod horses the foot fills with packed dirt almost immediately when it is on the ground. That self-replacement of the support is possibly why we thought the practice of paring frog was working OK, because the horses manage it themselves despite our efforts to remove it. Unfortunately some shod horses have to live or work on hard surfaces where the frog cannot contact the ground. They suffer faster consequences and are more likely to develop side bone, ringbone, contracted heels and other lameness.

 

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Q) Then you are saying the dirt is supposed to be left in the foot?

A) That is correct. There are newer studies that shoe how the dirt that fills alongside the frog area actually acts along with the frog and bars in supporting and helping the foot expand more at the top, in the heel bulbs and coronary band. This action absorbs shock and circulates blood more efficiently.  Keep in mind, that urine and manure soaked shavings doesn’t necessary provide the best environment, so it is best for the compaction of material be good “clean” dirt.  If you get a good compaction of dirt in and around the frog, it will also help keep unwanted bacteria from getting in there.  Maintaining a “healthy” frog through consistent use will also help battle unwanted bacteria. 

 

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Q) Why do horses get contracted heels?

A) Several reasons. If they don’t land heel first, the heels can not expand properly.  If the heels have been left to grow too long, they prevent frog contact and expansion. If they run forward or under, they can’t expand outward at all but rather they are pushed inward at the ground with every step. Those shiny places you may see in the heels of some shoes is not usually from the heels moving outward, but inward. That inward curling doesn’t happen with the heels trimmed short, near the level of the live sole and if the frog is on the ground.

 

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Q) How does Natural Balance assist with a heel first landing?

A) First, it assures the foot leaves the ground in optimal timing according to where the leg is. That allows the horse to reach his full length of stride, which allows a heel first landing. If the foot is delayed getting off the ground,  the horse’s body is too far forward by that moment and he has to automatically compensate and shorten the stride and may land toe first. Second, keeping the heels shorter and allowing frog support helps with proprioception. Proprioception is a neurological function that helps with movement. There are special receptors in the heel area above the frog that are part of that system. So if the frog can be contacting the ground it helps the horse reach forward and get the frog to the ground first. Also simply keeping the heels properly prepared and the breakover point in an optimal position helps avoid caudal foot pain or heel pain from distortion or stress in the coffin joint area. If the horse is not pain free in the rear of his foot, he will be more likely to land on the toe to protect the sore heels, which leads to other pathologies down the road.


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