Q: What is the "sole plane", and how do I find it?
A: The "sole plane" is described as: The exfoliated area (waxy appearing surface) of the sole, near the outer perimeter of the sole, just inside the lamina. The "plane" of the functional sole is used as a guide for trimming and shoe to achieve good dorsal/palmar and medial/lateral hoof balance. It has been clearly shown that the live, functional sole material is equal in thickness below the medial and lateral sides of the coffin bone. Because of that fact, the "sole plane" is widely becoming the best guide we currently have for balancing horse's feet.
The sole plane can be found by removing only that part of the sole that flakes away easily. The functional sole (sole plane) will be visible when the sole surface changes to a waxy textured surface.
Q: Should I clean the dirt and debris out of my horses foot?
A: Research findings are indicating that a good compaction of dirt (not urine soaked manure) in the bottom of the horse's foot (especially that material lodged deep in the frog commissures) may be quite beneficial to supporting the frog, bars and sole of the foot. (Support and stimulus to this area promotes the use of the Digital Cushion/Lateral Cartilage matrix within the equine of the foot.) While it is certainly a good idea to keep an eye out for sharp rocks that might get stuck in the foot, routinely cleaning and picking out the feet may not be in the best interest of maintaining good foot function. Frog support and load SHARING is proving to be a key component to optimal foot health and soundness, so let the dirt help facilitate that need.
Q: Do I prepare the foot exactly the same whether I'm putting on a shoe or leaving my horse barefoot?
A: There are some significant differences when preparing feet for shoes, as opposed to leaving them barefoot. The general principles you need to keep in mind is support & protection. When leaving horse's barefoot, they often require little removal of exfoliating sole material. Many times removing too much protective sole material will lead to a sore footed horse. Therefore, the amount of sole material that can safely be removed varies in the recommended preparation guidelines for shod and barefoot horses.
Secondly, when preparing a foot for shoes, it is imperative that the hoof wall be perfectly flat to accept the flat shoe. Likewise, the medial/lateral balance of the foot is very important in a shod horse because they will be "SET" with that balance for the next 6 to 8 weeks. In a barefoot horse, the hoof wall is typcially not flat because of the slight roll produced in the toe region, as well as the relief given to the quarters to minimize chipping. Although m/l balance is important in barefoot horses as well, they do have the opportunity to wear their feet if slight imbalances exist after trimming.
In shod horses, the point of breakover is established in the ground surface of the shoe, not in the foot. Leverage reduction in a barefoot horse must be established in the way the hoof wall is rolled ahead of the pillars. The location and amount of "roll" created in a barefoot horses will depend on the amount of foot you have to work with and the tension needs of the individual foot. For more specific details, please see the "Natural Balance Hoof Care" education set, as well as guidelines produced by the Equine Lameness Prevention Organization.
Q: Do I prepare the hind feet in the same manner as I do the front?
A: The hoof preparation for the hind feet is pretty much the same as the front. The types of shoes that are used may differ quite a bit from the front depending on the discipline the horse is required to do. However, the approach to providing support, protection and balance to the distal interphalangeal joint is basically identical. Many hind feet are slightly smaller than the front feet of the same horse, so the optimal point of breakover may be slightly closer to the widest part of the foot, but usually not more than 1/8" (e.g. if breakover from the WPOTF forward on the front is 2 1/4" then the back feet may be about 2 1/8") Please view the Equine Lameness Prevention Organization hoof care protocols or EDSS Application guidelines for details.
Q: Do all horses need shoes or can I leave my horse barefoot?
A: In our opinion, there are many shod horses out there that can and should be barefoot. However, since the popularity of barefoot trimming has grown over the last decade, we are now seeing many horses that have gone to a barefoot lifestyle and are suffereing needlessly due to a number of factors. In those instanced, the horse really should go back to a sensible shoeing program in order to improve the comfort of the horse. Therefore, the whole idea of using a horse barefooted needs to be approached with common sense and realistic expectations. Our preference is to see as many horses are possible barefoot (as they were intended). However, there are many factors involved in successfully riding your horse barefooted over a variety of terrains and participating in a variety of disciplines. The key thing to remember with issues of being barefoot is that protection and support to the coffin bone must be established at all times, and leverage considerations to the coffin joint must be met. The horse's hoof will typically adapt and modify to its needs. However, it does need some time to adjust from one environment to another, or from one routine of stimulation to another (riding or exercising). For instance, horses that are kept in an irrigated pasture day after day and ridden only once or twice a week in a soft arena could probably do well barefooted. On the other hand, that same horse kept in the irrigate pasture and ridden once or twice a week over gravel roads or trails would not do as well barefooted. Now, if that horse was ridden everyday extensively on the gravel roads and trails, he may then do rather well (if the hoof quality is good to begin with). Stabled horses have the most to gain from being barefooted, as the bare foot next to the ground is the best means to maintain natural function and circulation. On that same note, the lack of movement from being in a stall for 20 hours per day would not provide the foot with adequate stimulation to adapt to being ridden on abrasive surfaces (like trails & gravel roads). Horses that live in stalls with good quality feet can and should be encouraged to be ridden in soft arenas as much as possible. Again, the hoof quality can be the limiting factor. We’ve seen many feet that are very flat and considered poor quality improve quickly to the point of being useful barefooted, while others struggle with being comfortable when leading them across abrasive gravel areas. To summarize, basically if a horse can get enough exercise and not have their environment varied an unreasonable amount, they have a good chance of being used barefooted (keeping in mind that hoof quality can be the determining factor). Again, the Equine Lameness Prevention Organization has several good, common sense articles on this topic that may answer more of your questions.
As always, please remember to use common sense and be aware of the variety of variables that you may be confronted with. Listen to your horse!
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