What does hoof balance mean?
Hoof balance is the combination of adequate shape and size of the hoof in a way that it will never compromise the function of the horse’s limb. In other words, a balanced foot should have a shape and size that maximises its mechanical efficiency.
Is it possible to check the hoof balance?
Veterinarians and farriers will competently assess foot balance and will be able to discuss therapeutic solutions to the unbalanced foot. This assessment can simply be done by looking at the foot on the ground, from the sole and with the horse in movement.
The movement of the horse’s limb is largely determined by the way the foot lands on the ground. A lack of foot balance will lead to abnormal load within ligaments, tendons and joints and consequently to lameness. When a horse is presented with an unbalanced foot, it does not immediately mean that the horse will suffer from lameness, although the longer the foot is left without the correct balance higher are the chances of associated lameness.
The foot should land flat on the ground, although some minor variations might apply for certain breeds and ages. The heel and the toe should land almost simultaneously or the toe just slightly after the heel.
The distal joints should be nicely aligned in a straight line when viewed from the front or behind and they should be perpendicular to the ground. Sometimes it is useful to compare the external look of the hoof with an x-ray view, especially in cases where the assessment might be difficult (horses with feathers). The heels and the hoof wall should be the same length on the inside and the outside, so if we draw a line along the coronary band this should be parallel to the floor. If the heel or hoof wall is unbalanced this problem will become self-perpetuating as the hoof will tend to grow in the direction of the imbalance, altering the distribution of weight bearing forces passing through the hoof and limb, putting excessive stresses and strains on associated muscles, joints and bones.
Looking at the bottom or the sole of the foot, the width and length of the hoof capsule should be approximately equal in the front feet. In the hind feet the length is invariably a little greater than the width.
The hoof should also be symmetrical when looked from the side, the alignment of the hoof wall and the heel should be checked to ensure they are parallel. The Hoof Pastern Axis angle is the imaginary line that goes from the toe to the dorsal hoof wall and along the pastern to the fetlock joint, this line should always be straight.
The Hoof Pastern Axis angle can be described as ‘broken forward’ or ‘broken back’. These cases might require corrective shoeing as trimming might not suffice to correct the problem. Some horses will naturally correct the hoof balance after a consistent trimming protocol whilst others will never improve. In these cases, the use of remedial shoeing is essential.
Foot balance and conformation
We should not confuse conformation with hoof balance, we would not be able/not want to change the hoof’s conformation to make them look ‘cosmetically right’, as we could induce lameness. Altering the conformation in foals with certain deformities by changing slightly the foot balance might be advised, although it is rarely recommended for fully grown horses.
Limb balance is essential for the good athletic function of the horse, and those with conformation problems will require careful attention to their foot balance throughout their lives to ensure optimum comfort and performance.