Footfall of the Shod & Barefoot horse

By R.C.Richardson RSS - 19.04.2012

A shod hoof should land differently than a barefoot hoof.

In over 35 years of shoeing, including 22 years of referral work, one of the main topics of conversation amongst Vets, Farriers and Barefoot Trimmers has been the footfall of the equine digit, and the effect that it has on the connecting tissue and conformation of the horse.
This paper is not about Barefoot versus Shoeing.
It is about the two distinct theories that separate the disciplines of shoeing and barefoot hoof management.

Over the past 22 years the horses that have been referred to me have presented with the angle differential of P3 anywhere from: enough forward rotation resulting in sole penetration, (on left) to a similar amount of reverse rotation which would manifest itself as prolapsed and collapsed heels. (on right)


My first concern when presented with horses that are experiencing pain in the foot is to immediately start the process of trying to regain soundness, if the circumstances allow.

For most of my career I turned to shoes for help, and had great success, whether it was with plastic stick-ons, steel or aluminium nail-ons or boots. I have also found that by taking radiographs before and after treatment, there are certain common denominators relating to the footfall, the angle of P3, and heel length within both the shod and unshod foot.

I need to state that I have no intention of talking angles in the context of exact numbers as I believe it is impossible to predict what a foot’s angle should be and mistakenly try to achieve that angle at all costs. There are without doubt varying angle numbers that do seem to recur in sound examples of all breeds but I don’t think they are of any help when trying to treat a foot in trouble.

Observations of the shod horse:

There have been many debates on the loading of the shod foot and what happens at the point of impact, however, there is not much doubt that the body weight and propulsion should go from heel to toe, ending in the brake-over point where the foot prepares to leave the ground.

If the shod foot impacts the ground heel first it sets off an unfortunate chain of events.

1. It causes damage to the tissue in the caudal third as it takes the major impact of the landing.

2. It causes untold strain to the dorsal area of the coronary band as it tries to absorb the secondary impact.

3. It creates strain on the internal attachment system mainly the laminae

4. It affects the vascular process in such a way that the production of tissue is impaired

Likewise if the shod foot lands toe first then it also sets up a similar chain of events.

When a shod hoof lands level, concussion, weight and propulsion then proceed over the shoe while preparing to lift the hoof off the ground with the assistance of a correct brake-over point on the shoe.

Examining the shoe of the flat landing foot you will still see evidence of the weight bearing at the heels by the wear on the underside (nearest the foot) of the shoe.

This is also due to the expansion and contraction of the heels, (worn away much more with a heel or toe landing foot.)

The palmer surface of P3 on a level landing sound shod foot will vary from being parallel to the shoe, to a 5% positive rotation, all-be-it that the dorsal wall will be trying to stay parallel with the dorsal surface of P3. To assist in producing this level landing there will be more horn tissue at the heel.

When, as a shoeing farrier I observed a foot for the first time I would pay a lot of attention to the heels, because in the shod horse the heel plays a major part in footfall and subsequently the absorption of concussion within the hoof.

If I observed the heel to be: too long, too short, collapsed, contracted, under- run, shot-away, or weak, then I would know that the foot has not been landing or braking over correctly.

I would then try to create a level footfall. This would very often involve putting some pressure on the frog in the form of a heart-bar shoe (short or long tongued) to relieve the heels of some pressure and allow better horn production.

It is obvious that a solid steel shoe should hit the ground as level as possible, to avoid a second reaction of jarring. A well shod horse with a level footfall and correct brake-over is far less likely to have caudal problems than a foot that either lands heel or toe first.

Observations of the unshod horse:

For the last few years I have decided to treat my referrals using only barefoot trimming methods along with dietary and conditioning advice, whilst still being available to assist
Farriers with shoeing on some referral cases.

Since working with barefoot horses I have had to approach my treatment of the same foot problems in a different way.

The barefoot horse will choose, when sound and balanced, to land heel first and rotate its weight and propulsion through the foot ending in a natural brake-over that it creates itself when the right conditions allow. As the foot is landing heel first the production and consistency of the frog and heel tissue is paramount to the soundness of the animal. The heel wall will not be as long as a shod foot as it is not trying to avoid a heel landing.

When observing radiographs of the sound barefoot horse, P3 favours a higher position in the foot, and a more level presentation, relative to the wall at ground level (not the frog or heel bulbs).

This presentation also assists in the efficiency of the tissue production in order to absorb concussion and protect the inner structure of the hoof.
There is very little you can do to assist this foot by way of trimming.
Thus for the presentation of P3 in the barefoot, diet and condition play a bigger part than trimming.

Both footfalls are correct for the job intended

As someone who has had the benefit of working on both shod and barefoot horses, I have come to realise they require two completely different types of foot management, and they should not be in competition with each other.

If we accept that both the shod and unshod horse benefit from this theory, then we can move on in the Barefoot versus Shod hoof debate.

If we then adopt the above attitude to the position of P3, it follows that when teaching Farriers’ apprentices and Barefoot Trimming Technicians their professions, there will be a better understanding of what they are both trying to achieve.
The recognition that they are both starting from a different point in theory, will lead to respect being given to both parties.

Although I may be an exponent of the barefoot system, I also realise that if an owner wishes to have their horse shod, I will do everything I can to assist in making sure the shoeing is performed in the best way possible to benefit the horse.

Maybe it is time to stop saying either technique is wrong, and accept the fact that both are right!