In all my years as a farrier I have never known a Horse lie. But not all horses that appear lame are in pain!

There are many ways a horse can show pain.

  • Unsound
  • Heat in an effected area
  • Yielding to acceptable pressure (not excessive)
  • Noticeable increase in the strength of pulse local to the effected area
  • Increase in respiratory rate
  • Areas of sweat
  • Lying down and not wanting to get up
  • Not eating

One or all of the above will be present with the onset and suffering of pain.

A person who has a thorn in the heel of their foot and is walking on their toe, presents their gait as a limp, yet there is no pain unless the heel is put to the ground. But the appearance is one of pain to the onlooker.

The gait of an animal will also compromise for all sorts of reasons, sometimes because there is no choice, for example: fitting shoes that are capable of making a horse change its gait, either for the better or worse.

Another compromise can be when a horse feels that it is about to stand on something that could hurt, so it dips its stride to avoid pain. Or the compromise could be due to an ailment, laminitis will show pain in the foot/feet in different ways, from just transferring weight from one foot to another without much heat or increase in pulse, to extreme cases where the animal is lying down and finding it hard to get up due to the pain in the dorsal wall and sole of the effected feet.

No matter what degree of laminitis the horse has, the self healing process will kick-in soon after the initial attack. The new wall being produced from the top of the hoof will do its best to be parallel to the bone inside (P3) whatever its position and angle.

Compare for a moment a person with black toenail caused by a large stone falling on it. First there is the initial pain, followed by throbbing (increased pulse), after a few days there is only pain if the offending nail is touched or receives pressure. The new nail is already starting to grow; all we have to do is avoid pain, this we do by either protecting the nail, or making sure we do not put pressure on the toe when walking. So when observing the gait you will see a person with an exaggerated limp, this is done to avoid the pain, rather than suffer it.

When a horse gets laminitis the main area of pain is the dorsal (front) wall and in advanced cases the sole area below the bone (P3). The horse wishes to avoid the pain, thus it will try and walk on its caudal third where it should have a mass of insensitive fibro-fatty tissue for the purpose, thus avoiding having to use the dorsal area. We believe this horse to be ‘in pain’ so we will pick the foot up and apply a small amount of pressure to what we think is the effected area and of course the horse reacts. As would the person with the black nail!

It would make more sense to test the area the horse has decided to bare weight on to make a judgement as to the pain it is suffering, as apposed to the pain that it is avoiding. When doing this I have yet to find a laminitic that has reacted to pressure applied to the caudal 1/3 of the foot.

My observations after working with hundreds of laminitic horses are that we need to support the gait that the horse is trying to achieve, rather than create a gait that we find more acceptable. When we interfere by creating an acceptable gait to us, there could be a danger of causing more long term damage.

At the same time it is crucial that the diet of the animal is looked at in order to support the new horn growth and internal structure. I can not emphasize enough the part that nutrition plays in creating a sound horse.

Back to the black toenail - if a pain-killer masked all pain, we would soon find ourselves using a toe that has a very poorly attached nail, and therefore find the quality of the new nail would subsequently be compromised. So it is with our laminitic. If we do not respect the horses’ self healing process then we must be responsible for the consequences.

In biomechanical terms let us see what is happening. This diagram shows a laminitic which:

  • Has started to produce a new wall = Light blue
  • Shows the Laminae under stress = Dark Blue
  • Shows the excessive toe growth = Red
  • Shows healthy frog and digital cushion = Green


For this foot to avoid pain it will not want to keep the toe on the ground, thus it will appear to be compromising in its gait, even though it has a very thick sole and healthy frog and digital cushion.

To sum-up: we must understand when any animal contracts a lameness it will try and avoid the pain, presenting an unusual gait, it is imperative that we know why the animal is using different areas to absorb pressure, and to support rather than change them.

I have come across this type of lameness many times, mainly due to unbalanced feet. If you have one foot smaller, more upright, flatter, or just different than the other you will have a biomechanical unbalanced horse.

If a horse has a deviated or rotated joint then it will often compensate and be completely sound. But all these horses are having to compromise somewhere and will inevitably be absorbing the defect somewhere else.

These horses will often be passed as sound when being vetted as they show no sign of being lame, I have no problem with that.

But if you are not aware of the defect you could be heading for problems in other parts of the horses skeletal system at a later date. So be aware when purchasing a horse with unbalanced feet, and don’t be afraid to seek advice.

Hoof Sensitivity

This is exactly what it says, sensitive feet.

That does not mean lame, sore, thin soled, or damaged in any way! What it means is feet that have the ability to feel.

  • Barefoot trimming has made me aware I am always trying to get horses’ feet to be sensitive.
  • I want a horse to know what surface it is on.
  • I want a horse to be able to change direction, weight loading and speed, based on how it is interpreting the going under foot.
  • I do not want any horse to feel pain, but I do want it to be sensitive and thus able to avoid pain.

A horse often goes ‘footy’ when a shoe is either taken off or falls off.

Every time a shoe is put on a horse’s foot it minimises the expansion, contraction, compression and release (ECCR) of the hoof to a point where the production of tissue is lessened and can affect sensitivity.

Thus if a shoe comes off the sudden change in ECCR within the hoof capsule will cause instant discomfort, likewise the horse will often improve as soon as a shoe is replaced.

A horse will show the same level of soreness whether the shoe lost is made of thick concave section or a thin racing plate, thus proving that it is not the closeness of the sole to the ground that is the problem. If the horse was sore on the palmer surface it would feel more discomfort when the shoe is replaced onto pain-sensitive tissue.

If a horse has thin soles this is another problem all together that is often treated with pads but not cured by their use. To prove my point you only have to look at the strong consistency of the wall, sole, and attachment tissue in a healthy hoof and yet the feet are still very sensitive.

The shod horse will often show weak and misaligned tissue, and is only able to function because it is supported by the wearing of a shoe, often the very thing that has caused the weakness in the first place. No matter how calloused my fingers get I can still tell with my eyes shut when I touch a feather, that is sensitivity not pain!

Think of it this way - on day one of your sea-side holiday you will pick your way across any rocks and pebbles very carefully due to your feet being too sensitive. By day 14 you can go over them much quicker due to the calluses you have managed to build up.
At no point were you in pain, you just went from being too sensitive to being aware.

To sum-up: whether it be lameness through pain, pain avoidance, or biomechanical lameness; we must know which before we try and correct it!