Heel Contraction in Horses
Recently, a lady contacted me, asking if I would take a look at her horse’s hoof, which she described as a club foot. She wanted to know if there was anything she needed to be doing differently in trimming it. I told her that while I don’t normally trim outside horses, I would be glad to take a look at it.
Upon examining the hoof, it was obviously smaller and more upright than the other front hoof, but it wasn’t the worst club foot I’ve seen by any means. On the bottom side, the heel was contracted and the frog, narrow. The first thing I noticed though was that unlike the other four feet, there was a deep crevice in the frog of this hoof. I noted that thrush was likely present and that it should be treated.
Seeing this horse got me thinking about heel contraction and how we can correct this problem–thus, the reason for this post. . .
While club feet and contracted heels may technically be two different things, they actually have a lot in common. The initial cause for the contraction may be different, but the result is the same–a narrowed back of the foot and an atrophied frog. A club foot will just affect one hoof (usually) while contracted heels will affect the front two or sometimes all four.
Chances are you’ve seen contracted heels on a horse. Below is an example, though definitely not the worst case of heel contraction. Thrush was definitely an issue here as well.
And for comparison purposes, here is a non-contracted hoof:
Causes of Contracted Heels
Several factors can play into heel contraction. I’m going to assume you don’t have shoes on your horse and if you do–that’s likely the part of the cause right there. BUT, if your barefoot horse is still having issues, take a look at all of the following:
If your horse is not trimmed frequently enough or correctly, heel contraction can occur (seems to be more common in horses with naturally steep hoof angles). Trimming every 3-4 weeks may be necessary if they are living on soft ground. Also, if the hoof wall isn’t trimmed down far enough or the heels are left too long, this could contribute to heel contraction as well.
We should never underestimate thrush–it can cause considerable pain in the back of the hoof and actually change the way a horse moves, causing him to not load the back of the foot. I would be willing to bet that a lot of horses with contracted heels are also dealing with thrush. See this post for more on spotting and treating thrush.
If it’s just one foot that’s contracted (club foot), an injury could very likely be the cause. And it might not even be an injury in the foot–it could be higher up, like in the neck or back for instance. But if it changes the way the horse moves or uses that particular foot, this could be the cause of the heel contraction (as was likely the case with the horse I looked at). This may be the most difficult type of contracted heel to treat because the injury perpetuates the problem with the hoof and the problem with the hoof may be perpetuating the injury. But I would keep the feet trimmed frequently and properly, keep the horse moving, and possibly use something like acupuncture, acupressure, massage, or red light therapy to help.
Lack of Movement
Guess what? When the feet aren’t moving, they can’t act as pumps to keep the blood flowing. So a horse standing around in a stall or small pen all day could potentially develop issues with heel contraction. Let those horses move!
So really, the key with treating contracted heels is to get the horse trimmed right and get him comfortable using the back of the foot. Boots and pads might be helpful in some cases. Also, movement is crucial. This is a really great article I came across while doing research. The author talks about how wild horses don’t get contracted heels or club feet. The reason? They move too much! Enough said.
Sources and Further Reading