The Problem with High Heels
I’m not a fan of wearing high heels. Sure, I own a pair or two and will put them on for the occasional wedding or other special event, but they’re uncomfortable, and I can never leave them on for more than a few hours. Sound familiar?
Likewise, high heels can be uncomfortable for our horses. And they can also cause a host of issues.
Many horse owners mistakenly believe that a horse’s heel should be left longer. I once thought this way, too. To me, it was more aesthetically pleasing to see the foot lifted up off the ground a bit in the back. Knowing what I know now though–that the frog needs ground contact and the bottom of the foot should support the horse every bit as much as the walls, I realize this notion is not only silly, it can be detrimental to the horse.
So it bears repeating: we should not allow our horse’s heels to overgrow. High heels and horses don’t mix!
Many horses’ heels tend to grow more forward (toward the toe) when not kept in check, but some will straight down, resulting in a very upright hoof. This seems to be more common in ponies and horses with smaller feet.
Personally, I’ve had three horses who tended to have upright feet. My newest horse, McCoy, is one of them. Interestingly enough, the other two horses I had with upright feet were eventually diagnosed with navicular problems (this was back before my barefoot days). I’m hoping by keeping McCoy on a barefoot program, this won’t be the case for her.
However, horses with high heels may also have laminitis, as this article discusses. All hooves are different, but there appears to be a common thread of pathology in horses with overly high heels.
Horses typically develop high heels for the following reasons:
- improper trimming/ shoeing practices;
- underdeveloped lateral cartilages;
- heel pain (thrush, navicular, etc.);
- P-3 rotation (laminitis);
- club foot; and/ or
- heel contraction.
To make matters worse, the high-heel problem seems to be a self-perpetuating cycle. You may not know which came first–the high heels or the pathology, and it can be a difficult cycle to break. Routine trimming (maybe at a shorter trim cycle), attention to thrush, more movement, and using hoof boots with pads may all be needed to stop the cycle.
As Peter Ramey says in this article, “Many horses heels remain high heeled and contracted as a pure defense mechanism to limit the pressure on the underdeveloped structures.” I have a feeling this may be part of McCoy’s problem since she was likely shod in her early years, stalled quite a bit, and mainly worked in soft arena footing.
If you have a horse with overgrown heels, it’s tempting to want to lop those things off and get him where he needs to be right away. However, as with any major trimming changes, lowering the heels should be done gradually. Otherwise, you’re setting the horse up for soreness and the whole transition is likely to take longer. If they tend to grow back quickly, it’s usually a sign that the horse needs them left a bit longer for now.
As I’ve said before, every horse is different and there is no one-size-fits-all trim. Some horses’ feet are more naturally upright than others. Some have naturally low heels. Each horse must be trimmed as an individual. With that said, overly high heels are never natural and are a sign that trimming/ management changes are needed.