Underrun Heels in Horses

For years, we fought what seemed to be a never-ending battle with underrun heels on my gelding, Hershey.  Every time my husband would shoe him, he would remark on what bad feet he had.  Like many traditional farriers would do, he tried everything he knew to raise those heels–and he eventually applied wedges (as advised by a vet) which we thought was a good solution (thought being the operative word here!).

Most of us have seen underrun heels on a horse, whether we recognized it as that or not.  It’s one of the most common hoof pathologies in domestic horses today.  This problem exists when the angle of the heel is at least five degrees less than the angle of the toe.  The tubules in the heel actually bend and turn under on an underrun heel.  The hoof will look like this:

 

underrun heels

 

And for comparison purposes, here is a healthy hoof without underrun heels:

 

healthy hoof

 

Underrun heels may not look like a big deal, but if left alone, they can lead to damage in the internal structures of the hoof.  They are often associated with navicular disease as well.

 

Causes of Underrun Heels

The noted causes of underrun heels will vary depending on who you ask.  I think most people can agree that when the toe is allowed to grow too long, the heels will follow.  This is why it’s often called ‘long toe/ underrun heel syndrome’.

Many traditional farriers and vets believe that there is often a genetic component to underrun heels.  They say that the problem can also be caused by improper or infrequent trimming or shoeing.

Natural trimmers would likely agree on the improper/ infrequent trimming factors, but they would also list shoes as a major culprit in underrun heels.  After my experience with Hershey, I would have to agree.

While shoes raise the sole and frog off the ground and can give the appearance of soundness, they will weaken the back of the foot, especially if the shoe is left short at the heels in order to prevent it from coming off (common practice by farriers).

 

Correcting Underrun Heels

Correcting underrun heels that have been present for a while may not be easy, but I’ve found that barefoot trimming offers a much better way to deal with this problem than traditional shoes.   Since other issues almost always accompany underrun heels, the whole hoof needs to be evaluated.  This article sums it up well:

“The basis of management is to try and return the heels to a position that is more centrally beneath the centre of gravity of the limb. Underrun heels cannot be considered in isolation because they are virtually always accompanied by a run forward toe, often seen as a flared toe (in fact it has quite appropriately been labeled “forward foot syndrome”). We need to treat the whole hoof capsule- heel, toe and quarters.”

I’ve found that trimming the heels back to where they need to be (near the back of the frog) is easy, but getting Hershey comfortable using the back of his foot which has been dysfunctional for so long has been a bit more difficult.  This is where hoof boots and pads can be of great help.  Of course, frequent trimming is essential as well.  The hoof wall cannot be allowed to overgrow or else the problem will only continue.

Here is a video showing how to trim the heels back, but please note that this is not a natural barefoot trim!

 

 

The key aspect of dealing with underrun heels is not just ‘treating’ the symptoms, but dealing with the whole hoof.   This will likely take some time.  The heels didn’t become this way overnight and there may not be a ‘quick fix’ here.  I’ve found that being diligent with trimming, paying attention to the patterns of hoof wall growth (which indicate natural wear), and keeping the horse comfortable with hoof boots are all important when dealing with underrun heels.

 

Added note:  While my husband attended farrier school and once shoed horses on a part-time basis (mostly my horses), he was never completely comfortable with the idea of applying shoes and would often try to talk me into leaving mine barefoot.  Since studying barefoot trimming, I have taken over my horses’ hoof care now, but my husband completely agrees with the barefoot model of trimming as well.

Ta-ta,

Casie

 

Sources:

Nicky (Case Study)

Underrun Heels

Underrun Heels: Not so Innocent

Understanding the Horse’s Feet (book by Dr. John Stewart)

Casie

Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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3 Responses

  1. Xavier MEAL says:

    You may be missing a key point re. underrun heels : if they become underrun, it is because their foundation, i.e. the internal structure from which they grow, and that is the appendage of the ungular cartilages, is distorted. So, the work is on the cartilages, and the goal is to give the opportunity to these cartilage to regain a proper shape. That means they need to be stimulated properly. And the media, or vehicule, of that stimulation is the hoof capsule.

  2. Casie says:

    Hi Xavier,

    You are right–the internal structures always play a key role in hoof health and many of our young horses aren’t allowed to develop fully functional internal structures due to lack of movement, soft terrain, shoes, etc. We need to get the back of the foot functional once again in order to see positive changes. Sorry if I didn’t convey that in this post. . .

    Casie

  3. Cheryl Nelson says:

    Having worked on a lot of different types of good over the years I’ve found the flat foot with forward run toes and under run heels takes nite time and a much shorter trim cycle to improve and maintain. As you back up the heels, but not lowering them, finding the proper location to bring the toes back to takes patience. The sole on these feet are usually thin due to the bars having been allowed to fold over the sole and being left too far forward toward the apex of the frog. This also pinches the frog and together reduces healthy blood flow in the entire hoof, brushing, and pain. Any disease, fungus further complicated the healing process. Any disease at the back of the foot in the heels causes pain and prevents a healthy heel first foot landing. Soaking and disinfecting, coupled with boots during exercise, dry footing like 1/4″ round pea gravel for loafing areas, plenty of turnout and a maximum four week trimming interval (sometimes touching up in between) can work wonders if the bars are overlaid and overgrown they must be addressed as well. You’re right in that it’s not just the hoof wall and heels that need attention.

  4. This trim will not work if the horse owner does not address the infection of the lamina in the hoof wall quarters and bar. The next trim will require the same aggressiveness and eventually the horse will be lame from the the trimming.

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