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:
And for comparison purposes, here is a healthy hoof without underrun heels:
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.
Understanding the Horse’s Feet (book by Dr. John Stewart)