Good Foot, Bad Foot – Can you tell the difference?

Can you identify a good hoof? Do you know what a good hoof looks like? Do you know the difference between a ‘good looking’ foot and a ‘sound’ foot? Is there a difference?

These are some good questions to ponder over, don’t you think?

I have come to specialize in lame and / or foundered horses and these days, I see many more unsound and unhealthy feet than I do healthy feet, so many of the horse owners I come into contact with are people who have forgotten what a sound, healthy foot looks like. I hope to be able to explain to you what a so-called good foot is. It’s not easy. There are a number of ways of looking at a foot and not everyone can or will agree on what ‘sound’ or ‘healthy’ looks like. This is a tough topic, but I’ll do my best to explain what we’re looking for or what you’re striving for based on my trim protocol and based on the findings of BOGHS***

So what does a good foot look like? Well, a good foot will generally be fairly round in shape, not necessarily perfectly round like a circle, but it will generally have a nice rounded or slightly elliptical shape. It will be of sufficient size to carry the animal. It shouldn’t be too large or too small, though larger would be more preferable, depending on the horses’ size, conformation, environment and his purpose or use in life.

The white line will be between 1/8 and 1/4 inch, should have a good uniformed tightness and should be of a nice tan color. There should be no stretching, no chalkiness, and no degradation of any amount. The closer to an 1/8” in thickness, the tighter and stronger the white line is. The white line, or lamina, is responsible for growing hoof wall.

The foot will have a frog that makes good contact with the ground, the frog will have a nice width to it for the size of the foot and it will generally be about two thirds the length of the bottom of the foot from heels to toe. It will have a nice triangular shape, should have a hard, but tough, rubbery feel to it when pressed and shouldn’t look too ‘moth-eaten’ or mottled. Mind you, depending on the time of year, the frog will shed, or molt, about three times a year. The healthier the foot is, the easier it is for the frog to molt and the easier it is to do so all in one piece. But, if it comes off in a few pieces, that’s not a problem. The frog is directly responsible for the health of the bars, for absorbing concussion when the foot strikes the ground, for dissipating energy and converting it to heat, and for pushing blood into the minute recesses of the foot throughout the thousands of micro vessels within the recesses of the foot. Dr. Robert Bowker VMD*, has performed many years or research to determine how the frog works and is directly responsible for each of the afore mentioned issues.

The bars should be nicely formed, reasonably well visible and should make contact with the ground. They shouldn’t stand too upright or lay too far over. According to Dr. Bowker’s research, the optimum angle for the bars is about 60 degrees plus or minus. Their heights will dependent on the environment the horse lives in. If the environment is hard and rocky, it’s likely that the bars will not be too overly noticeable. If the ground is soft, mostly dirt or sand, then the bars will be more pronounced and will be closer to the ground. The bars are another good indicator as to the health of the foot. If they are small, weak or laid over, then the bars aren’t likely to be healthy, which means the frog most likely isn’t healthy. If the bars are large, very noticeable and even has it’s lamina clearly visible, then there’s a good chance that they are healthy and strong. The bars are responsible for growing sole, as well as supporting the coffin bone. This is a fairly new discovery by Tommy Lee Osha** and Dr. Bowker. The inside of the bars make contact with as specific point underneath the coffin bone, which allows the coffin bone to pivot to a small degree inside the foot. If the bars aren’t healthy, then the coffin bone can’t be properly supported, nor can the coffin bone perform its full pivot range.

The sole will have a nice smooth appearance and texture, depending on the environment he’s kept in, it will have a good amount of thickness to it (at least 3/8” is good, but more is always nice to have) and depending on the time of year and region of the country, the sole will either be hard as a rock or will have just a slight amount of give to either testers or strong thumb pressure. However, there should be virtually no sensitivity to the horse when pressing on the sole. A ‘sound’ horse with a good sole will be able to encounter most any time of environment, including gravel, with virtually no hesitation or sensation. The sole will generally have some concavity to it. Don’t get too hung up on this point, because depending on the type of horse, the thickness of the sole and the environment he’s been kept in, you may see a fair amount of concavity or you may not. Just because there isn’t much concavity doesn’t mean the feet are unhealthy nor does it mean the horse will need shoes. Concavity is relative to each horse and his entire environmental variables. If the sole is thick and healthy, then likely the bars and frog are strong and healthy.

The bulbs of the heels should be nicely formed, independently distinctive and uniform to one another. When viewed from the rear of the foot, the shape of the bulbs should form a nice rounded “W”. If the bulbs are pushed out of shape or are lopsided, then there is likely a balance issue in the foot and the foot may not be healthy. The bulbs are a decent indicator as to whether or not the coffin bone is sitting level inside the hoof capsule. If the frogs are pinched together forming a very tight cleft, then the heels may be contracted. If they are moth-eaten, then the foot may not be completely healthy. If the bulbs, when viewed from the side of the foot, don’t have a nice rounded appearance, but rather appear to be more ‘V’ shaped rather than smooth, supple and rounded, then the heels may be under run. The bulbs are a good indicator of the health of the backside of the foot and of the condition of the heels. A well-balanced healthy foot will have nicely distinctive and rounded bulbs when viewed from either the rear of the foot or from the side view of the foot.

There should be a good ‘natural’ pastern angle and the feet should be able to stay balanced regardless of when the last trim was done, within reason of course. There should be good bone alignment coming into the hoof and the hairline should be smooth, soft, supple with virtually no pushing, jamming or unevenness from one side of the foot to the other. The foot should be able to bear weight in the center of the foot, not more on the heels or more on the toe. The pastern angle can’t be accurately determined by using a hoof gauge, but rather by the trained eye. When the leg is standing squarely under the shoulder with the feet placed side by side and chest-width apart, the leg should have a completely vertical line from shoulder to ground and there should be one crisp angled line from the pastern to the ground when viewed from the topside of the hoof wall. This crisp angled line will dictate the actual measured angle of the wall from pastern to ground. If the angle looks curved, broken forward or broken backward, then that foot is not properly balanced and the foot does not have a good, natural angle. The natural pastern angle dictates how the foot will land (toe first, heel first, etc.) and will whether the weight of the foot, the leg and the horse, is placed in the center of the bony column.

The hoof wall should be fairly smooth with little or no evidence of growth rings. It should have no splits, cracks or crevices in it and if in an environment conducive to self trimming, the ground surface of the feet should be smooth and rounded nicely to where there is little hoof wall actually on the ground. This should mean that the horse is getting the right amount of exercise and a good diet for his activity. In short, the foot should look like a good, well-balanced, virtually ideal looking foot. BUT, that’s not to say that a foot that doesn’t look quite like the ideal foot isn’t healthy. There are many variables to be considered and each of the components collectively should be taking into consideration. Wild horses don’t exactly have an ‘ideal’ looking foot, yet many of the wild horses have reasonably healthy feet. They are strong, tough and are balanced based on that horses diet, environment and body conformation. Please note, however, that not all wild horses have ‘ideal’ wild feet. Often times they do not, they simply manage to overcome the ailment and they manage to keep up with the herd well enough so as not to become some predators’ lunch. Wild horses’ feet should not be the ‘gold standard’ for the ideal, well balanced feet. They are not, and this is being proved more and more with the research that has been and is being performed on the wild horse feet. So please don’t be confused that wild feet are ideal feet.

Here comes a tough question for you. From all outward appearance, can you tell for sure that the foot described above is in fact sound and healthy (not the reference to the wild feet , but the other descriptions)? The answer is no. The outward appearance of the foot ‘can’ sometimes belie what’s inside the foot. In order to ensure the inside of the foot is just as sound as what it appears to be on the outside, x-rays will need to be taken from several angles to ensure the quality, placement and alignment of the bones is in fact as sound and healthy as is the outside of the foot. X-rays aren’t perfect, but for now, they’re the closest thing got to go by that’s affordable and available in most markets. MRI’s are an up and coming thing and they provide a lot of information, but not many vets have and MRI machine. Ultra sound is another tool, but again, they are few and far between and are more expense. Thermo graphic imaging is yet another useful tool for determining how the foot is being used. It locates hot spots, cool spots, etc., but it is only a tool for aiding in the diagnosis of a foot, and it shouldn’t be the only tool. So, for now, we’ll have to rely on the x-ray to interpret the health of the inside of the hoof.

The more we know about the inside of the hoof, the better we can ‘guess’ as to the health of the foot from the evidence seen on the outside. Every part of the foot is important and they are each important for different reasons or for different aspects of the inside of the foot. The bottom line is, no vet, farrier or trimmer has the ability to determine just how healthy, or unhealthy, a hoof is on the inside without the aide of an x-ray or other diagnostic tool. By the way, there is one diagnostic tool that, in my opinion, offers too little information at too high of a risk. That tool is the venogram. The horses foot has to be nerved, a tourniquet placed on the leg to slow blood flow and a radioactive dye is injected into the blood vein at just the precise time so as to take an x-ray of the foot. The x-ray is supposed to determine the quality of the blood flow through the foot. It’s virtually always painful for the horse, must be choreographed just perfectly between the vet and each of his aides and the horse can have a very adverse affect from the dye, which is not limited to founder alone. There are much worse affects that the dye, and the entire treatment, can have on the horse. It’s not pretty! So, PLEASE never allow a venogram to be performed on your horse. The information derived is inaccurate and is not healthy for the horse.

I hope I have managed to give you just enough of an idea of how a good foot should appear from the outside of the foot. As noted, the outward appearance is not perfect, but the more we learn about each internal component of the foot and how it affects the health and growth of the foot, the better we can be at guessing at the over all health by looking at the external components of the hoof. With the continued research from Dr. Bowker, Tommy Lee Osha and the entire BOGHS*** organization, the better off we should all be, especially the horse. After all, it’s all about the horse, right??

1. Dr. Robert Bowker VMD, is considered among his peers to be one of the leading equine hoof pathologists in the country, and quite possibly in the world. He currently still teaches at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.
2. Tommy Lee Osha is the founding member of BOGHS, is a former Aerospace engineer and is the entrepreneur of and president for TLOP International, a forward thinking company with ties to research and development, Orthotics aids for horses and humans. His contributions are just becoming widely known through out the world.
3. BOGHS is an acronym for each of the members of the BOGHS research corporation. Dr. Bowker, Tommy Lee Osha, Dr. Barbara Gideon, DVM, Dr. Mike Harry, DVM, and Keith Seeley, Farrier and Equine Lameness Specialist.

If you have any problems or questions, please contact me. 770-312-6909
Thank you and Happy Trails…

Keith