The Heels - Innocent Victims

Copyright 2012 by Maureen Tierney (

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After 11 years of trimming, and observing literally thousands of hooves, I have come to my own (apparently unique) theory regarding the heels. While the advice of many is to trim the heels, my advice is to leave them alone. In my mind I recite the line from Little Bo Peep – “leave them alone and they will come home.” And it is that simple.

The poor heels are innocent victims of runaway toes. Since the heels are part of the hoof capsule and are bound to the toes as securely as your rear end is to your front end – be it your body or your car – where the toes go the heels must follow. It is simple physics. Yet who gets the blame, and suffers the abuse? The poor heels.

To put it ridiculously simply, consider this example: Draw the side view (lateral) of a hoof on a piece of paper. Cut out the shape you’ve drawn. Now, holding only the toe of your “hoof” between the thumb and index finger of your right hand, move that hand to your right. What happened? The whole “hoof” moved didn’t it? Since the hoof is not made of flexible rubber or elastic, it had no choice.

Now let’s do another experiment. Taking the same “hoof”, hold the toe in your right hand and the heels in your left hand. Now pull as hard as you can. What happened? The “hoof” ripped apart. That is why the heels MUST follow the toe. If, by some power unbeknownst to man, the heels could resist the toes – the hoof would rip apart. That, in my opinion, is the actual cause of quarter cracks. The quarters are normally the first area of the hoof to self trim. What is more natural than when the toes and the heels get too far apart they are the point at which the hoof capsule gives.

Therefore to get the heels to move back where they belong – we must address the true culprit, the creator of the distortion – the toe. As we get the toes to come back, the heels come back – all by themselves. 

[PLEASE NOTE: When I say leave the heels alone I mean, specifically, never trim them lower than ¼” above the sole. In fact, if they are 3/8” above the sole I still will often leave them alone. If the sole exfoliates and literally falls off when scraped with my hoof pick, and the heels end up more than 3/8” above the sole – then I trim, because that is the foot saying it wants/needs the heels trimmed. This is critical.]

I explain to my clients that if horses live on terrain that is abrasive or hard enough they wear their toes naturally, keeping them from growing forward. Those people who have dogs that get a lot of exercise on pavement – perhaps jogging with their owners – will know what I’m talking about. Their dogs’ nails will seldom need trimming. Whereas my Chihuahua, who doesn’t get any exercise on pavement, has nails which need regular trimming. In the wild, canines wear their nails by digging, and traveling over rocks and dirt. Nature has a plan. Animals developed specific life styles. The lifestyle of horses was to move virtually constantly in search of food that was not all that abundant, and certainly not delivered. Water may not necessarily have been nearby, requiring more traveling. Chances are the horse’s natural habitat was not manicured green pastures, but harsher, more natural terrain, consisting of sand, rocks, etc. And probably dry. Dry means hard (unless the terrain is sand) and hard doesn’t have to be harsh and abrasive to trim hooves. Dry hooves on hard, flat ground will naturally crack and break. Not doing such a pretty job as sand, but still very effective. 

What is the movement of the heels? Simply put, they land, they may slide forward a little, they wait for the toe, and then lift up and forward as the toe breaks over and then leaves the ground. The toe on the other hand, lands (after the heel on a healthy foot) then moves downward, sinking into the ground where the ground gives or merely pivoting onto its tip if the ground is very hard. As it goes from landing to lift off it pushes against the ground, scraping in an arc – basically filing itself. That is the action of the ground on the toe. Filing. Abrasion. Wear. Now let’s look again at the heel. It lands – absorbing the impact. It may slide forward some depending on the horse’s speed and the terrain, which does cause some abrasion. It bears weight while the toe is landing and then it is lifted from the ground. So, the heels mostly experience impact. This results in densely compacted material at the heel buttress. But not much wear in comparison to the toe, which is describing an arc and experiencing a larger range of motion and potential abrasion. As a result, the heels seldom, if ever need trimming. All my years of trimming have proven this to be the case. I may never trim the heels on a horse, but I seldom, if ever, do not have to trim the toe. 

I explain to my clients what I believe, which is that, as a natural barefoot trimmer, it is my job to mimic the effect of the ground on the hoof. Period. And that means most trimming should take place between 10:00 to 2:00 (as on clock face), with slightly less being done from 8:00 to 10:00 and 2:00 to 4:00, and even less closer to the heels. With the heels really being able to be left alone the majority of the time, and ESPECIALLY when the horse is laminitic or foundered. 

The images below show a hoof that had been out of control for a long time. The owner finally became desperate and contacted me via email. My instructions were to leave the heels alone (she had been trimming them) and to focus on bringing the toe back where it belonged. Yes, the heels are long and underrun, and in addition, the frog is migrated (see my article on frog health), but that is NOT the problem. Long heels are a SYMPTOM. The forward toe is the CAUSE. 

heel  transformation

The image on the far left was taken in April of 2008. The other 2 photos were taken in July 2008 (not the same date). The center image shows how backing the toe has caused the thickened sole to crack and begin to exfoliate. This is due to the release of the pressure of the toes pulling on the heels. The frog is then allowed to move back into place, the sole comes off, and the foot has transformed itself in 3 months. 

I have trimmed according to my theory for several years, and I can state truthfully that it works all the time to quickly (key word QUICKLY) transform the hoof capsule from distorted to normal – by which I mean to the form the particular foot needs/wants. I use the word wants – which some may find anthropomorphic - because I feel it accurately describes nature’s intent. And yes, nature does have intent. 

Our bodies, and our horses’ bodies, naturally strive to be healthy. There are complex systems in place to achieve this. These systems have intelligence and intent. A simple example: a germ invades your body, and your T-cells and phagocytes immediately mobilize and attack it. You never even realized it happened. For every cold you may get, there were probably hundreds of times when your body protected you and you were completely unaware of it. Another example: it is fall and you’ve decided to rake the yard. The last time you raked was a year ago. You rake for a couple hours, and notice you have a blister in the area between your thumb and index finger. In a few days the blister is gone, but you notice the skin is slightly thicker there than it was. The next weekend you help your neighbor rake. You don’t get a blister this time, but you notice a few days later that you have a fully developed callous. That is your body adapting to the demands you’ve made on it – protecting itself from damage. To simplify – your body experienced damage in the form of too much wear. It immediately adapted to the stress by sending a message to the cells that produce skin to lay down EXTRA skin – WHERE NEEDED. Key point – where needed. The skin didn’t thicken over your entire body. Nor does it stay thickened unnecessarily. As time passes and you don’t rake anymore, your skin returns to normal, only to give you another blister next year. 

The hoof is no different. It responds to whatever happens to it. If that happens to be heel trimming, the horse will start growing heel to protect itself from what it “perceives” as excess wear. I have seen a case where a horse was normally ridden many miles every week, then the owner went on vacation. When I came to trim the horse, instead of the minor touchup he normally got, there was over ¾” of wall that needed to be removed! His body had adapted to the mileage and produced enough hoof to keep him sound and happy. When the mileage suddenly decreased there was the evidence of how much wall he was producing. 

One of the most common things I hear is regarding the heels and founder. Over and over the refrain is “the heels must come down so that the coffin bone can regain its normal position”. This is a huge fallacy. If people actually used their brains and gave some serious thought to what is actually happening there are countless horses who would still be alive today. 

Let me say the scientific truth. There is no action a trimmer can apply to the hoof capsule which will lower the rear portion of the coffin bone. Please read this again.There is no action a trimmer can apply to the hoof capsule to lower the rear portion of the coffin bone. 

For some reason this simple scientific fact is never mentioned or seemingly considered. Consider the image of the freeze-dried hoof below.


The greatest portion of the coffin bone (P3) is in front of the frog, and the digital cushion. Its normal position is tilted somewhat down at the toe, and up at the back, or the wings. 

In addition, even if a trimmer cut the heels so low as to cut into the digital cushion (not likely to ever happen – just an illustration) the back part of the coffin bone would still not move down. Because of the size and weight of the front portion of the coffin bone, the toe will always point down UNLESS there is too much sole underneath it. Think of it as a seesaw or teeter totter. Once one end is down (in this case the front portion of P3) the other end must be up. Only weight from above will push the other side of the teeter totter down. Removing heels will not PULL the rear portion of P3 down.


Nor do you want it to move down. Again, the idea of the back of the coffin bone being out of place is just a myth. Look at the following images. Which foot is foundered? 


As you can see there is no difference in the position of the rear portion of the coffin bone between these two freeze-dried specimens. So why would we want to trim the heels? What would it accomplish, except to make the horse sore, and to force it to put more weight on the toe – just where we don’t want it! 

Following are the complete images of the above freeze-dried hooves. 

Foundered cross sectionNormal cross section

It’s now very apparent that the hoof on the left is foundered with rotation, and very close to sole penetration, while the hoof on the right is normal. 

Closer examination of the images reveals something else. That the actual angle of the “rotated” coffin bone is not significantly different from the angle of the normal coffin bone. The illusion of angle difference is caused by the change in angle of the hoof wall. Justifiably so – as founder is not rotation of the coffin bone, but displacement of the hoof capsule caused by loss of integrity. To put it simply – the hoof capsule is falling apart and rotating away from the foot. 

Founder markupNormal markup

The above images are marked with a yellow line along the front edge of P3. I drew that line in PowerPoint on the foundered image and then pasted the same exact line onto the normal image. Who is to say that the angle difference, which is tiny, is not just because they are two different horses? 

I tell my clients (and anyone who will listen) that the hoof capsule is a bionic shoe. It is produced by the horse’s FOOT. Founder is when this bionic shoe fails. The solution is so simple and yet so ignored - the horse only needs to grow a new “shoe”. 

Unfortunately, if not allowed to grow this new hoof capsule correctly, founder cannot be “cured”. Nailing on a shoe locks the new hoof growth into following the path of the old hoof, effectively preventing a structurally sound hoof capsule from forming. 

Founder is a whole other subject and is mentioned here only to show how the heels are innocent victims, blamed and attacked for problems they neither created nor can fix. The vast majority of hoof problems are the result of the toe migrating forward – and that includes things like contracted heels, quarter cracks, and weak and shrunken frogs. 

Fix the toe and the rest of the hoof capsule will quickly regain the form it’s meant to have.



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