Easy Hoof Boot Measurements…Finally!

Pardon my absence! Before I get into the substance of this Post, let me first say that it’s been a very busy few months here and I sincerely apologize for not updating the website before now. COVID-19 really has impacted us all; in our case, it’s meant the postponement or cancellation of several scheduled clinics and other presenting opportunities (including Liberated Horsemanship clinics and, in my wife‘s case, Straightness Training clinics and in-person lessons), and made it highly impractical if not impossible for us to visit family and friends in Austria.

Nevertheless, Liberated Horsemanship held an extremely well-attended (albeit domestic participants only) and successful Gateway Clinic in late September at the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, Arizona. It turned out to be the perfect place to hold our clinics – so much so that we’ve scheduled three more clinics there for next year. Two of the clinics are planned to be exclusively for veterinarians and animal chiropractic doctors, which came about because of my involvement with the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association over the last couple of years. The third clinic will be a Liberated Horsemanship Gateway Clinic (our introductory hoof care clinic), which (because of COVID-19 travel restrictions) will almost certainly be our only hoof care clinic in 2022, and there’s also the possibility of having another clinic or two targeted exclusively at zoo hoofstock personnel. More busy times ahead!

And if that weren’t enough, I’ve been working on a bunch of new product designs – three of which are the subject of this Post. So read on…


If you’ve ever attempted to take accurate hoof measurements for selecting and fitting hoof boots, you’ve no doubt experienced how annoying it can be! And for us hoof care providers who furnish this as a service for clients on a not-infrequent basis, it can be both time-consuming and exasperating – particularly when the boots end up not fitting because of measurement errors. Fumbling around with a tape measure or ruler, trying to take the “mustang roll” into account, and accurately measuring from the toe through the center of the foot to that imaginary line at the back of the heel buttresses are all challenging enough. But throw in a fidgety horse, and it’s a guaranteed recipe for complete frustration!

Enter my new Hoof Boot Fitting Gauge. Fast, easy-to-use, and accurate, this product has been a long time in coming, and it’s finally here!

The obvious need for such a product came to me in 2006 while I was attending a boot fitting clinic with Richard Drewry, the U.S. distributor of Swiss Horse Boots and then-Booting Clinic Instructor with the AANHCP (now with Liberated Horsemanship). I’d spent much of my engineering career coming up with better ways to make various sorts of measurements – physical, electrical, and acoustical – and it was clear to me there had to be a superior way to measure hooves that didn’t involve struggling with tape measures. That need was only reinforced when I began making measurements on actual horses.

So I began making sketches of various possible approaches, including some that proved to be completely impractical. It needed to be something I could manufacture myself in my existing shop, and the design had to be tolerant of the fairly large thickness variations in polymer sheet material. One particular problem was coming up with a way to implement a moveable slider for width measurements that didn’t require multiple mounting points in the scale plate, which meant it had to be short enough to move freely in a single slot without binding and still cover the entire required measurement range. After some unsuccessful attempts, I finally worked it out by placing a much shorter slider on an angle so the shorter length could “track” the widest part of the hoof. Problem solved!

3D-printed slider assembly prototype with test slots for sizing

Developing a suitable marking method for the 1/8″-thick poly methyl methacrylate i.e. acrylic scale plate was also a bit of a challenge. I initially tested a high-end color printer that would print directly on the scale plate, but the cost was too high and the durability was questionable. I then tried rotary engraving, which is a very accurate and durable marking method, but proved to be very slow on my existing equipment. Finally, I settled on laser engraving, which also allowed me to cut out the plate at the same time, yielding very durable engraving and a smooth, polished edge on the shatter-resistant, transparent plate.

Because the two pieces that compromise the slider assembly are reasonably complicated and need to fit together in a precise manner, I’d originally pursued casting the parts out of rigid polyurethane. But the casting process proved to be too messy and time-consuming for producing reasonable quantities, so I redesigned the pieces to be machined instead, which meant I could manufacture them at a much higher rate and at a more reasonable price. The side/toe stop and two slider pieces are therefore CNC (computer-numerical control) machined from 1/2″-thick high-density polyethylene (HDPE) sheet. This abrasion-resistant material is quite durable over a wide temperature range, and, most importantly in this application, the 1/2″ thickness is tall enough to capture the true length and width of the hoof regardless of the degree of “mustang roll” on the outer wall edge – hence, a very accurate measurement.

CNC machining toe/side stops and slider parts

Using the gauge is incredibly easy, as the following drawing shows. With the hoof in the air and supported by one hand, the other hand positions the gauge on the bottom of the foot with the toe and side against the stop and the heels “squared up” with the horizontal markings. The true length of the hoof can now be read directly on the scale plate. Now slide the slider gently against the side of the hoof, and read the hoof width on the angled scale on the scale plate. That’s it!

Using the gauge with a hoof in the measurement position

And here are a couple of other handy tips to make taking measurements even simpler:

  • For very light-colored hooves, use a black permanent marker e.g. Sharpie to darken the bottoms of the heel buttresses for more contrast while measuring
  • If you’re making the measurements by yourself, use a dry erase marker to take notes directly on the scale plate until you can write them down

The gauge in action

Finally completing the design and manufacturing processes of the Hoof Boot Fitting Gauge led me to rewrite a program I created a few years ago that calculated boot fit across manufacturers so I didn’t have to keep flipping through several websites to find which models from each manufacturer would fit a given hoof. The rewritten version, called the “Hoof Boot Fitting Calculator,” is web-based and works equally well on any device – laptop, tablet, or smart phone. You simply enter the hoof measurements on the form on the web page, and the program automatically returns a list of boot models and sizes that’ll fit the hoof from among all of the models offered by six leading boot manufacturers. There’s also a link to a web page with direct links to all of the manufacturers, and you can even email the measurements and results to yourself and/or your client. This makes it possible to measure for, fit, and order boots in the field all in a matter of a few minutes!

Results from the Hoof Boot Fitting Calculator

One of the boot companies included in the Hoof Boot Fitting Calculator – Scoot Boots – has determined that a proper boot fit for their products also requires that the hairline of the hoof, as viewed from the side, be at an angle between 22° and 30° with respect to the ground. To that end, I’ve created another simple product I call the Hairline Angle Gauge to make it easy to quickly verify that the hairline angle of a given hoof is acceptable. You can also verify the hairline angle with a cutout paper template included with the Hoof Boot Fitting Gauge, although it obviously isn’t as convenient as using the Hairline Angle Gauge.

Hairline Angle Gauge

Unfortunately, with all of the time spent on these various projects, I have yet to complete my new Enlightened Equine Products website. But for now, you can order all three of the above-mentioned products on this page.

I truly hope you find these products useful! More to come…

Headin’ West…

There’s no doubt COVID-19 has impacted all of our lives, and Liberated Horsemanship has certainly been no exception. So when we started planning for our annual U.S. and U.K. Gateway Clinics for 2021, it became apparent we were going to have to make some changes — particularly in venues.

Enter the White Stallion Ranch. This award-winning, family-owned-and-operated guest ranch in Tucson, Arizona has been my “home away from home” vacation spot since 2000, and I’m extremely grateful to them for working closely with us to arrange special rates and accommodations so we can hold what will almost certainly be our only 2021 clinic offering – either here or abroad – at their amazing facility! And while the clinic schedule won’t allow us time to enjoy all of the ranch’s wonderful activities, we’ve arranged to have a slow mountain ride so everyone can experience the beauty of the Sonoran Desert from the back of a horse. Plus, we will have full access to all of the ranch’s incredible meals (special dietary needs accommodated) and their many and varied activities (heated pool, evening entertainment, recreation room, bar, fitness center, movie theater, and many more), all set against the backdrop of the most diverse of the U.S. deserts and home to the giant saguaro cacti that have come to symbolize the American West.

The clinic instructors will once again be Dr. Bruce Nock, Ann Corso, and myself (you can read a bit more about the various instructors’ credentials here), plus my wife Dora (Field Instructor, Certified Hoof Care Professional, and Licensed Straightness Training Instructor) will be joining us to provide support and translation assistance to any German-speaking attendees.

Make no mistake: If you’re serious about learning proper hoof care — as a career, as a horse owner interested in trimming his/her own horse’s hooves, or as a horse owner or zoo animal hoofstock handler who wants to be able to understand and recognize what constitutes correct hoof care and why — this is definitely the clinic for you. You’ll be learning from professional educators (not just “people who trim hooves”) with over 60 years of combined hoof care experience, and well over (dare I say it?) 100 years of combined experience as educators. This clinic has been attended by people from over 20 countries, and is constantly being updated. You’ll not only learn trimming theory, and spend lots of time honing your skills on cadaver hoof trimming, but you’ll also study all of the other management issues that affect the hoof form and function of all hooved animals: nutrition, environment, social setting, etc. And — especially important at a time when there is so much incorrect and unscientific information about hoof care available — we’ll discuss other trimming “philosophies” and their issues to help you sort out fact from fiction. You can check out a typical clinic schedule here.

One final and important note about the clinic itself: Liberated Horsemanship has always allowed anyone who has previously attended a Gateway Clinic to attend any future clinic offering — no matter where — for only our actual costs. In other words, once you’ve attended a clinic you’re welcome back any time for nothing more than what we have to spend to house and feed you. In my mind, this is an extremely valuable bonus; as I’ve mentioned, we’re constantly updating our material, and this gives you a low-cost opportunity to keep your skill set current and enjoy the company of other like-minded people!

So give some serious thought to joining us this September in Arizona; I guarantee you won’t regret it…

An Interview with Dora Hebrock

For several years now, I’ve wanted to give my Austrian-born wife Dora the opportunity to answer some questions about her work as a licensed Straightness Training Instructor and certified natural hoof care professional, and her thoughts about the relationship between the two. Not, mind you, because she’s my wife, but because I daily witness the amazing work she does with horses, and recognize she has a great deal to offer the horse world.

Straightness Training, for those of you who may not be familiar with it, is a method of training that embraces the idea that the role of horse training is to acknowledge and address both natural and human-created asymmetries in the horse’s body and consequent movement to slowly and methodically bring the horse’s body into balance. It also recognizes that the goal of classical dressage wasn’t to win pretty ribbons at the local horse show, but to have a horse so athletically and mentally fit that it could successfully perform the high-level dressage movements as preparation for mounted warfare. Extensive study of the works of the old riding masters of dressage such as Pluvinel, Guérinière, and Baucher led Dutch-born founder Marijke de Jong to develop a system of unmounted and mounted exercises designed to strengthen and supple the horse’s body and create a strong, willing partner for whatever discipline you may be interested in. And it works!

Dora also studied natural hoof care with Liberated Horsemanship (which is how we met), and continued on to become a Certified Natural Hoof Care Professional and Field Instructor. And she’s noticed a strong connection between the results of her work in Straightness Training and her hoof care, which is one of the topics we’ll explore with her in our upcoming interview. So please join us for this Facebook Live Event, and bring your questions! And meanwhile, if you’d like to read more about Dora prior to the interview, you can learn more on her website.

Hope to see you soon…

Calories 101 – Part 3: The Brown, Brown Grass of Home

Now that we’ve examined the caloric impacts of forage and processed feeds on the horse’s diet in Part 1 and Part 2, respectively, let’s take a look at what happens when grass pasture is added to the mix.

According to Dairy One‘s data, “pure” grass pasture has a Digestible Energy of 911 calories per pound with a Standard Deviation of 171 calories, based on 8,436 samples, while mixed, mostly grass pasture (MMG) has a DE of 962 calories with a S.D. of 127 calories, based on 18,544 samples. That translates to 95% of grass pasture having a DE value between 569 and 1,253 calories, while 95% of mixed grass pasture has a DE content between 708 and 1,216 calories. Why so much variation? Because so many factors affect the amount of sugar in, and therefore the calorie content of, grass. Time of day, time of year, amount of moisture, amount of sunlight, temperature – all these and more influence sugar content.

Attempts to actually measure pasture calories are far more common in the cattle industry than in the horse world, but the process is the same regardless of what species is grazing on it. Most often, a device called a plate meter – either the rising or falling type – is used to collect a series of measurements in a random manner throughout the pasture. These devices work by using a (usually) round, weighted plate of a known size to rest on top of the forage, and the distance from the plate to the ground is then recorded. The plate meter must first be calibrated, however, by taking a distance measurement on forage of the same type, clipping the forage under the plate to post-grazing level (with horses, generally 2.5 cm), and then drying and analyzing the forage sample for calorie content. Although simple in concept, many such samples are required for the calibration process to ensure reasonably-accurate meter measurements – a time-consuming endeavor. But by first collecting and analyzing these samples, a correlation between forage height (the distance measurement) and calories per square unit can be derived. After calibration, the amount of calories in a pasture can be fairly quickly and easily estimated by collecting and averaging a set of measurements. Plate meters are available with a wide range of features from several companies, but you can also construct your own for very little cost.

Using a homemade falling plate meter. Image from www.fieldcropnews.com.

But…before you spend either a fair amount of money on a manufactured plate meter, or a fair amount of time constructing and calibrating your own plate meter,  you may want to consider the following: Research has shown that horses’ rate of consumption of grass pasture varies greatly – and not in an entirely predictable way – depending not only on how much time per day they spend on grass pasture, but also on type of horse, temperature, time of day, season, grass height, grass composition, grass density and other factors, making any attempt at calorie calculations for grazing extremely difficult. For example, grazing researchers at North Carolina State University (Dowler, L.E. et al. 2012. “Determination of Pasture Dry Matter Intake Rates in Different Seasons and Their Application in Grazing Management.” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 32: 85 – 92) note the following –

…this finding still suggests that horses have the potential to consume relatively large amounts of forage even when grazing for a relatively small portion of the day. These results suggest that DMI [dry matter intake] rate decreases with increased grazing duration and that the extrapolation of 24-hour DMI rates (eg, 2.5% of BW [body weight] in DM/d [dry matter per day]) to grazing periods of <4 hours may result in the underestimation of actual DMI. This may have implications for horse owners trying to manage BW/caloric intake of horses by reducing grazing time, in an effort to manage or prevent various diseases (e.g. laminitis, equine Cushing disease, metabolic disease, insulin resistance).

In other words, the relationship between pasture time and the amount of grass consumed is definitely not a linear one; rather, horses with limited pasture time tend to up their rates of pasture consumption, particularly in the first 4 hours. Simply put, this means: 1) even if the calorie content of a pasture is known, you cannot predict how many calories a horse will consume in a given amount of time with any reasonable degree of accuracy, and 2) you cannot use limited pasture time as a means of reducing calories without almost certainly limiting feed and/or hay availability as well. Interestingly, horses on continuous 24-hour grazing were found to voluntarily consume very close to their total calculated daily energy requirement, with no additional feed and/or hay required.

To further complicate this already-complex situation, some horses simply cannot eat green grass without developing metabolic problems, while others can happily eat green grass all day long and never have an immediate issue. Usually, the older the horse, the more often grass consumption becomes a complication. Because the reasons for these differences in tolerance are not well understood, it falls to the owner to determine whether or not grass causes difficulties for their particular horse. In keeping with my sentiments about mimicking nature in feeding, my personal preference is to allow horses only a very limited amount of green grass, based on the idea that the feral horse in his aboriginal environment is never in a position to eat mouthful after mouthful of green grass. Feral horses have evolved to eat sparsely-spaced dry, bunch grasses, and have to travel up to 12 miles every day to find sufficient calories; contrary to the increasingly common notion that domestic horses should have as much hay as they’ll eat, feral horses do not have unlimited access to forage, and certainly not to green grass. Expecting a horse to not overeat when plopped in the middle of the horse equivalent of a candy store all day strikes me as completely unreasonable.

Furthermore, I am becoming increasingly convinced that, like Type 2 diabetes in humans, we can help prevent the development of metabolic problems by feeding our horses as if they already had metabolic problems i.e. severely limiting the amount of green grass they eat. So, some sort of properly-designed (which, by the way, most of them are not) so-called “track system,” in which whatever forage present (mostly grass hay, perhaps with very small and widely-spaced-apart patches of green grass) is spread out over as large an area as possible to force the horse to move to be able to eat, seems to be the best situation for our domestic horses at present.

So there you have it: Although we can use average values to give us a rough idea of the calorie impact of grazing, just as we did with hay and with feed, the (even greater) number of variables affecting not only the forage itself, but also the horse’s rate of consumption, mean that such “guesstimates” should be used only as a very rough starting point for diet planning.

Based on what little published research has been done on the pasture dry matter consumption rates of horses, the average of the rates of consumption reported in these studies is 0.127 pounds of dry matter per 100 pounds of body weight per hour, plus or minus 0.032 pounds per 100 pounds body weight per hour. But keep in mind that that value is only reasonably accurate for longer grazing times – say, those over 3 or 4 hours. So instead of using that value, I’ve taken the 3-, 6-, 9-, and 24-hour measured grazing rate values from some North Carolina State University research, and extrapolated the intermediate values to create the following chart –

Make no mistake: This is a very rough estimate of calories consumed through grazing, as you’ll note by the wide range of values between the Low and High numbers. The next step towards improving the accuracy would be to use actual measured calorie values from your pasture, but, again, it’s still going to be an approximation.

In an attempt to make things a bit simpler, I’ve created an Equine Diet Planner in MS Excel, which you can either download for use on your own computer or use online within your browser.

As you can see in the screenshot of the Planner below, it incorporates the University of Minnesota weight calculator, which calculates Current and Ideal Weights, and then continues in the following section to calculate Required Calories by entering daily riding times.

The next section allows you to choose the amount and type of hay you’re feeding, or enter your own hay sample results, to calculate Total Hay Calories. Similarly, the feed section computes Total Feed Calories from the amount and type of feed, including allowing you to use values for a brand not on the drop-down list, which you can either obtain directly from the manufacturer or have tested by an independent testing laboratory.

The pasture grazing section has several choices for types of pasture, and then estimates Total Pasture Calories based on grazing time and whether or not your horse is muzzled. As I’ve noted above, pasture consumption is undoubtedly the most difficult to predict, but this will help give you at least a point of departure for diet planning.

Finally, the Summary section at the end adds together the previously-calculated calorie values to give an overall picture of your horse’s diet. It also cautions you when the calorie intake exceeds or falls short of the calories required to maintain proper (ideal) body weight by more than 5%.

I would strongly encourage you to use this Planner to develop a better understanding of what and how much your horse is currently eating versus what he actually needs to maintain a healthy body weight, and I would encourage you to share it – and the information/videos from the first two parts of this series – with your friends and your barn owner as well. Because of the very large number of variables involved, though, please remember that ultimately the only certain guide to whether or not you’re under- or over-feeding your horse is an honest eye!

To wrap up both this Post and this series, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Be honest about your horse’s weight. If you can’t be objective, ask someone else to take a look. Better still, use accurate measurements in the weight calculator and trust the results.
  • Be honest about how much you actually work your horse. Time spent tacking up, walking to and from the arena, etc. doesn’t count as work time, nor does simply sitting on your horse while he walks around. Think of it this way: If you wouldn’t be sweating and/or breathing hard doing what he’s doing, it’s not work and shouldn’t be counted as such.
  • Be honest about what and how much your horse is eating. Weigh everything. Do the math, and figure out the best way to feed only what he requires to attain/maintain a healthy weight, spread over a 24-hour period.
  • Have your hay tested. It’s relatively easy and inexpensive, and since hay should far and away constitute the bulk of every horse’s diet, knowing how many calories are in it is important.
  • Remember that you can’t feed muscle onto a horse. If your horse has a bad top line or otherwise lacks muscle mass, increase his work load and feed the consequent higher calorie demand; don’t expect to put healthy weight on a horse with just food. And don’t try to rush either the weight loss or the weight gain process; feed for his calorie requirements, and things will take care of themselves.
  • Consider your particular situation when planning your horse’s diet. If you board, you may have very little to no control over certain aspects of your horse’s diet, such as pasture time or brand of feed, so control what you can: Use a grazing muzzle, reduce the amount of feed, increase the amount of hay, etc.
  • Remember that things can, and do, change. Your horse’s current dietary requirements may be very different from his requirements several years ago. Be aware of the impact of pasture time on his diet, and adjust his diet accordingly.
  • Finally, be logical in your approach to feeding. Consider how nature feeds the feral horse, and remember that mimicking nature will generally yield good results. Keep in mind there is plenty of  bad advice out there, including from those with PhD and DVM after their names. If what is offered is inconsistent with what I’ve presented in this series of articles, be suspicious!

Much more to come…

An Interview with…Me!

Well, I guess turnabout’s fair play, so when Dr. Bruce Nock said he’d like to turn the tables and interview me, I could hardly refuse! The only thing Bruce has mentioned so far is that he wants to question me about what hooves can reveal about not only the feet themselves, but about the rest of the horse as well. And that’s a fascinating subject that can be immensely helpful to horse owners, because the hooves can, of course, tell us a great deal about how the horse is doing overall – a true “mirror into the horse’s state of being,” if you will. So please consider joining us for this Facebook Live Event, and have your questions ready!

An Interview with The Animal Behaviorist

I readily admit it: although I arguably have a large and diverse set of skills, I’m certainly no animal behaviorist. But as I’ve told students for many, many years, the smart person is not the one who knows everything about a particular subject, but rather is the one who knows where to find the right answers to his or her questions about the subject.

Dr. Bruce Nock is the person I turn to for those right answers about training and behavior. As an animal behaviorist and scientist with a research career spanning over 40 years, Bruce is the type of experienced, “data-driven” resource I can count on to give me unbiased and scientifically accurate information. I find that particularly important in the horse world, where incorrect theories and a general misunderstanding of the science of animal training seem to flourish. So please consider participating with Bruce and me in our upcoming Facebook Live Event discussion of animal behavior and training – I know you won’t be disappointed!

Calories 101 – Part 2: How Much Should I Feed?

UPDATE: I happened across some new information on approximating current and ideal (target) body weight based on research done at the University of Minnesota. Because they use different formulae for different body types, their method appears to yield more precise approximations than previous methods, so my advice would now be to use their method to determine the target weight for your horse. You can find a description of their research and method here; note they also have an app available for Apple and Android devices at a minimal cost. I decided to create my own MS Excel-based calculator using their formulae that can be used or downloaded from here at no cost. Here’s a preview –


Humorous as Jared Lee’s cartoon may be, the overweight horse is genuinely at risk for increased health and performance problems. Overheating, poor performance, and metabolic disorders are all common consequences of excess body fat, causing discomfort, pain, and even loss of use for your horse, plus costly vet bills, headache, and heartache for you as the owner.

In Calories 101 – Part 1, we looked at several methods for estimating a horse’s current and target weights, and calculated the total number of calories necessary for maintaining a horse’s ideal body weight. And now, equipped with that necessary information, we can next take on the task of planning a proper diet for your horse. But first, I want to reiterate that I’m not an equine nutritionist; I’m merely a guy with an extensive math background who understands and can explain how to do the well-established calculations necessary for the task at hand! For advice about specific nutrients and nutrient ratios, please consult an equine nutritionist – ideally (in my opinion), one at a university, who’s not likely to be employed by the feed or supplement industries, to minimize the possibility of any specific product biases. So let’s get started!

First of all, absolutely everything in diet calculations is measured by weight. Not flakes, scoops, coffee cans, bales, pudding containers, or anything else volume-related. Weight. Period. So you’ll need some reasonably-accurate method of weighing out forage and feed. Yes, we could do some get-it-in-the-ballpark volume-based “guesstimating,” and possibly get within a factor of 2 by the time we figure out the actual amounts to feed, but why knowingly add to the already-present inaccuracies in horse weight and exercise estimations? You’ll need probably two different scales – a small platform-style scale (like a kitchen or postage scale) to weigh feed, and a hanging scale (like a fish scale) with a bag or hay net to measure forage.

When we talk about things that go in your horse’s mouth, it’s important to understand the difference in calories between what we’re actually feeding the horse, known as as-fed basis, and the values listed on any sort of analysis, called dry matter basis. The idea is a simple one: Everything your horse eats contains some amount of moisture. Whether it’s cured hay, with a relatively small water content of around 8 – 13%, or grass pasture, with much higher moisture values of 60% or more, that water needs to be accounted for in any calculations. So for an apples-to-apples comparison, dry matter basis is the way to go!

Our calorie estimations depend on two numbers listed in an analysis: the digestible energy (DE), which is a measure of the number of megacalories per pound in the sample, and the percentage of dry matter (% Dry Matter) present in the sample. For example, suppose my hay sample analysis results state that all figures are on a dry matter basis, and list a DE (Digestible Energy) of 1.000 Mcal/Lb. and a % Dry Matter of 90.000. Since the DE on my report is listed as a dry matter basis figure (in other words, with no water), but what I actually feed contains water, I need to do a bit of math to figure out how many calories are in a pound of what I’m actually feeding. First of all, 1.000 Mcal is equal to 1,000 calories; we have to multiply by 1,000 (i.e. move the decimal point 3 places to the right) to convert megacalories to kilocalories, which are what we usually refer to as just “calories.” Next, we have to multiply the calories by the % Dry Matter to figure out how many calories are in an as-fed pound of hay, so 1,000 × 0.90 = 900 calories per pound. The easy way to help remember that you need to multiply rather than divide is that the as-fed calories will always be lower than the dry matter calories. And now I know how many calories are in a pound of my hay!

So we’ll begin by talking about how to plan a diet using already-provided average values for forage and feed, and then we’ll describe how to properly collect and prepare a forage sample for actual laboratory analysis. And this seems like an appropriate time to mention my general approach to feeding horses.

As with hoof care, I believe our feeding perspective should emulate nature’s process of feeding feral horses in their aboriginal environment to the extent possible. Even though our horses’ energy (calorie) needs may at times exceed those of the feral horse, what they eat and the method of delivering it can still be consistent with nature’s methods. By doing so, we can minimize or even eliminate most of the feeding-related problems; laminitis, choke, insulin-related metabolic issues, and colic are all examples of conditions most properly-fed horses rarely suffer from. So keep this in mind as I describe the diet planning.

The table below lists the average DE and % Dry Matter values for some of the most common forages and grains, including fresh forages like grass pasture. These values come from a fabulous and absolutely free resource: Dairy One’s Interactive Feed Composition Libraries. While not every possible thing you might want to feed your horse can be found in their libraries, most typical items – and even some seemingly-odd ones (for horse people) like fresh pineapple forage – are definitely provided! And, being the nice guy that I am, I’ve calculated the As-Fed Basis DE calories as well –

Let’s begin with dry forage (hay), since that’s crucial to every horse’s digestive health, and should by far constitute the largest percentage of any horse’s diet. The absolute minimum amount of forage required to keep a horse’s digestive system working properly is considered to be 1% of his Target Weight per day, on a dry-matter basis. That means my 15-hand horse with an ideal weight of 1,014 pounds needs at least 1,014 × 0.01 = 10.14 pounds of dry-matter-equivalent forage each and every day just to keep things operating properly. According to the above table, grass hay has a % Dry Matter of 92.255, so the easiest conversion to as-fed would be 10.14 ÷ 0.92255 = 11 pounds. Remember, the as-fed amount will always be higher than the dry-matter basis amount, so dividing by the percentage of dry matter gives us the increase in weight due to water. The table also lists an average digestible energy (DE) content of 864 calories per pound, so feeding the absolute minimum forage requirement for my 15-hand horse would provide only 11 × 864 = 9,504 calories. But if you remember from Part 1, my 15-hand horse requires 15,210 calories per day to maintain his target weight, so we have a calorie deficit of 15,210 – 9,504 = 5,706 calories. So let’s see how much additional grass hay I would need to take care of this deficit.

If we divide the deficit by the average as-fed DE for our grass hay, we have 5,706 ÷ 864 = 6.6 pounds. So, by feeding my horse 11 + 6.6 = 17.6 pounds of grass hay per day, we’ve provided all of the calories necessary for him to maintain his Target Weight – no other feed required! Admittedly, that was more complicated than it needed to be, because directly computing the forage amount from the required calories will always more than satisfy the 1% requirement. So, making certain to use appropriate values to end up with as-fed weight:

Required Calories per Day ÷ Digestible Energy per Pound of Forage = Required Pounds of Forage per Day, or

15,210 ÷ 864 = 17.6 pounds

Simple enough, right?

…but now I need to mention there are several caveats to keep in mind when using the information. Keep in mind that the Digestible Energy number, like all of the numbers, is an average value based (in this case) on 66,310 samples, and, in reality, the values can and will vary over a fairly wide range. For grass hay’s DE, for example, those samples had a Standard Deviation of 111 calories. Without getting into the statistics behind these numbers, let me just say this indicates that 95% of the samples tested actually had a DE somewhere between 715 and 1,159 calories per pound (dry matter basis), or 660 and 1,069 calories per pound as-fed. Let’s try to understand the implications of that on our simple feeding program.

If you feed the originally-calculated 18 pounds of grass hay (yes, I rounded it up to the nearest pound) per day which used the average DE for the calculation:

18 × 660 = 11,880 calories per day with a DE at the lower end of the samples, leaving a deficit of 3,330 calories and thus underfeeding the horse by 22%

18 x 1,069 = 19,242 calories per day with a DE at the higher end of the samples, creating a surplus of 4,032 calories and thus overfeeding the horse by 27%

Conversely, if you adjust the forage amount for the lower and higher ends of the samples:

15,210 ÷ 660 = 23 pounds per day will be required if the hay is actually at the lower end of the samples measured

15,210 ÷ 1,069 = 14.23 pounds per day will be required if the hay is actually at the higher end of the samples measured

This same variability, of course, is present in the % Dry Matter numbers as well; more or less water present than the average value will have a potentially serious effect on the calculated as-fed amounts, thus throwing your feeding program off even farther! Hopefully, you’re starting to understand from this example why it’s so important to have your hay tested; you could very easily be underfeeding or overfeeding by a significant amount if your hay’s DE and % Dry Matter aren’t very close to the averages! Fortunately, hay testing is very easy and inexpensive, and will provide an in-depth look at the composition of your hay. A basic analysis from Dairy One, for example, will cost you only $23, and they’ll provide you with a postage-paid mailer for the sample, and email you the test results in very short order. The international handling fee is only an additional $7. Well worth the money! On to feed…

As we just saw in the above calculation, we were able to meet the calorie requirements of my 15-hand horse with 18 pounds of grass hay per day, and no other feed or grain. Horses are able to eat upwards of 2% of their body weight in dry matter per day, which translates to:

1,014 pounds body weight × 0.02 = 20.28 pounds Dry Matter

20.28 pounds Dry Matter × 0.937 Mcal/lb. DE = 19,002.36 calories

This means my horse is able to eat enough of this grass hay per day to meet all of his calorie needs even if he were being ridden or driven an hour every single day – no concentrates required! And in keeping with my philosophy about emulating nature’s process of feeding feral horses, let me also state now that I’m not of the opinion that horses should have unlimited access to hay – for a very simple and logical reason: Although feral horses have a theoretical 24-hour access to forage, in reality they must work hard to get that forage. Unlike our domestic horses, who can simply stand in front of a mountain of hay and gorge themselves, feral horses are eating sparsely-spaced dry, bunch grasses, and typically travel just under 12 miles every day to eat enough to satisfy their calorie requirements. While some domestic horses may eventually “self-regulate,” and eat only an amount necessary to meet their daily caloric needs, many others will simply continue to eat in excess – as evidenced by the tremendous number of overweight horses! So, your horse’s hay – whatever the required amount – needs to be parceled out via some slow-feeding method over a 24-hour period, thus emulating nature’s feeding method to the degree possible.

Feeding grain to horses came about at a time in history when horses were being used many hours per day, whether for farming, warfare, or transportation, and simply hadn’t enough time available to consume sufficient forage to maintain their body weight. So the use of “concentrated calories” came about to allow horses to meet their calorie needs and still be able to do heavy work. Unfortunately, that tradition has continued, and many horse owners believe or are told that their horses must eat feed or grain to remain healthy. That’s simply not the case; as you can see, most of our horses’ much lower calorie requirements can easily be met just by feeding hay. And because horses must consume at least 1% of their body weight (dry matter basis) in forage to maintain proper gut function, concentrate manufacturers generally list their feeding recommendations with that 1% forage + maximum concentrate as the starting point, followed by progressively higher amounts of forage + lower amounts of concentrate. Enough of that for now!

The following data was provided to me by Dr. Don Walsh, founder of the now-closed Animal Health Foundation, which supported laminitis research all over the world (thank you, Don!). Don collected this information directly from feed manufacturers because they do not list calories on their products; sadly, you have to contact them for calorie information. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it can give us a pretty good sense of the calories in most concentrates. I’ve listed them in order of ascending calories, as that’s more useful and interesting to me than the specific feed type –

As you can see, there’s quite a range of calorie values here – from a low of 900 to a high of 3,900! Incidentally, the feeds at the lower end are typically forage or ration balancers, which are products designed to make up for forage deficiencies in a particular geographic area. They aren’t intended to be major calorie sources, and are fed at lower amounts than complete feeds. If your forage analysis reveals deficiencies,  a ration balancer is the ideal way to make certain your horse’s vitamin and mineral needs are being met without adding a bunch of unnecessary calories to his diet.

Once equipped with the necessary feed calorie information (remember: you may need to call the manufacturer to get it), any feed component in your horse’s diet can be calculated in the same manner. Let’s use the numbers from our previous example: a 15-hand horse with a target weight of 1,014 pound requiring 15,210 calories per day, with 9,504 calories already provided by 11 pounds of grass hay. So if we use the most common calorie value for feed of 1,550 calories per pound (as-fed), our 5,706-calorie deficit can be met by:

5,706 ÷ 1,550 = 3.68 pounds of concentrate

So our entire diet calculates out to be 11 pounds of grass hay plus just under 4 pounds of feed per day. Remember that your horse must have the 11 pounds of hay; that’s a well-established absolute minimum! And with only 4 pounds more of feed – or just under 7 pounds more of grass hay – we’ll satisfy all of his calorie requirements. Anything beyond that is excess calories, which will be converted to fat! Based on what I see and hear on a daily basis, I’m certain these quantities seem quite small to you – especially the amount of feed. But keep in mind that that feeling exactly demonstrates my point: We’re grossly overfeeding our horses!

To wrap up Part 2, let’s discuss how to collect and prepare a forage sample for testing. The first step is to gather an appropriate sample, which needs to be collected in a random manner to be truly representative of our lot of hay. The table below will help you know how many samples to gather to create your final sample for submission –

This particular approach to sampling, including the numbers in this table, is called the Acceptable Quality Limit standard, and dates back to World War II and the manufacture of bullets for the armed forces. It provides a method of determining the characteristics of a group of items by testing a randomly-chosen number of items from that group; how many items need to be tested is a function of the total number of items in the group. For diet planning, the numbers can represent some unit of hay – either bales or pounds probably being the most logical. For example, suppose we buy 100 bales of hay from a dealer. Looking at the table, we see that randomly testing 20 bales will give us a very good idea of the characteristics of the entire 100-bale lot. For our purposes here, we’re interested in the two numbers we’ve been using to plan our horse’s diet: the Digestible Energy (DE) and the % Dry Matter.

I can’t stress the importance of a random sample enough. If we merely test the last 20 bales unloaded, for example, it might turn out they were leftover bales from an earlier crop, and therefore wouldn’t be representative of the entire lot. So we need to be a bit creative in our approach to picking the 20 bales. It’s really not difficult; for instance, as the hay is being unloaded, you could set aside every 3rd, then every 5th, then every 7th bale, repeating that pattern until you had the 20 bales. At any rate, once you have the 20 bales set aside, you need to reach into the center of each of the bales and pull out 2 or 3 handfuls of hay (you could also use a hay probe for sampling, which is like a long, small-diameter hole saw, but it’s not necessary). Take a pair of scissors, cut each of your handfuls into 2- to 3-inch pieces, and combine all of the cut samples in a clean, dry plastic bucket. Thoroughly mix the samples. Weigh out one (1) pound, place it in the sample bag, squeeze out the air, and seal the bag. That’s it!

And rather than have a downloadable file of the tables in this Post, I’ve decided I’ll create an MS Excel spreadsheet that’ll incorporate the content of all 3 parts of this series in one “spot,” and will automatically do all of the calculations for you!

In Calories 101 – Part 3, we’ll tackle what I consider the most challenging part of basic diet planning: the pasture. Stay tuned…

Calories 101 – Part 1: How Many are Too Many?

Thanks to COVID-19, most of us probably aren’t spending much time in restaurants these days. But many of our horses, on the other hand, may nevertheless be spending more time eating higher-calorie food than they should be! Yes, I realize I’m not an equine nutritionist, and I don’t pretend to be one. But I have spent a fair amount of time studying enough of the basics of equine nutrition with Dr. Jessica Bedore, my former equine nutritionist colleague at The Ohio State University, to feel competent talking about how to determine proper caloric intake.

My decision to discuss it now is being driven by three things: 1) the ever-increasing number of overweight horses we encounter on a daily basis, 2) the apparent lack of knowledge by horse owners and barn managers about how to determine how much a horse should be eating, and 3) the usual annual increase in the incidence of laminitis in the area because of the rapidly-growing (and sugar-laden) grass. And because truly comprehensive hoof care involves a great deal more that just proper hoof trimming (which, by the way, is why we spend a tremendous amount of time discussing other contributing factors to hoof quality and form in the Liberated Horsemanship Gateway Clinics), I feel compelled to share this knowledge in a sincere effort to help horses avoid the health issues that result from obesity.

Yes, I’m well aware many people find the idea of having to do any sort of calculations intimidating and even frightening. But the good news is the math we need for diet planning is extremely simple and straightforward, and can be done by anyone using even the lowliest of calculators, including the one on your phone. So let’s get started!

Part 1 of this series is aimed at teaching you to recognize whether your horse is too fat, too thin, or just right, and how to calculate how many calories per day he needs to maintain a proper weight. Probably the most standardized way of starting this process is to figure out your horse’s Body Condition Score, or BCS. This method of assessing the amount of fat on a horse’s body was developed in 1983 by Dr. Don Henneke at Texas A&M University, and the Henneke System has become the de facto standard for describing a horse’s condition.

For many, this will undoubtedly be the most difficult part of our task, simply because we horse owners can’t seem to look at our horses with an unbiased eye. But there’s no upside to convincing ourselves that our horse isn’t overweight if, in fact, he is – only a potentially horrible downside. Just make certain whomever does the evaluation is as objective as possible: someone with a discerning eye who’s willing to put aside all feelings and opinions and honestly assess your horse. And if you or your chosen evaluator isn’t reasonably familiar with the process of calculating BCS, I strongly suggest you both familiarize yourselves with this very useful process; you can find a good step-by-step article on Body Condition Scoring here, although there are a number of articles and video guides available. To help you with the actual process of Body Condition Scoring your horse, I’ve created the following worksheet and guide –

Incidentally, to make all this information a bit easier to read, use, and share with others, I’ve created a PDF file containing all of the tables, charts, and worksheets in this article for downloading and printing here!

Once you’ve determined the BCS, the next step is to find out how much weight your horse needs to lose or gain. The following chart should help; just look up your horse’s BCS in the column under his height, and compare it to the weight given for the same height with a BCS 5. For example, a 15-hand horse with a BCS 6.5 (extremely common, in my experience) has an approximate weight of 1,133 pounds and a target weight of 1,014 pounds; therefore, he needs to lose about 119 pounds. Of course, these are approximations, and are presumably based on average-build i.e. riding horses. But the numbers should be accurate enough to give you a solid feel for how much weight change your horse requires. This table is in hands and pounds –

This is the metric version, with the hands heights converted to centimeters and the weights in kilograms –

At this point you may be wondering why we don’t simply use the ubiquitous weight tape instead of bothering with figuring out the horse’s BCS. A couple of reasons: 1) we know weight tapes aren’t particularly accurate, and 2) we want to actually look at the horse’s body fat to assess his condition, and not base our diet decisions solely on a string of numeric approximations. Still, the weight tape is a useful tool when it comes to tracking changes in our horse’s weight, so knowing what your horse weighs in addition to calculating his BCS is useful. However, Texas A&M University has developed a far more accurate method of estimating a horse’s weight than with a weight tape, using an ordinary cloth tape measure and some simple math as described below. I’ve discovered, by the way, that most of us will need some assistance to measure the Body Length on the average-sized riding horse; my arms just aren’t that long!

Again – here’s the metric version, with lengths in centimeters and weight in kilograms –

So you now know approximately how much your horse weighs, and how much he should weigh. Now it’s time to figure out how many calories per day are necessary for your horse to maintain his target weight, which is probably not his current weight. And just as with the BCS, determining caloric requirements requires you to be absolutely honest about how much you actually ride (or drive) your horse, because the amount of work he does is key to calculating caloric needs.

This is really the easiest and most straightforward part of the process;  all we need is some accurate information about your riding or driving habits. You’ll need to collect some information about how much you ride, and then do some simple calculations using the worksheet below to figure out how many calories per day your horse needs to maintain his target weight –

Here’s the metric version, with the target weight in kilograms –

As an example, suppose I ride my 15-hand horse with a target weight of 1,014 pounds for 20 minutes every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Just for the record, I’ve not counted the 10 minutes it takes to collect my horse from the pasture, the 10 minutes it takes to clean and tack him up, the 5 minutes each of a leisurely warm-up and cool-down walk, or the 10 minutes to get to and from the arena and untack and put him away when I’m done.  So, following through the worksheet:

Steps 1 & 2 –

20 + 20 + 20 + 20 = 80 Total Minutes Ridden per Week

Step 3 –

80 ÷ 7 = 11 Average Minutes Ridden per Day

Step 4 –

11 = Less Than 15 = 15 Work Load Factor

Steps 5 & 6 –

15 x 1,014 = 15,210 Required Calories per Day

And now we know how many calories our horse needs to maintain a healthy weight! So take an objective look at your horse’s body and your riding or driving patterns, and figure out how many calories your horse should be consuming in preparation for the second part of this series.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss the potential challenges of selecting appropriate types and amounts of forages and feeds to meet, but not exceed, this requirement. Why will it be challenging? Primarily for two reasons: 1) in the case of forage, the calorie content of all of them, including green grass, varies by a number of factors, including forage type, maturity when cut or consumed (in the case of green grass), time of day when cut or consumed, moisture content, and storage conditions, and 2) in the case of feeds, manufacturers don’t generally publish the calorie content of their products so you have to directly contact the company to get the information you need to plan the diet. But in spite of all these apparent obstacles, it’s fairly easy to ensure your horse is getting adequate, but not excessive, calories.

All for now…

(Not Just) Another Hoof Clinic!

LH clinics logo

Although I’ve discussed Liberated Horsemanship’s Gateway Clinics at various times in the past, I’ve never really taken the time to describe exactly what happens at the clinics, just how in-depth they really are, and therefore why I firmly believe they provide the most comprehensive and correct information on hoof care currently available. And since there are once again not one, but two, clinics scheduled for this year (June 3rd-7th at The Ohio State University ATI in Wooster, Ohio, US, and September 2nd-6th at Stonegarthside Hall in Nicholforest, UK), I’d originally intended to provide a more complete look at the clinics’ contents and this year’s presenters.

However, my plan to write a short biography of the clinic instructors, followed by a description of the topics each will be speaking about at the clinics, was quickly foiled as I started to put the biographies down on paper. Why? Because I was attempting to condense literally dozens of years of education and experience in hoof care into a few short statements, which would obviously be unsuccessful and of limited usefulness to anyone. So instead, I’ve decided to try to describe what I believe the strongest contributions of each of us are with respect to the clinics, and animal and hoof care in general, and leave the lengthier biographies to someone else. So here goes…

Bruce Nock badge photo

I met Dr. Bruce Nock in early 2006 when he was teaching an Advanced Horsemanship clinic as part of the certification program for natural hoof care pioneer Jaime Jackson’s organization called (at that point) the American Association of Natural Hoof Care Practitioners (AANHCP). Bruce is first and foremost a working scientist with an extremely impressive academic and practical background in animal behavior, learning theory, and stress physiology, and his current “day job” consists of ongoing research at Washington University’s School of Medicine which is funded by the U.S. National Institute of Health and focuses on the transgenerational and epigenetic effects of morphine. But Bruce is an avid horseman as well, and has used his extensive animal behavior education and experience to not only teach horse training and dressage for many years, but to author several books as well. In fact, his “Ten Golden Rules of Horse Training” is what led Jaime Jackson to require AANHCP students to study with Bruce, and later to make Bruce a member of the AANHCP’s Board of Directors. He’s also very actively involved in using his expertise in animal behavior and stress management to “give back” to the animals, through his efforts with The Kerulos Center and the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. In 2003, Bruce founded Liberated Horsemanship as what he describes as “a diversion from the impersonal world of science and to put my background in the science of animal behavior and physiology to practical use helping people with their horses.” That mission greatly expanded in 2009 when he and many others decided to leave the AANHCP, and the Liberated Horsemanship Barefoot Initiative was born.

Given Dr. Nock’s background, his clinic contributions will focus primarily on health and management issues: the physiology of equine insulin resistance, Cushing’s Disease, and laminitis; understanding and coping with management and use issues that impact horse and hoof health; and the unnatural stressors that are inherent to life in captivity. This means that clinic attendees have the exceedingly rare (dare I say…unique?) opportunity to learn about these absolutely-crucial-to-the-well-being-of-every-horse factors that the overwhelming majority of horse owners, veterinarians, and hoof care providers are rarely even aware of, let alone educated about, from an acknowledged expert. In my opinion, that alone makes these clinics well worth attending for every horse owner! I will further add that one of the many other things I  greatly appreciate and admire about Bruce is his unwillingness to offer advice on subjects about which he is not an expert; that’s a rare quality indeed, particularly in a horse world fraught with self-proclaimed “experts” constantly teaching and dispensing advice about things in which they have no education, limited (if any) actual experience, and therefore very little understanding of the subject.

Ann Corso Badge photo

Ann Corso and I first met in 2005 at a Carol Brett saddle-fitting clinic in Kentucky. A trained educator, Ann studied natural hoof care with Jaime Jackson from 2003 to 2005, was a Field Instructor and Natural Trim Workshop Leader for the AANHCP, and eventually became its Director of Training and Certification during its heyday as the premier hoof trimming training and certification organization. She left the AANHCP in 2009 to co-found the Liberated Horsemanship Barefoot Initiative with Dr. Nock, of which she is the Director. In addition to her large and diverse hoof care practice, Ann is the logistical mastermind behind all of Liberated Horsemanship’s clinics, and coordinates the field instruction and certification efforts of the students as well. One of the things I marvel at, and most value about, Ann is her seemingly endless knowledge of most of the hoof research efforts going on around the world, as well as the problems with what I call the various “fad trim styles” being taught and advocated by so many; if you want to know why a particular trim “style” can’t work – just ask Ann!

Besides making certain everyone has a ride from the airport, a place to sleep, and enough to eat, Ann will teach the fundamentals of proper hoof form and its importance, the underlying foot anatomy, and the theory of proper trimming. She’ll also discuss the various barefoot trim “models,”  and specifically why others may do certain things we don’t do – or not do things we do do – and the rationale behind those differences. Ann will also conduct the cadaver trim workshops every afternoon, where students not only receive extensive and specific trim instruction through hands-on learning, but also learn about the very necessary and practical matters of tool selection & use, hoof boot fitting, and horse handling.

Steve Hebrock badge photo

I don’t really enjoy writing about myself, so I’ll try to keep it brief. My rather diverse background includes music theory & composition, sound recording, and electronics/acoustics engineering, and I’ve designed products and one-off technical solutions for a number of companies over the years. Paralleling my engineering vocation was a career in education; I started teaching electronics classes in 1978 as an undergraduate student, and have continued teaching various technical subjects at several different universities since then. Most recently, I retired from nearly 20 years  of teaching at The Ohio State University ATI – the agricultural campus of the university – where I taught electronics, computer-aided design (CAD), and many different computer applications classes. More relevant to the subject at hand, I taught equine facilities management, sales preparation, and – yes – hoof care (which I still teach). You can read more about my hoof care journey in Why Me? and Horseshoes: A Means to What End?, but the bottom line is that the last 25 years of my life have been shaped by my realization in the early 1990s that the vast majority of horse owners, farriers, and veterinarians suffer from some very large misconceptions about how horses should bear weight and move, which drastically and adversely affects their care of, and advice about, horses. And I believe that my many years as a technical educator, natural hoof care provider, and hoof care educator have equipped me to share my knowledge and experience with others in a straightforward, logical, and extremely effective manner.

At the clinics, I’ll be discussing one of my favorite topics and ongoing areas of research: how and why the hoof should make ground contact as it does, and the importance of a proper landing to the long-term comfort and health of the horse. I’ll also be talking about the causes, symptoms, and management/treatment of the most common hoof pathologies, and be co-teaching the afternoon trim workshops with Ann.

So there you have it: three educated, acknowledged experts, each with lengthy and intimate experience with both natural hoof care and their individual areas of specialization, who also have extensive experience teaching their subject matter to people of every level of education and from every walk of life from all over the world! Whether you ultimately intend to regularly trim horses, or just want to take advantage of this unique opportunity to get your hoof, horse management, and behavior questions answered by experts, please consider joining us. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. But…time and spaces are short, especially for the U.S. clinic, so contact me ASAP if you’d like to attend!

The “Correction” Misconception

(Note: This is a much-expanded version of an article originally written for the 2018 edition of the Ohio Equestrian Directory.)

Radiograph of a hoof with sidebone because of deliberate long-term M-L imbalance

Radiograph of a hoof with sidebone due to deliberate long-term M-L imbalance

When a knowledgeable hoof care provider talks about a horse’s hoof being “in balance,” he or she is referring to a hoof making contact with the ground without rocking or twisting in either the side-to-side (medial-lateral, or M-L) or front-to-back (anterior-posterior, or A-P) direction as it comes under load. Why is this an issue? Because any horse that experiences significant movement on surfaces such as hard ground or pavement – particularly at speeds faster than a walk – will eventually suffer from health issues directly related to the extent of imbalance of their hooves. I’ve devoted quite a lot of space to describing the problems related to A-P imbalance in the form of heel- and toe-first landings in The Myth of the Heel-First Landing and Navicular Disease series, so this article will focus on medial-lateral imbalance and its consequences.

Understanding the basic construction of the joints of the horse’s lower limb, and how it differs from our own, is key to grasping why medial-lateral imbalances are so damaging to the horse. Try a little experiment: Stand up straight, and put most of your weight in one of your feet. Now, while keeping your opposite foot flat on the ground, but not shifting your weight onto it, try rotating that foot so the toes point first towards the 10 o’clock and then the 1 o’clock positions on the face of an imaginary clock on the ground under your foot with 12 o’clock being straight ahead. Not much of a challenge, right? Now try the same thing with your hand flat against a wall and your arm parallel to the floor. Again – pretty easy! That’s because in humans, the distal (farther away from our body) parts of our limbs i.e. the forearm and lower leg are constructed to allow that particular type of rotatory motion via the radius/ulna (forearm) and tibia/fibula (lower leg) bone combinations; in essence, their arrangement permits one bone to “spool” over the other.

If you then take a trip to the barn, pick up a foot, and attempt to either rotate the foot or tilt the foot from left to right, you’ll quickly discover that neither is really possible. A glance at the bones of the horse’s lower limb reveals why: Unlike our own wrists and ankles, all of the joints below the shoulders and hips of the horse are designed to allow for movement only in the plane defined by the centers of the unloaded and loaded fetlock joint and the center of the coffin joint (the center of the carpus and tarsus i.e. “knee” and hock also lie on this plane), as shown below –

The Plane of Movement

Thus, there is practically no side-to-side variation in how the horse presents his hoof to the ground; on any given surface, the hoof will always make ground contact in essentially the same way. This is very important to the health of the horse’s lower limb. As you can see in the above illustration, if the hoof were to make uneven medial-lateral ground contact, there would be considerable stress on the joints of the lower limb with every step, because they cannot articulate in a side-to-side direction.

Unfortunately, deliberately unbalancing the hoof is extremely commonplace, often advocated by veterinarians and hoof care providers in a well-meaning but misguided attempt to “correct” a limb whose foot points in a direction other than perfectly in line with the horse’s body. These methods leave one “side” of the hoof wall long with respect to the other side to twist the foot as it comes under load, sometimes giving the appearance of a straighter limb when the horse is standing still, as has been attempted by the hoof care provider for the horse in the radiograph at the beginning of this article. Since the “set” of the limbs is determined by the shoulder and hip joints, however, it’s simply not possible to truly correct such a condition through trimming or shoeing; the shoulder or hip cannot actually be changed, and the horse ends up paying a heavy price for the false impression of being “more correct.”

In most of the cases I’ve seen, no actual “straightening” has occurred; the shoulder or hip joint is sufficiently flexible to allow enough rotation of the entire limb from the torsion applied by the foot imbalance as it comes under load to make the toe point more forward while it’s on the ground, thus giving the appearance of a straighter limb. But as soon as the foot is unloaded, the leg “unwinds” and travels in the plane in which it was designed to travel. And in the much-less-common cases where actual limb twisting has occurred, such as when this technique has been carried out on a still-growing youngster, the turn is limited to the bones and joints of the lower limb, leaving a leg whose digit points in one direction but elbow or stifle points in another. The actual plane of limb motion, of course, remains unchanged.

The consequences of smaller imbalances may initially be subtle, and may show up as an unwillingness or difficulty in performing certain movements on harder surfaces, or being a bit “off” after doing such movements. But the damage caused by the stress placed on the joints with every step eventually takes the form of osteoarthritis – deterioration of the cartilage that lines the joint, often accompanied by calcium deposits (bone spurs) around the joint – and lameness. Larger imbalances may result in more pronounced lameness and a definite hastening of joint damage, resulting in career-ending conditions such as articular ringbone. And by the way, the good news for barefoot horses is that minor imbalances will eventually “self-correct” through wear; conversely, the bad news for shod horses is that no such self-correction can occur, and the effects of imbalances are actually intensified by the presence of the shoe.

Interestingly, in the course of writing this article, I had the opportunity to hear not one, but two, stories about so-called “corrective shoeing” that I think are useful to share.

The first was from a woman thanking me for writing Horseshoes: A Means to What End? who mentioned she is a believer in having horses barefoot, and is currently having some “corrective shoeing” done on one of her horses with the ultimate objective of having this horse barefoot as well. According to her, the horse is wearing one side of the hoof wall down faster than the other, and is therefore more comfortable with shoes on.

While this indeed may be true, her implied cause-and-effect between preventing the wear and the horse’s comfort is indeed a tenuous one. There are only two explanations for why the horse would be wearing as she describes: either the foot is not being properly balanced when trimmed, or something higher up in the horse’s limb or body is causing the horse to contact and load the foot in an asymmetrical manner. In either case, merely preventing the horse from asymmetrically wearing the foot by means of a horseshoe is not only not addressing the problem – it’s actually causing damage to the joints as described above. It’s certainly not “correcting” anything! So why is the horse more comfortable with a shoe on the foot? Almost certainly because the sole is being over-trimmed, the sole is not yet properly conditioned to be barefoot on the types of terrain being ridden on, and/or there’s a problem with the horse’s diet – none of which have anything to do with preventing uneven wear. And if one’s objective is to have a barefoot horse, the process of doing so is never going to include a horseshoe; we don’t “prepare” a horse for being barefoot by using what we’re trying to move away from! Sorry – not logical.

The other situation is a woman who’s spent the last year or so following the advice of her veterinarian and farrier to “correct” the turnout of one of her horse’s forelegs through deliberately unbalancing the foot. And now, guess what? Radiographs of the lower limb, which showed no joint damage a year ago, now show significant damage, and the horse is lame. And yet, she still can’t bring herself to accept that her hoof care provider and veterinarian have caused the problem, and haven’t “corrected” anything!

Remember: While the use of a horseshoe to prevent excessive even wear of the bearing surface of the hoof wall may be one thing, using a horseshoe to inhibit asymmetrical wear can only ultimately result in joint damage.

Composite Hoof & Radiograph

Composite image of a photograph and radiograph of a balanced foot

Determining whether or not your horse is in medial-lateral balance isn’t difficult, but it can require a bit of practice to develop a “feel” for it. Be aware, though, that the natural limitations of our vision will make small hoof imbalances difficult-to-impossible to see, especially in the less-than-optimal lighting conditions that are found in nearly every barn in the country!

On an unyielding flat, level surface, such as concrete or asphalt, and with as much light on the situation as possible, carefully watch each of your horse’s feet as he walks both towards and away from you. No part of the hoof or shoe should make ground contact before any other part, and there should be no rocking or twisting as the foot is loaded, although some horses will twist a (usually hind) foot just before it leaves the ground. Listening to ground contact is even more useful; the sound of a balanced foot will be distinct, with no “double-tap” or “smearing” evident. And slow-motion video is an even better and more definitive method: Video your horse at ground level from the front and back, and then either slow the video down to about 1/5 normal speed or step through each hoof contact frame-by-frame to determine if the feet are making even contact.

In addition to visual and aural observation of hoof landings, horse owners and hoof care providers can develop an “eye” for balance by understanding the relationship between the coffin bone and hairline at the heel bulbs. As illustrated in the composite image above, both the hairline at the back of the foot and the bottom of the coffin bone are M-L ground-parallel in an M-L balanced foot for the vast majority of horses. In rare instances (in my experience), the hoof capsule/coffin bone of certain hind feet will not be ground parallel, but will be tipped very slightly toward the lateral side for a proper (flat) landing; this, however, can only be determined by properly balancing the foot initially, and then carefully observing the consequent landings and adjusting the trim if necessary.

A potentially more serious imbalance condition referred to as sheared heels can occur when one heel buttress is left chronically long with respect to the other of the same foot. Rather than the entire foot tilting one way or the other, the entire half of the hoof capsule with the longer heel may instead end up vertically displaced with respect to the other. Although some limited research by others shows that the actual coffin bone position in these imbalances apparently remains unchanged because the coffin bone only occupies a very small part of the back part of the hoof, this type of  imbalance can nevertheless cause severe lameness, promote wall cracks, and contribute to frog infections, and should therefore be taken seriously. Although the horse in the following two photos taken before his most recent trim has been under our care for a relatively short time and has greatly improved, the evidence of years of improper M-L balance remains in the form of a “shoved up” lateral heel and quarters –

Photo of splay-footed horse

Horse with profoundly – but naturally – turned-out forelegs. Note that the carpus (“knee”), fetlock, and toe of each foreleg all point in the same direction.

Photo of sheared heels

…and a rear view of the left foreleg. Although some would consider this foot properly balanced because the heel buttresses and toe define a plane reasonably perpendicular to a vertical plane passing through the central sulcus of the frog, the hairline (among other things) indicates that the entire lateral side of the hoof is, in reality, (still) a bit longer/higher than the medial side. A work in progress, with some distance yet to go…

If the hoof had continued to be improperly trimmed, the hairline on the longer-heel side of the foot would have continued to be shoved upward. Imagine facing the horse and wrapping your hands around each side of the hoof – fingers on the bottom, with your palms against the sides of the hoof wall – and twisting in a vertical direction; that’s exactly what has happened! Yet, because many hoof care providers are taught that a foot is in balance if the bottom of the heel buttresses describe a plane 90° to the so-called “median plane” – a vertical plane passing through the apex of the frog and continuing through the central sulcus of the frog (i.e. through the “middle” of the foot – see the plane shown in “The Plane of Movement” graphic above) – they fail to recognize this form of imbalance.

To help check M-L balance, I’ve developed a simple tool that will allow both horse owners and hoof care providers to easily determine if a horse’s hoof has been properly trimmed. As shown in the photographs below, this Heel Balance Gauge can be used in two different manners to determine whether or not the heel buttress height is equal.

Heel Gauge - In Air

Heel Balance Gauge being used directly on the bottom of the elevated hoof

Heel Gauge - On Ground

Heel Balance Gauge being used on the ground behind the hoof

Eliminating M-L hoof imbalances can be challenging – not because of the actual trimming involved, but because many hoof care providers are simply unaware they’re not properly balancing the hoof, and the ones that are deliberately unbalancing the hoof are usually convinced they’re doing the right thing! So while it may be possible to explain to your hoof care provider that you want your horse’s feet to be in balance, it may ultimately be necessary to change hoof care providers to actually accomplish that objective. But your horse will thank you for it – by performing better and by staying healthier for a longer time!

“No one ever suggests we use some sort of tire to fix a crooked truck axle. Why would anyone suggest we use some sort of horseshoe to fix a crooked horse limb?” – Steve Hebrock