The Myth of the Heel-First Landing – Part 3

A pronounced heel-first landing in slow motion

Hopefully, Part 1 and Part 2 of this series have laid sufficient groundwork (no pun intended!) for you to now be ready to hear why the feral horse lands flat-footed at the walk. Let’s briefly summarize what we’ve covered so far:

  • As a quadruped, the horse’s anatomy and way of going differs from the bipedal human, and therefore his movement cannot be compared to the movement of the human
  • The human is incapable of seeing small but significant differences in how a horse lands without the aid of slow-motion video
  • Barring injury or other mitigating circumstances, the horse does not actively position his foot for landing
  • The mass of the healthy, properly-trimmed equine foot is fairly evenly distributed front-to-back about the center of coffin joint rotation
  • Any longer part of the hoof wall relative to the rest of the hoof wall will strike the ground first
  • The addition of length or mass can significantly affect the flight arc of the hoof, and, therefore, the way the hoof impacts the ground

And now we need to talk about the effects of movement and terrain on the hoof.

One of the things you may have noticed about your horse, whether he’s shod or barefoot, is that the harder and rougher the terrain he’s used on, the more rapidly his shoes or hooves wear. That’s only logical, since even the steel of a horseshoe is not as hard as many of the minerals present in soil. And given that the typical feral horse travels an average of just under 12 miles per day, it’s no wonder that the constant abrasion results in obvious signs of wear. So if we look at the foot of a feral mustang from a very arid and abrasive environment like the U.S. Great Basin, we see evidence of considerable wear –

A U.S. Great Basin feral Mustang hoof

Note the pronounced rounding of the wall (“mustang roll”) where it contacts the ground, the arch of the foot in the quarters, the blending of the bars and sole into a smooth, polished-looking surface, and the leather-like appearance of the frog. The entire hoof is very short, with the heels worn back to the widest part of the frog.

In contrast, look at the same features on this domestic Ohio horse, whose typical day consists of about half his time in a fairly wet, grass-filled pasture and the other half in a stall, about 6 weeks after his last trim –

A domestic American Quarter Horse hoof

As you’ll note, the wall shows little evidence of wear, with a fairly sharp edge. The arch in the quarters is only evident to the extent that the horse has started to break off excess length in that area in the form of a large chip. The bars are quite a bit higher than the contour of the sole, and the presence of tiny cracks along with the lack of a smooth, shiny appearance suggest that old sole growth has not yet been worn away. The frog has a somewhat “swollen” appearance, and the heels are disproportionately long and therefore well forward of the back of the foot.

These two hooves are rather typical examples at the near-extremes of a continuum of wear, with the consequences of lots of movement over arid, abrasive terrain at one end, and relatively little movement over soft, wet terrain at the other. Keep in mind that the difference in movement between typical feral and domestic horses is tremendous; the domestic horse would have to do 24 laps per day around the perimeter of a 10-acre pasture to equal the distance traveled by a feral horse in the same amount of time!

The relationship between types of terrain and degree of wear was documented by farrier and horseshoe designer Gene Ovnicek. Take a look at this illustration from his book New Hope for Soundness, Second Edition

How environment affects heel length

As you can see, as the terrain becomes softer, the heels experience less wear. But because the heels actually penetrate the softer terrain, the effective toe angle remains essentially constant. Obviously, if you were to stand these three horses on a flat, unyielding surface such as concrete, or move Horses A and B into Horse C’s environment, only Horse C would measure with the same toe angle as he did in his “natural” environment; Horses A and B would have more upright toe angles because of their longer heels. From what we learned in Part 2, therefore, we know that on a flat, unyielding surface, Horse A is unquestionably going to have a more pronounced heel-first landing than Horse B, who will have a more pronounced heel-first landing than Horse C.

This is why so many people erroneously conclude that horses must be designed to land heel-first; very few of our domestic horses both live in desert environments and move as much as feral horses, which makes them much more like Horse A than Horse C. So it’s logical to assume that every horse we’re likely to observe moving over a flat, unyielding surface, including all feral horses except those from environments like Horse C, will land heel-first to one degree or another. But just because that’s what we happen to observe on flat, unyielding surfaces doesn’t mean they’re supposed to land that way on every surface!

The very important point to be made in this discussion lies in the realization that all three horses in the above illustration share a critically-common albeit not obvious characteristic, in spite of the differences in their environment: at the instant of impact, the coffin joint (the joint between the short pastern and the coffin bone) is undergoing no 3rd-order acceleration. Although the foot as a whole is decelerating as it makes contact, the coffin joint is not also rotating at the moment of impact. Any rotation (3rd-order acceleration) of the joint, as we’ll examine in the next installment of this series to be entitled “Navicular Disease – Part 1: Background,” turns out to be an absolutely crucial factor affecting the long-term comfort and soundness of the horse.

Meanwhile, when we consider all this wear happening to the bottom of Horse C’s hoof from miles and miles of travel over highly abrasive ground, isn’t it a logical conclusion that any part of the hoof that was long relative to the rest of the hoof would very quickly be worn off? For example, each front leg of a 1,000-pound horse will have approximately 600 pounds of weight grinding that hoof into the ground with every stride over his entire life. How could it not be worn flat? So Horse C’s coffin joint ends up not rotating because he’s hitting the ground flat; Horse A and Horse B are undergoing no coffin joint rotation because their heels are penetrating the terrain and they’re effectively landing flat.

A beautiful, zero-coffin-joint-rotation landing

A beautiful, zero-coffin-joint-rotation landing

In closing, I’m going to leave you with a couple of statements to consider in preparation for the next article in this series. I truly hope I’ve paved the way for them to be read and understood. But before you read them, I sincerely hope you’ll put aside whatever else you may have heard or read to the contrary on this subject, regardless of where you heard it or whomever said it, and let only common sense and your own experiences – horse and non-horse – guide your thinking. These statements are my inevitable conclusions about landings drawn after a careful analysis of facts over a 20-year period, and I unreservedly stand behind them. They are:

In the feral horse, a heel-first landing is not possible

In the domestic horse, a heel-first landing is not desirable

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the eminent author and equine pathologist Dr. James Rooney – arguably one of the most experienced researchers of the equine limb in the world – also eventually came to these same conclusions. So why is it taking so many others so very long to catch on?

More soon…


Following the publication of this article, I’ve had discussions with several people who seem to have not read the entire series of articles, and have therefore misunderstood my two conclusions about landings stated directly above. Therefore, I thought I’d clarify/qualify them a bit more, even though this same information is contained within this and the previous two articles.

Statement 1:

In the feral horse, a heel-first landing is not possible

This statement is predicated on a couple of conditions. First, it is relevant only to a healthy feral horse moving on its flat native terrain at its most common gait (the walk). Although I suspect the same landing happens at faster gaits, I’ve done only a bit of video work at higher speeds, and am therefore not yet comfortable making that statement. Second, as I’ve tried very hard to explain in this article, on softer terrains the heels will appear to strike the ground first, but are actually penetrating the terrain. The net result is that there is no rotation of the coffin joint at the instant of impact; thus, in mechanical terms, they are effectively landing flat. So a heel-first landing, by my definition, is actually a non-zero-coffin-joint-rotation landing. This is the important distinguishing characteristic in a landing.

Statement 2:

In the domestic horse, a heel-first landing is not desirable

Similarly, this statement is really meant to say that a non-zero-coffin-joint-rotation landing is not desirable in the domestic horse. This is applicable when the horse is observed walking on a flat, unyielding surface, and often cannot be seen without the aid of slow-motion video. It can, however, be readily heard on these surfaces because of differences in our auditory, as opposed to our visual, acuity.


  1. Richard Sweebe says:

    Thanks, Steve. This is a great article, clear and logical. I look forward to your next one.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks, Rich. I really try to present material in the most logical way possible, although I’m certain I don’t succeed in many instances. But I do know that everything we do with our horses should pass the “common sense test;” yet, surprisingly, much of what’s out there simply does not.


  2. Jill says:

    Hi, I have just read your three articles on heel strike. They are very helpful, especially because I had just spent the morning looking at my horse’s strike and concluding that he does NOT strike heel first and worrying about it because I had read that he should. He is a 7yr old PRE barefoot living at pasture in the currently very wet south West of England. He is sound on an all weather schooling surface and on grass etc but uncomfortable walking downhill on hard ground. He is footy on gravel even though he has very tight white lines. I will stop worrying about his lack of heel strike and look elsewhere for a resolution. Meanwhile he can wear boots on hard ground. Thank you. Jill

  3. Jürgen Grande says:

    Hello Steve!
    Now that I’ve read your articles on HFL and Navicular Disease I think I can’t go along with your conclusions.
    You said that “…the feral horse cannot possibly be landing in any manner other than flat-footed (which Dr. Rooney agreed with).“ This is obviously not true. Today I picked again my “The Adventures of Cloud“ DVDs. This footage shows feral (natural) and sound horses roaming in the Rockies, a region with great varieties in terrain. All the scenes that have a closer look on movements and footfalls I slowed down to 25 % of speed and watched them more than once.
    The results are quite clear: those horses use any kind of foot landing, even flat landing to be the minority.
    Why is this?
    In my humble opinion there are several factors to be considered.
    1. The terrain. Walking uphill will usually cause toe-first landing (TFL), going downhill heel-first landing (HFL), going on plane ground flat landing (FL) or slight HFL.
    2. The ground. Yielding or slippery ground promotes TFL. Hard ground: like plane ground.
    3. Gait and speed. At very slow walk you can see FL most of the time. Lively walk tends to slight HFL. Trot and canter has more HFL.
    4. Fores and hinds. Hinds are more often seen in a FL mode or even with TFL if more traction is needed. Fores are more often seen in a slight HFL. The reason lies in the different limb structure in fores and hinds. Hinds are the “motor“, fores are the “steering-wheels“ so to speak.
    5. Posture. A relaxedly (stretched) moving horse should never go by TFL on plane ground. A horse in collection will usually have his fores in FL mode or even more in TFL mode.
    6. Proprioception. On difficult ground (uneven, rocky etc.) and / or on higher gaits the foot needs immediate information about the moment of touchdown, and about the micro-structure to be expected on the ground within the actual stride. The responsible nerval receptors are mostly situated in the caudal part. This supports the notion that HFL (slightly, not exaggerated) is crucial for proper movement.

    Just to remind you: this is what came out watching the “Cloud” DVDs. But I think my findings can be seen as typical.
    What does this mean for the “domestic“ horse that makes up the majority in horse world? And what does this mean especially for hoof care?

    In barefoot trimming scene intense, and often hostile quarrels are still on the agenda. Don’t get me wrong: striving for insight is paramount. But can anyone “possess“ the whole truth? Is there only one truth at all?
    Personally I prefer to avoid mistakes. Horses to be supposed to land heel-first might be one of them, but I’m not convinced, yet.
    Unfortunately “proper“ hoof care is the smaller part of the whole picture concerning horses’ soundness. The main influences seem to be found in husbandry, nutrition and the way a human handles his mount. Given that these things are on the right track, just then hoof science comes in.
    As mentionend above, there are lots of different schools out there. What to do? – You should individually create guidelines that fit the typical circumstances a horse lives in. A good formula might be to make hooves working best on the terrain the horse lives most of his time, and then to use boots (if necessary) for the other events (riding out or in the arena, dressage, jumping etc.).

    Maybe future will show that the best “trimming method“ is the one that somehow “lets“ the hoof to do the right things on its own in every situation. This is alike all hooves usually do in feral horse country.

    Kind regards,
    (from Germany)

    • Steve says:

      Thank you for your comments, Jurgen. Interestingly, I, too, watched the Cloud videos, and in every instance where the horses were walking on reasonably-flat terrain and the hoof contact with the ground was clearly visible, they were landing flat. That said, I believe I qualified my description of the landings to include all, or nearly all, of the circumstances you mention above, with which I generally agree. But from a purely mechanical perspective, a feral horse traveling over extremely abrasive terrain will be worn to contact the ground with no coffin-joint rotation (a “flat” landing) at his most common gait.


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