Ho boy! Here’s a subject that is surely hot among gaited horse owners. Perhaps understandably so. Trimming and shoeing can make or break a gaited horse, and there’s as much or more misinformation out there as there is reliable information. I’ve made a study of it, and have figured out what principles are sound, and which practices to avoid. Please don’t rely solely on this information, but seek the services of a farrier experienced with gaited horses. Even if you do that, however, be aware that not all farriers are as familiar with these principles as one might expect. This chapter should help you to become an educated customer.
First off, there’s no substitute for basic sound shoeing practices. The shoe should precisely fit the foot from the toe, around the quarters, clear back to cover the heel. A poorly fitted shoe–particularly one that allows the horse’s heel to hang over the back edge–will make for a miserable horse. Can you imagine wearing sandals that are too short for your foot? It wouldn’t be long before you were hobbling along with sore heels. Same with your horse. You also want to make certain the shoe isn’t too long, or your horse may step on the heel of the front shoe with the toe of his hind foot, causing it to tear right off along with a chunk of foot.
The farrier should shape the shoe to fit the foot, rather than the other way around. The foot should be trimmed to an angle approximating the angles of the shoulder and pastern, with no more than a 2 or 3 degree variance to allow for gait improvement. Changes in foot angle should be made gradually, with no more than a 1 degree change at any one time. There–not should–but must by law (Horse Protection Act) be at least a one-inch difference between the length of the heel and the toe, with the toe of course being longer than the heel. To stand a horse more upright than this is inhumane and leads to certain lameness and breakdown. Though shoers of non-gaited stock tend to trim the foot very short, our gaited horses perform better with more hoof on the ground.
Whats the Angle?
Here’s what I’ve learned about angles. First of all, every horse is different. What is a high angle for one is only average for another. So no one should ever shoe a horse based on general information such as this–it all has to be planned according to the conformation of the body, leg and foot of the individual horse.
On the whole, a 50 degree angle is considered about ‘average.’ A low angle–such as 45 degrees–causes the horse to stand with a greater amount of angle between his foot and leg. The heel is low in relation to the toe. This is achieved with significantly different lengths between the heel and toe, with the toe being longer. If the toe is 5-1/2" long, and the heel only 3" long, you’ve got a low angle.
A high angle–such as 55 degrees–means there is only a modest difference in length between the heel and toe, with both being cut relatively short, and the feet being more upright in relation to the horse’s legs. This would be true if the toe were 4" long, and the heel 3" long.
Now let’s say that a low angle is equivalent to wearing swim flippers, which places the foot at a greater angle to our leg, as a long toe, short heel does for the horse. How do you move with flippers on your feet? Do you not pick your feet up quite high and as soon as your foot is high enough to clear the toe, start setting the foot back down? Doesn’t the longer ‘toe’ force you to take a much longer stride, and you land with more weight on your heel? So you have a quick breakover with long stride. Your leg moves in a long, low, stretching arc. Same with your horse. A high angle encourage the horse to ‘breakover’ sooner–the breakover being the point at which the horse stops lifting and begins to arc his foot back toward the ground. It also encourages slower setdown for longer stride, or greater gait extension.
Let’s take this one more step. In swim fins what happens to our other leg while one is moving forward? Does it not stay in position until the fore foot is firmly set on the ground? If forced to run in swim fins, would you not take long, low reaching strides, with no suspension? (Of course you might stumble–as might your horse, if the toe gets too long and unwieldy!)
A high angle works just the opposite. It might be equated to wearing high heels, which places our foot at less of an angle to our leg–short upright toe, high heel. This encourages a shorter stride but longer breakover point–you move your foot farther forward before starting to set it back down. Once you’ve achieved ‘breakover’ you set your foot directly down, with more weight on the toe. If a woman in high heels had to run quickly (Lord forbid!) she would be unable to take long, sweeping slow strides. She’d have to take more, shorter but faster steps to cover ground and keep her balance. There would also be a moment of suspension between footfalls as the trailing foot would pick up before the leading foot had quite set down.
Now let’s see how changing the angles between the front and back feet of a gaited horse can help to encourage a particular gait. Let’s first trim the foot with a low angle in front, and a high angle behind (flippers in front, high heels behind). In front we’re encouraging the horse to move with a fast breaking, long reaching, non-suspensory stride("walking"). The hind legs have a slower breakover, a faster set-down after the breakover, a shorter overall reach, with suspension between footfalls ("trotting"). We’ve just described a pretty decent fox trot!
Let’s switch this around and trim for a high angle in front and a low angle behind (high heels in front, flippers behind). The horse will have slow breakover and shorter, faster stride in front, with some suspension between footfalls ("trotting"). There will be fast breakover with a slower, lower, longer reaching non-suspensory stride behind ("walking"). Doesn’t that sound like the ideal running walk?
Trimming and Shoeing To Correct Gait
Differing angles between the fore and hind feet encourage the horse to ‘break up’ a two-beat gait. Breakover and stride length between the fore and hind feet is altered, making it more difficult for them to move in exact synchrony, whether the horse tends to move laterally (pacey) or diagonally (trotty).
If your horse prefers a flat, two-beat pace–or a stepping pace–your farrier may help you square it up into a rack or running walk by increasing the angle of your horse’s front feet (shorter toe, higher heel) and decreasing the angle behind (longer toe, shorter heel). This should be tried first with simple keg shoes of an appropriate size for the horse’s foot. If this doesn’t quite do the trick, try riding the horse either barefoot or with very light plates behind, and with a slightly heavier shoe in front. This will further (respectively) shorten/lengthen breakover.
I do not recommend going to what is commonly termed a ‘plantation’ shoe, as these are much too heavy for practical riding uses. The stress of carrying a too-heavy shoe will lead to long-term foot and leg damage. As you may have deduced, I also believe that pads, wedges, chains and every other kind of artificial gaiting device you can name should be avoided. Gait should be produced in the breeding shed, rather than in the metal shop.
For the horse that insists on trotting or fox trotting, the opposite tact may help the horse to move more laterally into a rack or running walk. Slightly decrease the angle of the front feet (longer toe, shorter heel), and increase the angle of the hind feet (short toe, high heel). If more alteration is necessary, shoe heavier behind and lighter in front.
If your horse is a stumbler, then I’m going to suggest a rather unique shoeing technique that might help. In fact, it’s the opposite of what many people suggest–but I picked up on this method from a real shoeing expert. Besides, it makes sense!
Usually stumblers are shod with lighter shoes and/or shorter toes. Ask your farrier about shoeing the horse with a shoe one size larger than normal. Make certain the heels and quarters (sides) of the foot are well fitted, and leave 1/4" to ½" of shoe extended past the toe. The heavier shoe and longer toe will encourage the horse to pick up its feet and put more effort into correct breakover. Since it will take the horse some time to get accustomed to this, let him wear the shoes a couple of days before riding him in them. Also, don’t attempt any difficult terrain until he’s learned to pick up those feet! After the horse has worn shoes like this for several weeks, he can go back to normal shoeing. Being forced to move correctly will have built up his muscles for doing so, and set him in the habit of picking up his feet.
Let me emphasize once again that nothing should ever be taken to extremes. A variance of 3 degrees from the horse’s normal barefoot angle is a dramatic change–certainly the most that should ever be attempted. Even then the angle should only be changed about 1 degree at any given time. The goal is to obtain a good intermediate gait with as little change to the foot’s natural angle as possible. If your farrier has to change your horse’s foot angle 2 degrees to obtain a fox trot, then content yourself with that gait rather than try for a squarer gait by altering the angle even more. If you’re still not happy with the gait obtained using moderate trimming and shoeing methods, then concentrate on training methods–or get a different horse altogether.
Employing sensible, conservative methods may require several shoeings to meet your gait goals, so be patient. Nothing is gained by making the horse lame through overzealous alterations, and there’s a great deal at risk. What benefit is obtained by rushing the job, if it makes your horse lame for several weeks, months–or forever?
Also keep in mind that your farrier is going to be much better qualified to make suggestions and changes than anyone else. He will be able to see how the horse moves, what condition the feet are in, the angles of the shoulder and pastern, etc. If he happens to be totally unfamiliar with methods of shoeing gaited horses, then you have my permission to photocopy and share this section of chapter seven with him. If he thinks they make good sense, he can adapt the general principles to fit your particular situation. (Female farriers are included in this as well!)
Contributed By: Brenda Imus