WHY the Heels are So Important

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Well, we’ve discussed the importance of the heels but not WHY they are so important.  WHY should be pay such close attention to detail of angles, height and all the rest when trimming the heels of the equine hoof?

Well, that’s easy – the heels are the ‘platform’ upon which the hoof lands.

The hoof is designed to land “heel first”.  When that happens energy is dissipated (from hoof landing) through the frog, the lateral cartilages and on up through the digital cushion.

When the back part of the foot and the frog are not on the ground, the energy is not dissipated but instead travels right up the front of the leg of the horse through the bone and other connective tissues of the foot.  (ref. R. Bowker) The front of the leg has no shock absorbing tissues or way to dissipate the vibrational energy except through the bones. Too much energy over time will destroy the bones and affect the whole horse and his way of going. 

Heels that are too tall do now allow frog contact with the ground and heels that are too low place an inordinate amount of pressure on the frog; too much pressure.

Non-existent heels also do not hold dirt in the commissures. According to R. Bowker, “clean” dirt (not manure) plays an important role in the support of the hoof during movement.  Ewwwwwwww, you say – we don’t’ WANT dirt in the hoof.  But, yes, you do. Again, clean dirt – not manure. As the hoof contracts and expands during loading that dir
t will provide further cushioning to help the frog and then will be forced out of the hoof during expansion of the heels.

Oh … expansion … heels … another important function of the heels of the equine foot. Heels, along with the bars, regulate the expansion of the hoof. Too little expansion (as what occurs with contracted heels) does not allow for proper blood flow to the inner foot and too much expansion does not offer the support that is needed and the hooves will collapse. This is a great visual to see how the hoof expands on loading:

So many times I’ve heard that the horse owner is told by the farrier and/or the vet that the horse ‘doesn’t grow heel’.  Well that’s like saying your fingernails don’t grow or your toenails don’t grow. Of course they grow! Unless there’s been major damage done to the circulatory system in the hoof that does not allow blood flow to new tissues growth. But that’s a whole ‘nother ball o’wax into which we will not delve today.  But really – “doesn’t grow heel” ??  I’ve had cases where the owner was told the heels don’t grow and then, when the shoes and wedges are removed I see the entire sole fo the hoof is overgrown/covered with heel and bar. It’s an amazing sight to see when, after awhile of good functioning and care, the entire “sole” exfoliates in one, large piece only to reveal the most gorgeous concave sole underneath all the old heel and bar covering!

Heels and bars also provide traction. Have you ever tried running on wet grass or even on slick snow in worn out sneakers?  No traction equals no go … you just can’t go ‘cause you’re slipping here and there and just can’t ‘get a grip’.  Well, heels on the equine foot are there to provide “grip”.  How many of you have ridden on smooth, tarred roads with steel shoes on your horse? You know he slips and slides if he doesn’t have caulks on the bottom of those shoes!  Well, barefooted heels are amazingly secure on roads as well as other slippery terrains … wet grass, packed snow, even ice!  (Although most horses will totally avoid traveling on ice as they are savvy enough to realize that not much ground can be covered on such a slick surface!  And, of course, they don’t have ice skates to put on their hooves!)

To add another insult to a horse that has unhealthy heels – the vibrational energy that is present in shod horses or horses with less-than-ideal hooves will destroy tissue in the hoof and even up the leg. Vibration of riding on hard surfaces, again, is meant to be withstood and dissipated through healthy heels, bars and the entire back of the foot.

So to summarize – let’s just quickly look back as to the function of healthy heels on the equine hoof:

Landing platform.
Skid brakes.
Adequate expansion of the caudal hoof.
Prevention of over expansion.
Support overall of the entire hoof including the frog, the lateral cartilages, the digital cushion AND the lower limb!

Heels are pretty important to the horse’s hoof.

Can you think of any other functions of the heels on your horse?





Gwenyth Browning Jones Santagate is the best-selling author of 10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves as well as a noted author for various international equine publications includingThe Horses Hoof, Equine Wellness, Natural Horse Planet as well as a contributing author for the 2001 United States Federal Mounted Border Patrol Training Manual. For the last 37+ years, she has maintained healthy hooves with natural trimming on thousands of horses and specialized in pathological rehabilitation hoofcare for the last 18 years. She and her husband John keep a small herd of their own equine in SW Florida and continue to offer consults for horses in need. For further information please click here:


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