Three common hoof distortions

 All the different types of hoof horn that make up the hoof capsule, the wall, frog, sole, bars and periople, are constantly growing.
Certain medical and environmental conditions can cause an increase in the rate of hoof growth above that which is generally considered normal.
As the hoof grows it not only becomes longer but the entire hoof capsule can migrate forward if left untrimmed and can cause postural and gait changes.
In NZ the wet soft grassy environment, most of our equines live in, can result in a flat, under run, chipped, split set of hooves if the horse doesn't have regular hoof care.
Monthly trimming is often necessary to re-develop and then maintain balanced feet until the damaged hoof capsule(s) grow out.



Mare - flared hoof, horizontal grass stress rings, seedy toe, flat sole     

Gelding - stronger, healthier, tighter hoof but also with stress rings from grass issues

Equines spend most of their time moving or standing. If their hooves are not in good balance from front to back and side to side their bones will not be aligned correctly which will cause postural changes and strain to fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints.

The opposite is also true. If they don’t have good limb and body balance their hooves will grow and wear with in an unbalanced way. Which can then lead to further imbalance in the limbs and body and on and on it goes!


Forward Hoof Syndrome

This is a general distortion pattern that has a number of distinguishing features and is one of the most common hoof malfunctions found in NZ horses.

It can be the result of long term neglect in the unshod, untrimmed horse but is more commonly found in the shod horse that has been left far too long between re-sets.

Forward hoof syndrome causes gait and postural restrictions or compensations as the horse adapts its way of going to forcibly lift its limbs up over the long toe to avoid tripping and landing on its nose!

As the toe gets longer it drags the heels underneath the horse, leaving the initial ground impact zone (if the horse is landing heel first) way too far forward in the mid portion of the hoof capsule instead of near the back of the hoof where it should be.

The forward migratory pattern of the hoof as it grows unchecked causes a constant unnatural impact in the Navicular region of the hoof.

Damage to that area is inevitable with a foot forward syndrome hoof pattern and a toe first landing.

The external signs of hoof distortion should be a RED light to the horse owner and alert them to the fact that there is disruption and damage occurring to the internal structures of their horse’s hooves.

Blood vessels, bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, nerves, laminae, the digital cushion and blood flow inside the hoof capsule have lost optimum function

Over time the horse will change the way it moves and likely go from a heel first landing (correct) to a flat footed or toe first landing (incorrect) in order to minimize the pain generated from the crushing of sensitive tissue with each stride it takes.

This change in bio-mechanics leads to shoulder, back and/or hindquarter problems.

The horse develops saddle fitting issues, and a sore back requiring therapeutic work.

The usual end result of this particular hoof distortion is lameness, resulting in veterinary intervention and often a diagnosis of Navicular Syndrome/Disease.



Distorted long toe and under run heel

 Balanced short toe and heel


Distorted hoof
Small frog
Widest part of hoof towards the middle
 Long distance from tip of frog to toe wall


Healthy, balanced hoof
Large frog
Widest part of the hoof towards the rear
Short distance from tip of frog to toe wall



Abnormal toe first landing (more noticeable at the walk)

Normal heel first landing

The good news is that at any point you can stop and usually reverse the trauma.

For correct shock dissipation the horse must land heel first.

Correct, regular (approximately monthly) balanced trimming encourages remodelling of distorted hoof capsules.

With an eventual return of more ‘normal’ hoof shape, comfort can be restored at ground level and the horse will usually land heel first again. This reversal has a positive affect on posture, making it easier for the horse to stand without strain and freeing up the muscles and joints to move with greater freedom.


High / low Syndrome

All horses have some degree of limb dominance, like us, we are usually either left or right handed or load one leg more than the other.

In horses with mild cases of limb dominance (high/ low syndrome) with careful training (Connected Riding and or Straightness Training) that helps the horse develop more even pushing and loading power in each limb without placing more damaging shear forces through its body (that conventional training usually does!) the horse can develop a more even range of motion through his / her limbs without extra trauma to the legs and feet that have been taking more of the load.

The problem is more pronounced in the horses with more obvious differences in hoof size. They really struggle to bend evenly both ways and this will be very obvious under saddle.

These horses need even more care with their training and lots of supportive work from a good equine therapist to help release any body tension that has locked them in an inhibited state of compensation and restricted movement.

The smaller hoof is a sign that something is causing either pain and or restriction somewhere in the hoof, limb or body of the horse.

Muscle contraction / tension in the upper limb / body can shorten a limb making the entire leg uneven.

With the horse standing square on level ground carefully check the knees and fetlocks to see if they are uneven in height. The leg with the smaller hoof is usually higher / shorter than the other leg.

Further investigation may reveal uneven muscle development anywhere through the shoulder, forearm, wither or neck.

Overdeveloped muscle(s) can be on either side of the horse and are not always on the overloaded side.

Some form of equine release therapy will be necessary to help reduce muscle tension and along with regular hoof balancing could help minimize continued misalignment of the limbs.

Veterinary advice is recommended in order to try to ascertain the origin of the problem though it is possible that the vet or owner may never be able to pinpoint the actual thing that caused uneven loading of the feet in the first place.

Overloading one hoof more than the other can cause internal hoof damage which could then set up a hoof abscess, usually in the larger hoof due to continual excess weight being placed on the sound limb and or mechanical founder in the sound hoof.

The leg with the smaller hoof has a shorter, quicker swing phase and often lands toe first which can cause coffin bone remodelling / loss, ring bone, side bone and or arthritic changes in the lower limb joints.

Any equine therapy that does not use force and will allow release to happen at the level the horse is capable of sustaining without causing further injury is very important.



Don’t just focus on the small hoof look at the rest of the horse. Is the leg with the small hoof usually behind the bigger hoof when the horse is standing? Does it take a shorter quicker stride than the other one and land more toe first?

Look for uneven stance, weight bearing, posture, loading, or joint alignment. Look for uneven muscle development / changes. Is the horse leaning towards the smaller upright hoof. Are the pastern, fetlock, knee misaligned? Does one limb look like a short ‘peg leg’?


Club foot / Boxy foot / High heels

An upright hoof is usually seen in one front hoof but sometimes in both front feet and occasionally in all four feet.

Sometimes this group of hoof adaptations ‘normalises’ with the first trim. More often than not though trimming alone is not enough to correct this hoof distortion pattern.

Club foot, boxy foot and high heels are usually the result of a change in body posture and bio-mechanics.

Look for postural / skeletal abnormalities that my reduce the amount of swing in the limb(s)

Whether the actual cause can be found or not, the most important points to consider are;

Some horses with as many as four small boxy upright hooves have gone on to excel in a variety of disciplines, with no obvious ill effects while on a regular natural hoof care and equine therapy programme.



Young gelding, 4 boxy upright hooves, sway back - Lordosis

Three cases of uneven hoof development with known causes of trauma.

Pony, young, not ridden/or started.
Developed high heeled, boxy hoof and broken forward pastern axis on off fore between one trim and the next.
Hoof had been caught in wire fence, no visible external injury
, no x-rays

Gelding, 4yr old. New purchase.
Boxy, upright near fore. Intermittently lame.
Improved with balanced trimming.
Slight unevenness in forequarter movement.
Regular therapy and trimming. X-rayed as a 6 year old.
Bone spur and adhesions in shoulder area, the result of a fractured bone.
History, when finally traced -  horse fell down a hill as a 2 yr old, lay at the bottom of the hill for 3 days. Backed a month later. (not a happy horse)

Gelding, 3 yearold-not started.
Regular balanced trimming from 1 year old.
Off fore boxy, high heeled.
Uneven shoulder development, movement restriction through off fore front limb.
History – mare had a T-bone collision at speed with the foal when he was a few days old.


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