Contracted heels in horses
What are contracted heels? And how can you spot them? And what can you do about them?
- Contracted heels in horses happen when the entire hoof, at the back, starts to come together. The heels will start to pinch together and may curve towards the bars of the hoof. Often, the frog is squished, and in extreme cases, the hoof wall will curl back and interfere with the frog. The central sulcus of the frog starts to get deeper and more closed off, which is a great way to grow a nasty hoof infection. If you look at a horse’s hoof from behind, you will see the hoof walls creating a V shape.
- You can also see them when looking at the underside of your horse’s hoof. Starting at the apex of the frog, “draw” 2 lines along the grooves and out behind the hoof. This line should pass on the outside of the heel bulb and not intersect it.
This hoof has somewhat contracted heels. You can see how tall the hoof wall is at the back, and the dried-out and squished-up frog. The grooves are quite deep.
What causes the heels to move towards each other?
- It’s important to remember that contracted heels are not usually the actual problem, they are typically the result of another issue with your horse. Most horses with contracted heels have pain, and sometimes the pain from another issue causes the contracted heels.
- Any time a horse puts more weight on the toe, the heels have more room to run together and grow towards each other. Your horse’s anatomy may have something to do with this. Upright hooves and club feet are common instances of this. If a horse’s hoof is a clubfoot, this is also the case. Clubfeet in horses is caused by a contracted tendon at the back of the cannon bones. The contraction of the deep digital flexor tendon encourages the horse’s heels to grow taller. You can’t simply trim down the heels here, the tendon needs to be addressed.
- Horses with navicular pain are also at risk of contracted heels. Because of the pain inside the hoof, a horse will often shift his stride so the toe strikes first. This creates a choppy and short stride.
- A contracted hoof might also be the result of improper, infrequent, or inappropriate hoof care. Shod horses also need to have properly fitted shoes, so the hoof doesn’t grow to match a smaller shoe size.
- Injuries to the leg and hoof can also lead to contracted heels, especially if the injured leg is non-weight bearing. The hoof will contract from what boils down to lack of use. There’s also the long term risk of laminitis in the healthy leg, from taking the brunt of the weight.
- I’m pretty sure that contracted heels don’t happen overnight. Just as we memorize our horse’s vital signs, we should memorize their hooves, too. Every so often I’ll take some photos before and after a farrier visit to compare to previous visits and look for trends.
What other problems do contracted heels cause?
- The first problem with contracted heels is pain. Be it secondary to other pain, or not, lameness is a real possibility. There’s also the chance that the hooves will be some shade of different forever.
- There’s also damage to the frog. When the heels contract, the frog is “squished”. Oftentimes, it becomes hard and shrinks, as it can’t do its job. The contraction has changed the shape of the frog, and removed it from the earth. The normally wide areas of the frog, the grooves and central sulcus, become deep and narrow. This is a primo location for thrush to set up shop.
- Thrush is a bacterial infection that grows without oxygen. Your vet should always be in the loop when you are battling thrush, especially if you are working with contracted heels as well. There are many types of medications that can be specific to your area of the world, based on the bacteria that are common in your neighborhood. This is why there are boatloads of “remedies” that work for some, but not others.
- You and your vet also need to address how to deliver the meds into a frog that’s abnormal and contracted. Some syringes have specially designed tips to allow access to narrow spaces, there are some hoof packs you can use, there are concoctions to soak your horse’s hooves with.
- Thrush creates a wound. Please don’t put bleach or peroxide into that wound. These substances create tissue damage, which just gives the bacteria more room to grow into. These substances are also drying – and you already have a problem with an unhealthy and dry frog. Don’t add to it.
You and your vet and farrier may need to explore various reasons for the hoof contraction. Navicular problems are one reason.
How can you help support your horse’s hoof?
- It might seem logical to just trim the hoof to make the heel shorter. But you need to look at the entire hoof, and your farrier and vet need to make adjustments up the entire leg. For clubfooted horses, lowering the heel puts more strain on the tendons. You have to change the toe and breakover to balance this out. This can be done with special shoes with easy breakovers, and sole support that’s squishy. There are even spring shoes with hinges in the toe that help the hoof widen out.
- Adding a pad or sole support material like a pour-in pad allows the frog to start reaching the earth again. This will hopefully start to heal the frog and bring the hoof back to a more natural state.
- Surgery can sometimes be done to remove the hoof wall from where it’s growing into the back of the hoof. This is usually only for extreme cases.
Some of these things work for some horses, and not others. In some cases, doing the exact opposite of these things is what helps. Your horse’s team can work towards making your horse comfortable in accordance with his individual medical history and pain levels.