Question: Our barn recently changed farriers. The previous farrier doesn’t feel comfortable with the way the new farrier trims and shoes the horses. While the previous farrier believes in keeping the toes long, the new farrier takes off a lot of toe and sets the shoes back. He says it helps balance the foot better. The old farrier says only show riders set the shoes back. Which approach to trimming and shoeing is better for both upper- and lower-level dressage horses?
Name withheld by request
The setting-back of shoes is a controversial subject. It is one of many techniques farriers have used in the past. Especially in the 1980s, it was en vogue to trim the toes and set the shoes back to achieve more toe breakover. What started as a therapeutic method turned into a fashion and was used by farriers excessively. In my opinion, in this phase we did it incorrectly, especially since the technique was often applied without considering the individual horse’s needs. Traditionally, the European warmblood horses that were introduced to the United States had toes that were trimmed shorter to accommodate their longer pasterns. Also, many people in the Thoroughbred racing industry in the United States tend to set the shoes back.
Trimming back the toes and setting back the shoes isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the technique must be used with caution. A horse’s hoof is a biomechanically functioning entity. If you alter the biomechanics by changing the hoof excessively, it cannot support itself anymore and the horse can end up with problems. If a farrier pulls back the shoes behind the white line of the hoof, he has severely altered the biomechanical function of the foot. In certain cases, such as when dealing with a tendon injury, the horse might benefit from this technique. However, it is meant to be a temporary measure. On a long-term basis, it can be detrimental to the soundness of the horse.
My job as a farrier is to support the horse’s hoof so he is able to perform as an athlete for as long as possible. To do this, I work strictly in close contact with veterinarians. They are in charge of the horse’s general health, while my job is that of a mechanic. When shoeing top athletes, I usually have a set of lateral radiographs taken to determine the shape of the coffin bone, which determines the placement of the shoe. The coronary band is considered a mirror of the coffin bone and thus is an indicator of the shape of the coffin bone. The foot should be trimmed in the same shape as the coronary band and the coffin bone. The center of the coffin joint—which is also called the center of articulation of the hoof—is another point of reference for trimming and shoeing. It also can be determined from a radiograph. Ideally, 40 percent of the mass should be in front of the center of articulation and 60 percent behind it. To reverse this by setting back the shoes significantly is disastrous for a horse that works for a living and is ridden heavily as show horses are. It puts a lot of wear and tear on the soft tissue. Ideally, I have radiographs taken once or twice a year and trim/shoe my horses every four weeks.
The tendency to cut the hooves too short also is a problem. Ideally, sole depth is supposed to be at least 15 millimeters, measured from the tip of the coffin bone to the bottom of the sole. Less sole depth can lead to soft-tissue injury and compromised blood supply.
If you have a new farrier, I suggest you ask him a lot of questions to find out if he is up to date with the latest research on equine podiatry and what kind of support he wants to establish in your horse’s hoof. Also, talk to your veterinarian and have a set of radiographs taken if possible. Don’t do anything just because a trainer asked for it. You, as the owner, are the voice for your horse, and you need a team of an expert trainer, farrier and veterinarian to find the right solution for your horse’s feet.
James E. Gilchrist was the official farrier for the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, and for the USET dressage team for the 1988 Olympic Games and the 1999 Pan American Games in Canada. He lives in Wellington, Florida.