Natural Balance Shoeing
There have been many articles written over the last few years concerning what is being called "Natural Balance Shoeing". This is a new term for a practice called "square toe shoeing" which has been done by good farriers for decades. There is a new shoe on the market called "the natural balance shoe" which is a factory made pre-squared shoe. As I've traveled all over the country I've seen many more horseshoers shoeing this way than ever before, as a result of the articles and newly marketed shoes. In a few cases the Farrier did so correctly and for the right reasons, but more often they incorrectly applied the shoes and didn't even know why they were using a square toed shoe except that ..."that's the way it's being done now days." My objective in writing this article is to expound on the subject in a manner that will help people understand when this type of shoeing should be done and when it should not, and to give a few pointers on doing it correctly.
The first thing to understand is what happens to a horse when Natural Balance (square toed shoes) are applied to his hooves. There are several things that change: As he moves, his break-over takes place sooner. The break-over is when the hoof rolls forward and leaves contact with the ground. This quicker break-over results in less stretching of the tendons, a change in the timing and path of the hooves' flight pattern, and in some cases changes the way the hoof wears and absorbs shock.
Now let's look at each of these changes and discuss when you do and don't want to make them. Understand that the following are general rules and each horse needs to be considered as an individual. Having a professional Farrier who has a real education to base his decisions on is of the greatest importance.
Since square toed shoes lessen the amount of stretching on tendons then it stands to reason that a horse with bowed tendons, or pulled muscles associated with this part of the body's movement will benefit from such shoeing. Horses with hooves that are long from heel to toe are obvious benefactors of Natural Balance shoeing, as the square toes make up for the poorly shaped hooves. This has helped many injured horses for longer than anyone reading this article has been alive. Today there is a push to use this method to prevent the same injuries it is used to treat. I have seen it go both ways; sometimes helping prevent problems and sometimes causing problems. When an athlete is preparing for a game he is wise to stretch well prior to playing. Why? Because his tendons and muscles need to be limbered up or they're more likely to pull, tear, or get sore due to the stress. The same is true with a horse. Squaring the toe lessens the stretching of the tendons and muscles, which truly will prevent some injuries during extreme exertion. The problem arises from the horse walking around in his stall or paddock after a workout and because he's still wearing the square toes he's not stretching out there. Then if he is taken out again and over-exerted before being warmed up enough to limber up those muscles and tendons, kapow...they can snap! Then you have a lame horse whose injury could have been prevented by wearing normal shoes that stretched him out more while just wandering around in his pen. On the other hand, if a knowledgeable horse handler had taken him out and warmed him up good, the extended trot, cantering, and other warm up exercises would have stretched him sufficiently to prevent this injury. And, let me emphasize the point that under these conditions the horse is less likely to be injured wearing square toed shoes than normal shoes. In conclusion concerning stretching of the tendons being less with natural balance shoeing, let me simply put it like this: If you are like millions of horse owners in America that get off work at 5 and only have an hour or so to ride or rope and your horse is not warmed up sufficiently when you ask him to give you all he's got, then you will be better off with a shoe that fits all the way around his hoof and gives him a little stretching as he moves around on his own prior to your ride. On the other hand, if you warm up your horse like you should before asking him to work hard then "Natural Balance" shoeing is a good preventative measure to take.
The timing and path of hooves' flight pattern is a great concern to some types of horses and of little concern to others. If a horse is cross firing, interfering, forging, striking, or in any way hitting one of his limbs with another while in movement then he needs some corrective shoeing to stop this. One of the most common such problems results from overstepping with the hind and injuring his front leg or bulb. Square toes on the rear often help this problem by shortening the stride of the rear foot and also by moving the harsh steel back so that if contact is made, it is with hoof instead of steel. With most Quarter Horses, Paints, Arabians, and other horses that are normal non-gaited horses the flight pattern is not a great concern, or at least is not changed much with square toed shoes. But when you start dealing with gaited horses, such as Tennessee Walkers, Missouri Foxtrotters, Paso Finos, etc. then the issue of the flight pattern and timing of hooves being picked up and set down is of paramount importance! Some of these horses will benefit from natural balance shoes, but they must be applied for a specific purpose and not just because it is the "in" thing. Speeding up the break-over in a gaited horse can completely throw them out of gait and totally ruin the ride! When should a natural balance style shoe not be used on a gaited horse? When the horse is traveling correctly with normal shoeing, since square-toed shoes will make the horse's gait feel choppy. In the case that you wish to try square toed shoes, on a correctly traveling gaited horse, for other reasons besides timing and flight patterns you should put them on all four hooves. So, when should a natural balance shoe be used on a gaited horse? When that horse is taking too long or too low a step and you want to shorten or raise it. Remember that each pair (front or rear) need to be assessed separately; in other words, you may need to square the front and not the rear or vise versa. I have had success with some horses who were too laterally gaited (pacing side to side) by applying toe weighted shoes on the rear and leaving the toes longer than normal and using light-weight natural balance shoes on the front. This changed the timing and flight pattern so much that the gaits smoothed out into a comfortable ride. The opposite approach, toe weights on the front and square toes on the rear, has worked on others. No amount of corrective shoeing can make up the difference of top-notch genetics with gaited horses any more than it could make a Shetland Pony win the Kentucky Derby. Nevertheless, with proper application, you can make a huge difference helping each individual horse reach it's potential.
Now I'll discuss the effects of square toed shoes on the way a horses' hoof absorbs shock and wears while traveling. A healthy and sound horse that has been correctly trimmed, whether shod or not, will move his hoof forward placing the heels on the ground slightly ahead of the rest of the hoof. As his weight is brought down on the hoof the shock will be absorbed evenly along the whole surface of the hoof wall. As his body goes ahead his hoof will smoothly roll forward until it comes up on the toe and then breaks over and is picked up. With either a Natural Balance or a normal shoe, properly fit, the hoof wall performs its function of absorbing shock well. This is because when correctly trimmed and shod the angle of the joints will be the same as with normal shoeing. Nevertheless, I have seen huge numbers of horses that had their joints stressed out due to "dubbing" of the hoof rather than "Natural Balance" square shoeing. When they apply square toed shoes and dub off the hoof they often have the horse trimmed at a very low angle and then make it look "ok" to the untrained eye by cutting off excessive amounts of toe, resulting in a deviation from the natural angle of the pastern joints. (Refer to my article "The Natural Angle".) As far as shock absorption, there's no difference between the correct use of these two types of shoes. In reference to wear, we have a similar situation. When done correctly, the wear of the break-over will be on the shoes, not the hoof. When done wrong the shoe breaks over and then the hoof contacts the ground and wears out as well. This is caused by setting the shoe back too far.
When dealing with a healthy hoof, you can usually consider it safe to use a square toed shoe, which leaves the front part of the underside of the hoof exposed. If the hoof is very brittle or has very thin walls then it may need the protection of a normally fit shoe. If a horse with these problems has need of the benefits of a Natural Balance shoe, then the use of a pad which extends past the front of the shoe and flushes up with the hoof may be used. There are other acceptable methods to help as well, including the rare occasion when it's fine to rasp the hoof clear down to the shoe. This should not be the norm! In most cases the hoof wall that extends past the front of the shoe should be rasped at a 45 degree slope underneath so the remaining hoof slopes from the shoe up to where the hoof wall meets. The hoof wall from the top view should not show rasp marks, but will be straight from the coronary band to where it ends & have the appearance of ending in the air slightly above the shoe, which is set back under the hoof.
In conclusion, I want to make it clear that whether using Natural Balance shoes or making your own square toed shoes, this is a very good method of correcting, preventing, and treating certain problems and conditions. The whole reason I was motivated to write this article is that many of the shoers and horse owners who have switched over to this type of shoeing are doing so universally. They read an article about the benefits and got excited thinking it's the best thing for every horse. That is not true. It is a great thing for many horses that need it, an "ok" thing for many others, and a certain detriment to some horses. The second problem is that a small percentage of horseshoers are truly educated farriers that know how to apply these Natural Balance Shoes correctly, and which horses should even have them! The four biggest mistakes I've seen with shoers trying to use these shoes are dubbing the toes down clear into the white line, setting the shoe back too far on the hoof, trimming the hoof at the wrong angle, and putting them on horses that should be shod normally. So, do I use them? Absolutely! I do so on an individual basis, after analyzing the specific needs of each horse and determining what is in his best interest. I commend the other fine farriers out there doing the same thing!