Fighting Founder

This is a snippet from my upcoming DVD, Fighting Founder. I've also recently released a trimming video featuring some of the lucky rescue horses at Laughing Pony Rescue in Rancho Santa Fe, California.
Laughing Pony Rescue DVD Image

DVDs are available for sale on my website here:
 
 
Onset - Acute Stage

Immediate Action
The onset of most laminitis cases is rapid. It's critical to act quickly if you want to minimize lamellar damage. By the time the owner calls you to come look at the horse, it may be too late to implement damage control in the form of an ice boot. But in the event that you see the horse within hours of symptoms, or for horses who have, for example, indulged in a grain overload and have not yet presented with symptoms, icing the leg from the knee down, preferably with crushed ice, can minimize lamellar damage. The icing should continue for 24 hours after the horse's digital pulses and rectal temperature return to normal.
 
PinPointing the Trigger
The next most critical step is to determine the underlying cause. This is relevant for both acute and chronic cases. There are many potential triggers - among them: inappropriate diet/insulin resistance or EMS; obesity; Cushing's disease; contralateral limb laminitis (think of Barbaro). Steroid therapy is also a common trigger. 
 
The most common cause I see in the field is simply inappropriate diet, with high carbohydrates, and frequently, obesity. Because of this, I generally recommend putting the horse on an "emergency" diet of low carb grass hay and nothing else until the cause is resolved. 
 
Bloodwork must be done to arrive at an actual diagnosis of Equine Metabolic Syndrome or Insulin Resistance. Make sure the testing includes both a hormone assay to establish insulin levels, and glucose levels; it is the ratio between the two that will give you the most accurate information. Dr. Eleanor Kellon's Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistant website and forum will walk you through this part, and provide invaluable assistance in formulating an appropriate diet.
 
If you believe the trigger was not somehow diet related, there may be a need for antitoxin therapy, or other vet prescribed medication necessitated.
 
Form Your Trimming Plan
You'll want good, properly marked digital radiographs right away to help you form a trim plan.

 
Appropriately Marked Radiograph
An appropriately marked radiograph
 
Establishing an appropriate palmar angle is important, but can be tricky. If the horse has a poorly developed caudal foot, chronic thrush, or extremely high heels, you'll need to approach this with caution. The protocol put together by Pete Ramey and Dr. Debra Taylor at Auburn University prescribes no more than 10mm change to palmar angle at one trim, but even this much can be too much at once for some horses.
 
There's also the question of whether taking too much heel causes the deep digital flexor tendon to pull on P3. Many vets still insist this is true, and I've battled heel height on some founders to the point where I'm still on the fence about this subject. At any rate, it is something to take into consideration.
 
Finding the point of breakover is critical. How to best implement that breakover is a source of some debate. I'm going to tell you what has worked the best for me.
 
Using the digital radiographs, I follow the dorsal aspect of P3 to the bottom of the foot in a line. From that point forward, I apply about about a 10 degree rocker to the toe from toe pillar, or toe corner, to corner. I finish the toe by beveling back just as you would a healthy foot - within an eighth of an inch of the apparent white line, and not into lamellar wedge.
founder bevel
 
Choose hoof protection that keeps the horse as comfortable as possible. Early on, this might be the Easyboot Rx. Further into the transition, as the horse begins to move around more confidently, Easyboot Epics,  Edge boots, and Gloves all work well. Hoof casting with Equicast casting tape is another excellent approach, and may be easier and more effective for absentee owners, boarding facilities, and horses ambulatory enough to be turned out on a dry lot pasture.

Step by Step Trim Progression

I talk a lot here about how to go about trimming a hoof, but this week, I wanted show a hoof at each stage of my trim.
 
Before we start, though, I think this is a good time to briefly talk about why I trim the way I trim. There are always going to be folks out there saying you should have done this, you shouldn't have done that. In some cases, they might be absolutely right. But after all the years and all the hooves I've handled, my trim is the evolution of what works for the horses I trim, in the environment I trim in. It is the trim that I have found most effective at 1) keeping a horse sound barefoot, and 2) preventing new and/or mitigating existing pathologies. Mind you, there are infinite variations on my trim from horse to horse, even within a subset of good footed horses. And a whole different set of principles employed for correcting problems and pathologies.
 
Today, I'm going to show you a trim on the right front foot of a 6 yr old TWH gelding named Riser. Riser is one of my personal herd. He has been barefoot from birth, with the exception of 2 weeks before I bought him and pulled his shoes 2 years ago. While he had been barefoot prior to that, his hoof care was a bit lax - he had the platter foot so common on young barefoot horses allowed to go too long between trims. His feet have shaped up nicely with a good trim cycle and proper trimming. He is comfortable on all terrain.
 
Riser nibbling

Riser enjoys some hay while he models to help me with this article.
 
The steps here are fairly typical of how I trim, although I don't always do everything in this particular order.
 
Photos 1 and 2 show the hoof before any trimming. I had a crazy month, and my herd was a bit neglected; I prefer to trim my own horses every 2 or 3 weeks, but this go 'round we were at about 6 1/2 weeks. You can see the abundance of wall growth, and the bars starting to lay over, although the overall wear pattern remains reasonably symmetrical.

 
Photo 1
Photo 2
Photos 1 and 2 show the hoof pre-trim.

In Photos 3 and 4, I've cleaned up the frog, bars and heel triangles. I've only taken enough frog material to allow easy cleaning. The bars have been brought down to the calloused sole plane, and I've flaked out just enough exfoliating sole in the heel triangles to help ascertain appropriate heel height. While there is clearly old/exfoliating sole across the bottom of this foot, I've left it to shed out on its own.
 
Photo 3
Photo 4
In Photos 3 and 4, I've cleaned up the frog and bars.

Photos 5 and 6 show my first pass with my nippers, taking the wall down to about 1/8" above the sole plane. It's a good idea to always err on the conservative side with your nippers, until you are confident and proficient. You can always take more with your rasp...but you can't put any back! At this stage, things are still pretty rough, but that's fine -- we'll fine tune everything with the rasp.
 
Photo 5
Photo 6
Photos 5 and 6 - I've used my nippers to take excess wall height.

I've used my rasp to level the nippered wall in Photos 7 and 8. My balance still isn't quite right; the lateral (outside) heel is still considerably longer than the medial (inside) heel. The lateral toe corner needs a bit more work, too. I cleaned that up before the next step.
 
Photo 7
Photo 8
Photos 7 and 8 - leveling the wall with the rasp.

The next step is to begin the bevel, or mustang roll. On a thin walled hoof, I usually begin the bevel from the bottom using my rasp. But on a thick walled hoof like Riser's, taking a first pass with the nippers is a nice short cut. Photos 9 and 10 show the bevel I've nippered.
 
Photo 9
Photo 10
Photos 9 and 10 show the bevel I've started with my nippers.

Finally, in Photos 11 and 12, I've finished the bevel from the top of the foot. I always go back and look at the bottom of the foot again, just to make sure things are nice and even.
 
Photo 11
Photo 12

Photos 11 and 12  -- after finishing the bevel from the top.

RF front view AT
RF lateral AT
 
I've added a lateral shot, and a dorsal (front) view so you can see the finished product. Riser tends to flare if I let him go too long between trims as I did this time, and you can see that here. I find that dressing the wall, and therefore thinning it, to remove these flares weakens the hoof capsule and can perpetuate the problem. Instead, I prefer to leave most of the wall thickness, and just keep a strong, fresh bevel on the foot. Hopefully, this month will cooperate, and I can get Riser back on a 2-3 week trim cycle!

What to Trim Between Trims

As a barefoot hoof care practitioner, I typically keep all of my clients on a four week trim schedule. If you are fortunate enough to have your horse in a pasture or large pen with ideal barefoot footing, or you manage to ride many miles every week, four weeks is about ideal. But for most working folks who only ride every couple of days, with horses in the typical boarding situation, four weeks allows quite a bit of growth. If you really want to maintain an ideal foot, mitigate any flaring, and mimic natural wear, trimming a little bit every week or every two weeks is absolutely the way to go. The same is true for rehabbing formerly shod feet, and especially for growing out things like wall cracks and white line separation. 

 
long toe,low heel 
Here's a foot that will absolutely benefit from bringing that
runaway toe back weekly once we pull his shoes.

 
Doing some touch up work between your trimmer's scheduled visits can really help keep things moving along in the right direction. If you trimmer agrees, he or she will probably also gladly show you how to accomplish the trim. Your trimmer will also provide guidance on what, and how much needs to be trimmed. This can depend a lot on what kind of pathology you're dealing with, but in most cases, there are some basic touch ups that are a good call for most hooves. All you really need to accomplish these interim trims is a rasp.

 
Dazzle chronic founder
Keeping the toes backed up on chronic founders like this mare
with weekly trims can greatly enhance comfort.
But don't try to eradicate the flared toe on a horse like this entirely.
Remember that the corium/vasculature still wrap around that distorted coffin bone.
The wall is simply mirroring the internal structures.
Removing that flare entirely will leave the coffin bone vulnerable.
 
Keeping breakover where it should be by maintaining the wall bevel is number one for any foot. You can do this from the bottom, or from the top. While it's physically easier to rasp a bevel from the top, it takes some practice to get the angle right, and to know how far to go. With the foot on your hoof stand, and holding the rasp with both hands, you want to rasp a 45 degree angle from the dorsal wall from 2:00 to 4:00. Continue your bevel through the quarters, but remember that the wall is probably thinner there, and the bevel won't need to be as thick. 
 
It's very common for beginners to rasp the angle too flat; doing so thins the wall, and does not produce a strong bevel.
 
 bevel from the top 2
Beveling from the top. Be mindful of the angle of your rasp. Most folks tend to rasp to flat from the top, which thins wall, but does not produce a strong bevel.

Your bevel should leave about 1/4" of wall width when viewing the foot from the bottom. Generally, if you bevel just to the beginning of the unpigmented hoof wall (called the waterline), you'll find you're just about there. Dark feet are a little easier to practice this on, because you can use this unpigmented inner wall to gauge when to stop. 
 
The bevel can be rasped from the bottom of the foot, as well, and this way, it's easier to recognize how much needs to be done. Angle your rasp at a 45 degree angle from the plane of the bottom of the foot, and bevel to the unpigmented wall, or until there is about 1/4" of flat wall width.

 
bevel from the bottom
Beveling from the bottom. Note the angel of my rasp in relation to the bottom of the foot.
 
It's not usually necessary to rasp the heels between 4 week trims. But if you have a horse that grows a lot of heel, or a horse that needs to build sole in the front of the foot, it might be helpful. Pull the rasp across the heel in line with the collateral grooves, and towards your body. Be careful to follow the existing plane, so as not to change palmar angle. And only do a few strokes on each side.
 
Don't be discouraged if you can only do one foot at first! Trimming is hard work. You'll find you do a better job if you don't try to trim all four feet in one session. It's much easier to make mistakes once you're body is tired. And keeping these sessions short will keep your horse patient with you while you get a feel for trimming! 
 

Trimming the Toed-Out or Toed-In Foot

I wrote an article on how to maintain your horse's trim between your trimmer's visits for this week's On the Hoof entry. But I saw a horse yesterday that brought up an issue I wanted to address instead.
 
The horse in question was a teenage Quarter Horse gelding sprung upon me at the last minute by a client who runs a local rescue. The horse's name is Traveller, and he isn't a rescue; he belongs to my client's neighbor, who uses him as roping horse. She begged me to follow her over and have a look at his feet, explaining that he had a "crooked foot", and had been lame for some time.
 
(I have to pause here and apologize that I did not get photos of Traveller's feet...it was the end of the day, and I had apparently left my camera on for several hours, so the battery was dead.)
 
I was prepared to find some sort of wry foot, or a deformity from an old injury, or something along those lines. What I found instead was a horse with an angular limb deformity. He clearly wanted to toe in from the fetlock down. His caretakers had worked mightily to straighten it (for years, it would appear) by horrifically imbalancing his poor, innocent hoof.
 
Whether toed-in, (pigeon toed) or toed-out, trying to straighten the limb by shortening one side of the foot (or letting one side of the foot become long) is never a good idea, and can lead to degenerative joint disease higher in the limb. (I was not surprised to see that Traveller had very obvious high ringbone laterally on his poor manipulated foot.)
 
Appropriate trimming for an angular limb deformity is an issue that hits close to home for me. My 8 year old, homebred Paint gelding, Mixer, is pretty radically turned out from the knee down on his left front. 

 

Mixer's left front takes a pretty radical turn! He is overdue for a trim here..about 5 weeks.


(He's awfully cute, though, isn't he?)
 
In spite of this defect, Mixer is lighter on his feet than any other horse I have ever met. In fact, his nickname is "Lightfoot". He is truly one of those horses that just appears to float above the ground. If you focus on the way that left front loads, it'll about give you a heart attack. But instead of fighting to create "normal" hoof flight in that leg, I've simply worked to balance the hoof appropriately for the skewed bony column.
 
To do so, I've simply used the sole plane as my guide in balancing that foot. 

 

Before and after trim.


Lateral view, before and after trim. (The "after" shot is angled a bit, and not exactly lateral.)

As a result of the odd loading pattern (he literally lands first on the lateral quarter and heel, and rolls over the medial toe and quarter), his heel is somewhat contracted. But the really interesting thing here is how symmetrical the wear pattern is. I think perhaps one of the most important things to look for when trying to keep a foot and leg like this healthy is just that...even, symmetrical wear.

 

Mixer's left front, before trim. Pretty doggone even wear pattern, eh?


...and after trimming using sole plane as my guide.
 
 
With some angular limb deformities, corrective trimming when the foal is just months old can help straighten the limb. Attempting to do so to an older horse will only cause problems.
 
The take home message? The best approach to keeping a horse like this sound is simply to strive to keep the base of support directly under the boney column, and work to achieve an even wear pattern.

What to Know About Trimming the Toe...

Generally, trimming the toe properly is relatively simple. On a reasonably healthy foot, bring the wall about an 1/8" above sole plane, and bevel back to the waterline. Your bevel will be stronger on a thick walled foot, less pronounced on a thin walled foot, but the end result should be the same. This strategy will serve you well on most horses, and when in doubt, this is the safest guidance and will take most hooves in the right direction. 

 

An exceptional hoof, about 2 weeks post trim.
 
There are, however, some factors to consider in addition to our reliable guide, the sole plane. These markers will help guide you when the sole may not be the best guide, and prevent you from creating any problems.
 
Optimal breakover is one of the most important parameters in determining how to trim toe. It is generally agreed upon that this is essentially directly under the leading edge of the coffin bone. Measure from the widest part of the foot to the heel buttress. Proper breakover will be about half that distance in front of the widest part of the foot. In a healthy foot, you'll find that this corresponds reliably with beveling the wall back to the waterline. 
 
On a less perfect foot, you may need to break the rules to achieve good breakover. With a long-toe, low heel pathology, often referred to as "forward foot syndrome", you would be beveling behind the white line to achieve these parameters. This is an aggressive, "quick fix" trim designed to encourage the foot to reshape within a couple of trims, and should be supervised by an experienced professional. Otherwise, bringing your bevel at the toe all the way back to the white line will take the foot in the right direction, although not as quickly.
 
We're all well-schooled never to take toe from the bottom, and never to invade the sole plane. Most of the time, that is exactly the right advice, and straying from this comfort zone can be scary. But there are instances when we do need to take toe from the bottom. Perhaps the best benchmark we have to recognize when this is necessary is collateral groove depth. If collateral groove depth at the frog apex exceeds collateral groove depth at the heel, it's a pretty safe bet you need to re-assess your trim. Either you've taken the heels too short, or there is too much depth at the front of the foot. 

 

This horse was dubbing his hind toes dramatically. 
Assessing the collateral groove height showed considerably 
more depth at the apex than at the heel. 



Rasping the toe down from
the bottom of the foot about 1/4" stopped the toe dragging,
and improved his  movement considerably.


Lateral view of the same foot after trimming.

In some cases, this indicates a negative palmar angle, where the back of the coffin bone sits lower in the foot than the front. There may be a broken back hoof/pastern axis, or there may be a bull-nosed/dub toed dorsal wall. In this case, taking toe from the bottom is necessary, but should still be done with caution. Take the extra depth from the front of the foot cautiously and gradually. Most horses do best if you simply rasp flat across the excess sole, instead of paring out concavity.

 
 
Bull-nosed dorsal wall on a hind foot with a negative palmar angle.


With proper trimming, less than a year later...
 
With long toes and FFS, it can be tempting to dress the wall so that it appears to be at a more acceptable angle. I've also seen this done to camoflage a bullnosed toe. Please resist the temptation to do this! It is purely cosmetic, and can weaken the integrity of the hoof capsule enough to aggravate or exaggerate any problems.
 
Any time your trim leaves a hoof primarily loading sole, as with the aggressive breakover for a forward foot, be sure to provide the horse with some form of protection for riding or turnout. 

Heel Height: Factors to Consider

I've yet to mentor an aspiring trimmer who didn't wish aloud for a hard and fast, always-and-never guide for trimming. Yep, that sure would make it easier! But we're working with a living thing...an amazing feat of natural engineering, for sure, but one that, within that marvelous design, will offer an infinite combination of variations within the normal range. Add to that: long-existing pathologies, traumatic injury, compensation for conformation quirks above the hairline, and other anomalies. The bottom line is, you're bound to be faced with but a handful of ideal feet that would fit such a standard protocol.
 
Probably the one aspect of trimming with the most exceptions to any rule is heel height. Ideal palmar angle is considered to be anywhere from 0 - 10 degrees. So how do you decide what's right for this horse, right now? In many cases, you won't have radiographs to guide you, and even if you do, it may take some time to achieve that ideal. In their Hoof Rehabilitation Protocol, Dr. Debra Taylor and Pete Ramey recommend no more than "10mm maximum change [relative to the toe] to heel height at one session". 
 
The standard guidance in the absence of radiographs is to use the live sole plane in the heel triangle as a guide, and trim the heels to about 1/8" inch above sole plane. This is an excellent parameter, and probably the best standard out there. But it's still not that simple. 

 

This foot clearly needs a lot of work, but bringing it within
ideal parameters won't happen in a single trim.
 
 
Here is a list of factors to consider when establishing heel height.
 
1. Dorsal angle
Okay, I put that one first because I couldn't wait to hear the collective groan! But here's the thing: dorsal angle is a very real parameter, and one that many barefoot hoof care paradigms tend to ignore. That might be because there are a couple of fundamental problems with the traditional approach to creating appropriate dorsal angle. One problem is the practice of achieving that angle by thinning the hoof wall. The other is the failure to recognize dorsal flare, and trying to fix the imagined low angle by growing heel. 
 
It is generally agreed upon that 55 degrees is the average healthy dorsal angle for front feet. Some barefoot protocols prescribe a much lower angle, and you'll have to decide for yourself which way you lean, but I personally side with the preponderance of credible research, which dictates between 50 and 55 degrees for the front feet.
 
2. Hairline angle
Again, there are different opinions as to what constitutes a healthy hairline angle, ranging from 20 to 30 degrees. I've seen enough research supporting an angle closer to 20 degrees, and enough robustly healthy feet that demonstrate it, so I'm inclined to be satisfied with something in the 20 degree area. It's probably safe to look for something in between the two.

 

This foot has about a 54 degree dorsal angle, a 20 degree hairline angle,
and a 49 degree heel angle. This somewhat contracted heel looks high,
but lowering it would create a broken back hoof/pastern axis.
 
 
3. Contracture
Contracted heels will generally look longer, and the foot more upright, than ideal. Take this into consideration, and don't try to force them shorter. This is a good time to use collateral groove depth as your ultimate guide. Work on encouraging the heels to open by aggressively treating for thrush, and getting the horse moving properly as much as possible.
 
4. Live sole plane, +1/8"
This strategy is going to work well for many horses. But don't make the mistake of trimming to live sole at the heel, and then trimming to calloused sole in the front of the foot. If you have a half inch of callous in the front of the foot, but exfoliate down to waxy sole at the heel, you could easily imbalance the foot. 
 
Trimming to live sole plane +1/8" probably won't work for horses with unhealthy frogs, or underdeveloped/weak digital cushion.
 
5. Collateral groove depth
Collateral groove depth at the heel is a great way to gauge heel height. 5/8" to 1" works in most cases. But that 3/8" difference can make or break a horse's comfort, so it's important to weigh all of the other factors.
 
6. Widest part of the frog
While this is a good goal to keep in your mind, it's a pretty subjective guideline for pathological feet. Overgrown frogs will have you leaving too much heel. And in many horses with underrun feet and crushed heels, you'd be bringing the heel much too short.

 


This navicular horse's heels are almost in the middle of her foot.
Because the foot is overlong all the way around, it was possible to trim her
within an 1/8" of live sole without creating a negative palmar angle.
 
 
7. Comfort
This one sounds obvious, but it can present a bit of a conundrum if you're working to change a problem foot. Sure, if you leave a mile of heel, the horse might be more comfortable for now, but in most cases, that is ultimately not a healthy trim. The key, then, is to do everything you possibly can to make the correct trim comfortable for the horse. That means eradicating thrush, first and foremost. Don't underestimate the discomfort even a little bit of thrush can cause in a bare hoof. It may also mean boots and pads 'round the clock.
 
Ultimately, if you try one approach, and it leaves the horse very uncomfortable and toe-walking, you've taken too much too soon. Re-evaluate, and try something different. I hope this arms you with a little more information upon which to base your heel height decision!

A Barefoot Hoof Trimmer's Guide to Tool Use

Now that you've selected your hoof knife, nippers and rasp, you're ready to actually use them. But for a lot of folks, the first trims feel really awkward, and the tools unwieldy. Natural hoof care websites show us plenty of examples of what a healthy bare hoof looks like. It's harder to find good instruction on how to use traditional farrier's tools to achieve that healthy hoof. But learning how to handle and make the best use of your trimming tools will make trimming easier, and make it easier to achieve a balanced trim.
 
Nippers do the heavy work. They are best used for removing wall when the wall is relatively long. They are also handy for coaxing out large sections of exfoliating sole, as well as overgrown bars, but be conservative when doing so. In addition, trimming shedding frog or excessive frog height is easiest using nippers.
 
When nipping hoof wall, I start at one heel, and work my way around to the toe; then go to the other heel, and work my way back to the toe until I've nippered all the way around. ALWAYS nipper off less material than you think is ultimately necessary. You will come back with your rasp and clean things up, and additional wall height can be removed with the rasp.
 

Nipping the wall flat.
 
Nipper the wall flat first. After your first cut, overlapping the cuts will make the job easier. It will also help you keep your nippers even, and your cut level. Don't worry about trimming to the sole through the quarters; you'll relieve the quarters with your rasp if needed.
 
I usually use my rasp to bevel the wall, but on especially thick-walled horses, I sometimes start my bevel using nippers. But until you become proficient with your hoof nippers, always nipper the wall height flat to begin with -- never nipper a bevel at the first pass!
 
The hoof rasp does the detail work. Use the rasp to level the foot. The best way to do this is to imagine the bottom of the foot is the face of a clock: the central sulcus of the frog is 6 o'clock. The center of the toe is 12 o'clock. Begin at the heel (either 5:00 or 7:00), and rasping OUTWARD, work your way around from the heel to the toe on both sides of the foot. Never attempt to rasp both sides of the foot at once.
 

Leveling the wall by rasping "around the clock."
 
To rasp the bevel, I usually work from the bottom first, using the coarse side of the rasp, and applying a 45 degree angle starting at the waterline. Then bevel from the top, applying a 45 degree angle in relation to the wall. You can use either the coarse or the fine side to bevel from the top -- it just depends how thick and tough the wall is -- and the fine side to clean things up. The fine, or file, side of the rasp can be used to reduce flares if necessary.
 

Beveling from the bottom.


Beveling from the top.

Always let the weight of the rasp do the work, and be sure to take long strokes, using the full length of the rasp, instead of short, choppy strokes.
 
It may take you a while to feel confident enough in your knowledge of the hoof to put your hoof knife to use. The knife is best used to clean up exfoliating sole, to trim shedding frog, and to sculpt the bars. Hold your hand out in front of you, palm facing down. Now grasp the knife handle, with the blade coming out the pinky side of your fist, and pointing away from you. I make a habit of working the blade away from my body; not everybody does this, but you'll shed less blood that way! You can use the thumb of your other hand to push the blade. To trim rubbery frog, use a slight sawing motion.
 

Hold your knife with the blade AWAY from your body. Use the thumb of your other hand to help push the blade. 
 
Those are the basics. We all find different techniques that work for us, but this is a good leg up on learning to use your tools, and letting your tools work for you.

Choose Your Weapons! The Right Tools Make Barefoot Trimming Easier

Wandering around a farrier's supply store, whether in person or online, can be a little boggling. You really just need nippers, a hoof knife, and a rasp... but which ones?
 
First and foremost, be prepared to spend some money on your tools. Whether you plan to be a professional barefoot trimmer, or you're just trimming your own horse, good tools will make the job easier, and will last much longer. That said, not all good quality tools are more expensive than the others.
 

Ultimately, you'll fill your kit with a lot of things that you use occasionally: shoe pulling tools, boot modification tools, measuring tools, etc. But good nippers, knife and rasp are the essentials.
 
Hoof Knives
I have a dozen different hoof knives (what can I say...I like knives!) Among them are a couple of custom hand-made knives that cost upwards of $150. But my favorite knife is a simple, sturdy loop blade that retails for around $30. A loop knife is essentially a right- and a left-handed blade in one knife. I find this much easier to use than having to switch knives constantly between left and right. The size of the loop is important. For an average size hoof, you'll want a smaller loop; for draft feet, a larger loop.
 

A beautiful custom loop blade with hoof pick (top), and (bottom) my favorite $30 loop blade.
The hoof pick feature is nice, but it prevents me from using my opposite thumb to push the blade.


The custom knife (right) also has a much larger blade than the $30 loop (left).
The custom knife, while it holds a beautiful edge, is too large for the average size foot.
I use the $30 knife for all but the largest draft feet.

 
Nippers
I started out with a really inexpensive pair of nippers, and they made my life miserable. If you want to save money, better to skimp on your knife and rasp, and not your nippers.
 
Nippers come in many shapes and sizes. Handle lengths range from 12 to 15 inches. The longer the handles, the more leverage you'll have for getting through thick, tough walls. But on smaller horses and ponies, long handles make things difficult. I use a pair of high quality 14" nippers for most horses, but I also carry an inexpensive pair of 12" racetrack nippers for the little guys. 
 
Racetrack nippers have a narrower blade, which some trimmers find easier to use. Then there are half round nippers, which have a round, instead of straight, blade. Half rounds are handy for getting at hard to reach areas, and are useful for things like hoof wall resections, prying out exfoliating sole, or taking down excessive bars.
 
You can purchase nipper springs to use your nippers one-handed. This can be a useful tool for trimming squirrelly horses. If you have small hands, you'll probably find you can only use the 12 inch nippers with the nipper spring.
 

I carry a pair of high-quality 14" nippers (right) and a less expensive pair of
12" racetrack nippers for smaller horses.
 
Rasps
Rasps vary widely in sharpness and smoothness. Rock hard, arid weather feet will require a sharper rasp, while wet weather feet will require a smoother rasp with less bite. A standard rasp measures 14 inches in length, but 17 and 18 inch rasps are available for trimming draft feet. An excellent all around choice is the Save Edge rasp.
 
Keep all of your tools clean and covered to protect them from rust and dust. You can simply keep your rasp in the cardboard sleeve it came in. Good quality rasps will usually come in a plastic cover, which can be reused. I wrap these plastic sleeves in duct tape for a little extra durability, and they work great. Knives don't usually come with a sleeve or cover, but keeping them wrapped in a towel or a piece of suede will do the trick.
 

Reinforcing the sleeves your nippers and rasps come in with duct tape creates
an inexpensive, long lasting cover to protect your investment.

Basic Barefoot Hoof Trim Guidelines (And a Few Noteworthy Caveats)

Acute laminitis cases and other severe hoof problems aside, here are some good general guidelines for a non-invasive, basic barefoot trim.
 
Trim Wall to Live Sole Plane
 As a general rule, bringing wall height within 1/8” to 1/16” of the live sole plane is a good guideline. Leaving that little bit of wall height will make all the difference in keeping the horse comfortable. 
 
There are many times it simply won’t be that easy. Horses with a lot of sole that’s nearly ready to shed, for example, can usually be trimmed level with the existing sole plane; that way you aren’t leaving the hoof capsule too long once that sole sheds out. In some cases, bringing the heels to live sole + 1/8th” is too short; horses with really unhealthy frogs, for example, will usually do better with a bit more heel until the frogs are healthy again. Likewise, some horses with severe heel contraction may need a bit more while the foot is allowed to relax.
 
Once you’ve established wall height, you’ll apply your bevel, or mustang roll. A good rule of thumb is to keep the bevel of the wall the same width from the edge of the sole plane around the foot. If the wall is well attached, with no white line separation, you’ll simply leave the wall the same width from quarter to quarter. If the horse has separation at the quarters, but not at the toe, the wall will be more aggressively beveled through the quarters, less so at the toe.
 

A spectacular hoof. This foot needed nothing more than the wall trimmed. Because of the excellent sole, and a robust frog, the wall can be trimmed almost level to sole plane.
 
Don’t Touch Sole
This is, in most cases, a safe and prudent rule. A more accurate statement, though, might be “don’t touch the sole until you’ve learned to distinguish between live sole, exfoliating sole, and retained sole.”
 
Live sole has a waxy appearance that’s hard to miss once you’ve seen it. Exfoliating sole is either chalky, coming off easily with your hoof pick, or has cracks and edges that look like they can be peeled away. Retained sole is often very smooth, and frequently fuses with the frog. 
 
The best advice here is, if you’re not sure, don’t remove it. But rest easy in the knowledge that if it’s not ready to go, it will be quite difficult to remove. If it chips or flakes out easily, don’t be afraid to exfoliate it - gently. You’ll then be better able to gauge appropriate wall height and heel height. 
 

This is another very healthy foot, but in this case, there was a layer of sole ready to be exfoliated. I'd leave a tad more wall height after paring out sole like this.
 
Don’t Trim Frog
Overtrimming the frog is detrimental. But not trimming the frog at all isn’t always the best approach. A diseased frog, with fissures and crevices and a general swiss-cheesy appearance, should be trimmed to remove unhealthy tissue. 
 
 
This very compromised frog should be cleaned up with a hoof knife until no more flaps or black material are evident.
 
An excessively overgrown frog can make it difficult to gauge collateral groove depth, and heel height. It’s a common rooky mistake to trim the heels to existing frog height, instead of to live sole. 
 
Developing a better eye for a healthy frog will help you decide when to pare the frog, and when to leave it alone. It is always a good idea to clean up and open the central sulcus.
 
Trim to Tight White Line
I threw this one in here because this was what I was taught when I was first learning to trim, and boy, is it a scary idea! ALWAYS use the sole as your guide. Only in very extreme situations is it necessary or remotely prudent to bring the wall shorter than the live sole plane, and even then, it should be done only by an experienced hoof care provider!
 
Hairline/Dorsal Angle/Heel Angle Parameters
There are some very disparate ideas out there regarding ideal hairline angle, dorsal angle, and heel height. There are some relevant studies on the subject, and my personal opinion based upon those studies, as well as the hooves I’ve rehabbed over the years, differs quite dramatically with some of the parameters being preached by a number of different hoof trimming schools. But I think it’s sufficient to say that NO hoof should be trimmed with the immediate goal of an ideal. Learning to read the hoof, and apply the right trim for that foot at that point in time, will never let you down. Ultimately, if you trim a lot of horses, you’ll begin to see a remarkable consistency in the healthiest feet, and from that, I would encourage you to form your opinion on the subject of ideal angles.
 
Finally, always be wary of the word “always”. If the protocol you’re trying to apply makes strict assertions that a particular element of the trim should be applied to every foot, remind yourself that every foot is very different, and should absolutely be trimmed with that in mind. And as always - if what you’re doing isn’t working, try something different!

Trimming Tips: Making it Easy for You AND the Horse

What’s comfortable for you as a barefoot hoof trimmer might work for many horses, but not all of them. Any time the horse you’re working on gets wiggly, it’s a good idea to take a step back and try to figure out why. Not only will the horse appreciate it, but it will make your job a whole lot easier.
 
One of the most basic things I do is carry a full bottle of good quality fly spray. I consider it one of my tools, and I feel it’s one of the best investments I make to ensure a more compliant horse. (I’ll also pause to flick flies off of supporting legs when I see them. That might be the quickest way to gain a horse’s trust ever!)
 
Where you trim is important as well. Take a minute to look around and observe your surroundings.  Will it be better to trim in the crossties, with the arena activity behind you? Or the tie rail, where the horse can watch the activity in front of him? Is there are horse close enough to bite or harass the horse you’re trimming? A tasty patch of grass just close enough to be too much temptation?

 

Two different ways to hold a front hoof. Resting the foot on your leg (left) is often more comfortable for older horses, or horses with knee or shoulder pain.
 
Some horses do great with their owners holding them for their trims. But for some, it’s a little overwhelming -- as if they’re not sure who they’re supposed to be paying attention to. Other horses are absolutely quiet and happy with the lead rope thrown over their withers, but dislike being tied for trims. Many horses in show barns are accustomed to being cross tied for grooming and tacking up, and seem to prefer cross ties and stand more quietly for trimming, as well. Occasionally, hanging a hay bag for a fidgety horse to nibble at while you trim takes the stress out of the situation, and calms the horse. On the other hand, some horses become so food focused, this is counterproductive.
 
Then there’s just basic physical comfort. While I definitely have a height at which I prefer to fix my stand for different aspects of the trim, this is sometimes too high, or too low, for the horse’s preference. Any time a horse repeatedly tries to yank a foot away, experiment with where you’re holding the foot. Just a few inches higher or lower, forward or back, is often all it takes to make the horse happier. I even have a couple of horses on my roster who cross over so extremely behind that I trim the hind feet from the opposite side. This can work well for horses with balance problems, as well. 
 

I'm tall, so I generally like to hold the hoof higher, but for some horses,
this stand height would be uncomfortable.

 
In very painful horses, or older horses with advanced arthritis, doing only a little bit on one foot before working a little on another foot works a treat. My own 28 year old gelding appreciates this approach...clean up frog LF, clean up frog RF; clean up bars LF, clean up bars RF; and so on. It’s a bit of running back and forth, but he stands quietly for the entire trim this way, instead of protesting and trying to lie down on me every 2 minutes. Ever so worth the effort!
 
These are just a few examples, but the concept is simple. The result is a happier horse, an easier trim, and a safer trimmer. What unique ideas have you used to help a horse stand quietly for a trim?