In my last blog, Functions Part I: The Hoof's Memory Foam, I discussed the digital cushion. In this blog, I'll build on that and look at the functions of traction and braking.
Most of the horse’s hoof is made of a horny substance that is quite slick. Except for the frog, which can feel leathery, spongy, velvety or glossy. One of the functions of the frog is as a brake pad and traction aide. Green is for GO and Red is for WHOA.
Have you seen an image of a horse sliding to a stop? How about a “stubborn donkey”? Both postures are the same: the front legs brace and the back legs brace and all four feet are on their “heels” or…on their frogs.
Think of rollerblading, with a brake at the back of the “foot”.
Ironically, when teaching someone to brake with roller blades, they teach to balance with the upper limbs. Looks like a similar posture and spinal balance to both the horse and the donkey. Front limbs go out, back legs hunker down.
If you look at the back end of the hoof, almost the whole span of it is the frog. While it does have several functions, it is also the rubber brake. You can visually see the width of the hoof. In the back, the green areas indicate really how “wide” the back of the hoof is. It is predominantly frog that takes up the back of the hoof.
Additionally, the frog absorbs concussion from the weight of the footfall. Let's look at function some more. We have a functional choice: we can land toe first, or we can land heel first. What does the hoof look like it was designed to do?
What’s at the toe is the tip of the coffin bone, and the sole of the foot and the front of the hoof wall. Even without being a vet, I can hazard the guess that hundreds of pounds-per-square-inch probably weren’t designed to land there “first”. In the back of the foot, we see this huge cushion and a large depth between the ground and the closest bone. It’s a bit like a Nike, isn’t it? With a big fluffy heel to support the jarring impact of landing. Less and less cushioning as it goes towards the toe.
I would have to guess that a horse would want to land heel first. He wants to land on his traction pad frog, he wants to land on that digital cushion inside of his hoof.
A horse who is hurting on his heels, will attempt landing TOE first. Trimming to relieve that pressure, a horse can immediately adopt a heel first landing again. And I will dive more into that in the next blog, when we go over more of the innards of the hoof.
(I know the photos look like uphill and downhill, but it's actually relatively flat ground. It's just the angle of the photo.)
Here are a couple more shots of toes landing first, taken from a therapeutic hoof care facility:
And another heel first landing:
Don't get too excited if I prance away from this topic of toe-first/heel-first landing. Again, the next installment has to do with the rest of the hoof innards… which I feel is important to cover in order to better illustrate why toe-first/heel-first occurs. For now, I just wanted to introduce the functions of the digital cushion and frog.
Moving on! Lastly, a horse needs to be able to “claw” its way into acceleration. It needs to “dig in”. If you had to shape a device to dig in, it would likely have knobs, scoops, treads and the like. If you can picture a tank tread, it should have something that digs into the dirt, followed by something hollow.
A human footprint does the same thing, there are deep spots and hollows. This is us “digging in” to the ground and getting traction.
Horses have a cupping to their foot too, to help them dig in too.
Some have deeper cupping than others. Just like all parts of our body, you use it or lose it. Not all humans have high arches. If you, as a human, wear shoes with tread, your body doesn’t have to try as hard to “carve” your foot into a digging machine. The shoe does it for you. Same with horses in metal shoes. A metal shoe gives the horse a digging “rim” around its edge. So some horses in shoes go “flat footed” just like a human would. (Note: this isn't my argument for shod vs. barefoot, I am merely trying to illustrate the natural cupping a horse develops for digging in and running when barefoot)
While shoes have many functions and hooves have many functions, I am sticking to the simple, illustrative view that the rim of the hoof will dig into the ground for propulsion and that one function, can also be mimicked with a shoe; giving the horse a digging edge. When you take the shoe off of a routinely shod horse, you can see their soles are a bit flatter.
We’ve covered the very basics of bone and bare minimum of function. I know for as many people out that that love one part of function of the foot, there are ten more that love a different part. I am trying not to leave out any essentials, but am trying to cover the BASICS. If you've never trimmed your horse, never looked at its feet in curiosity, never wondered if your trimmer or farrier was doing a great job or just a decent one, I am hoping to give you a very basic understanding so that you are more empowered about the health of your horse's feet.
For the next blog, I’ll write about the “in between”, or, “what are all the bits between the bone and the outside hoof that I can see?" How do the inner bits, the middle bits and the outside bits work together to carry a 1,000 pound animal down the trail?
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Through a lifetime of "horse crazy" and the fortunate experience of riding nearly every shape and size of horse, I got to see a wide array of hoof shapes and sizes. No Hoof, No Horse is very true to me. I want to ensure that horses on every continent have a variety of footwear to pick from, to ensure the best match is found. I want your partner to be happy from the ground up!