Forward Foot Syndrome

Written By Walt Friedrich

Forward Foot Syndrome (FFS) is a common hoof condition that can and does strike all breeds, shod or barefoot. It's all too prevalent, it leads to serious problems, and for the sake of our horses' comfort, we should know how to recognize and prevent or fix it.

Here are photos to illustrate. First, the beautiful forefoot of a deceased feral horse. It shows most of what we like to see on a hoof:

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Circular shape
Heels well-separated
Frog large and robust
Central Sulcus wide and shallow
Bars vertical and flanking the commissures
Quarters relief
Mustang roll
Toe rocker

This foot was trimmed only by Mother Nature. It, together with its three companions, allowed its owner to move twenty or more miles, every day, all year long, rarely suffering any damage, and never wearing out. Feet like this allowed this horse to tackle any terrain on which he found himself, in any weather. He was what we’d call a “rock crusher”.

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In the center is the forefoot of a living horse that has been trimmed regularly with just standard trimming tools – hoof pick, hoof knife, rasp, and nipper. Note the striking similarity to the feral hoof. This indicates that with proper care and trimming, our horses’ feet can closely emulate those of a feral’s, and be capable of almost equal functionality.

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In contrast, to the right is the forefoot of a Forward Foot Syndrome hoof. Note its characteristics:
Foot shape more oval than round
Toe stretched forward
Heels contracted
Breakover at the toe tip
Frog long and narrow
Central sulcus greatly contracted, forming just a crack
Bars spread out, laid over
No mustang roll
Severe wall flaring

The first thing we need to know about FFS is that it is probably the most common and insidious problem for domestics' hooves. It sneaks up on our horses over time – yet not all horses are doomed to develop FFS. So how does a horse, born with feet destined to look and perform like a healthy feral foot, end up with FFS feet, always tender-footed, and always in some pain? Well, the cause is simply his lifestyle. An afflicted horse is typically underexercised, too fat, and not trimmed frequently enough or properly.

Feral hooves, by contrast, are in almost constant motion, receiving continuous natural trimming from the terrain. The result is the natural foot condition of a horse that lives the life into which he has evolved. Most of us can’t do much about our domestic horse’s home terrain – it is what it is – but we can and should make sure he gets plenty movement, preferably on varied terrain. We can do that by riding him frequently, and we can ensure he gets the most possible movement at home by allowing him maximum turnout. We can’t overstress the simple secret of healthy feet – movement, movement, movement.

That leaves us with the trim.

What does a good trim look like? Well, a good model is the feral horse foot. It’s not that our domestics' feet should look just like feral horses' – even the best rarely do -- but feral horses' feet don't suffer from FFS, and there are lessons to be learned from them. Feral horses are well-exercised, certainly not too fat, and they have functionally excellent, natural trims.

Most of us are diligent about getting our horses' hooves trimmed.
Unfortunately, diligence alone won't cut it. Consider a foot that starts out
in good condition but then starts receiving an improper trim. It may take
months before we notice it's developed FFS; when we finally see it, we scratch our heads and ask ourselves, "How could this have happened? He’s always had such great feet." Well, it's sneaky, it takes time to develop, and we just don't notice it happening. The irony is that we may have been diligent, paid out plenty in farrier fees or sore backs in our efforts to ensure good feet, yet there we see FFS, while all that was needed to prevent it was to observe a few critical aspects of the trim itself.

Barring unrelated complications, the prevention is as straightforward as the fix. The fixing process involves numerous proper trims over time, but that's OK – the feet will be better at each trim than they were at the previous trim, and we'll get there step-by-step. We've just got to take that first step. You know the Oriental proverb about how the longest journey starts.

What follows are the general trim steps specifically intended to prevent or correct FFS in a barefoot hoof. It is not intended to be a how-to on barefoot trimming. It is assumed that a knowledgeable and experienced barefoot trimmer will perform the actual trim, or at least will be available for guidance. It is also assumed that, other than FFS, the hooves are healthy and in virtually normal condition.

First, during the repair phase, trim frequently. A three week cycle is a good compromise between overworking your back or pocketbook and running the danger of letting hoof growth get away from you.

Second, be observant. At each trim study the feet on the ground before you
pick one up. Make a mental note about what doesn't look quite right so that
you're sure to address it when you have hoof in hand. Continue the study
when you pick up the foot: using your pick, clean off the bottom thoroughly, including the commissures; remove any loose flaky sole that comes off readily, so you can see all foot and no dirt. Now look to determine the cause of any anomalies you saw before picking up, and note the condition of the sole components.

Finally, go to the trim. Address any specific problems that you spotted during your evaluation phase, then give the fores the 1-2-3 treatment. That is:
• 1) Trim the walls -- you’ll want wall height to be very close to live sole plane; bring that long toe back -- you can safely take it back as far as the white line, if necessary; rocker the toe and apply quarters relief (not on shod hoof); address any flaring by flat-rasping the outer layer of wall at the flare (using the fine side of your rasp); this will usually require several trim cycles.
• 2) We need short heels – take the buttresses down to perhaps a quarter-inch above live sole plane in the Seats of Corn; if the bars are making initial ground contact, shave them back a bit using your hoof knife – but don’t remove them.
• 3) rocker the toe as needed to allow proper breakover, and apply a mustang roll (not on shod hoof).

And that’s about all there is to it!

Finally, some pertinent comments:

- While every step here is important, pay special attention to the quarters relief. When applied, it will mean that the quarters are slightly above ground contact until the foot is fully weight-loaded. This allows the foot to expand and contract laterally as he walks – known as “hoof mechanism”.

- Hinds don't get a toe rocker, but do get the mustang roll, and may need a
vertical cutback at the toe if the toe wall has grown too long out front.

-Don't trim the toe callus on any foot.

-You may need to trim the bars slightly if they’re in ground contact and you're trimming to correct a case of FFS, but note that when you're trimming to maintain a good foot, the bars should rarely, if ever, need much attention. That’s because they naturally wear well when more upright, as they should be to do their job. If they’re curvy and laid over toward the outside of the hoof, they are pinching the live sole under them, which is painful. Fix it by carefully shaving off thin layers of the flattened bar until you see dirt trapped under it – you’ve reached the sole.

-Normally, the frogs don't need trimming, but if they're in trouble, this is an excellent time to deal with it. Clean them up well, removing loose material. If thrushy, spray them with colloidal silver – you’ll probably need to repeat the frog treatment several times a week for a week or two or until the signs of thrush are gone.

- The steps outlined above are part of the trim method known as the LIM Trim – stands for Less Is More. The essence of the LIM trim is that you do no more than the hoof calls for. You bring the heels back to near the frog buttress, put the breakover far enough underneath so that the foot can start relocating it naturally, and balance the foot according to the live sole plane. In so doing, you're readying the hooves for the forces that act upon them while the horse moves. This trim encourages the heels to expand rather than contract, the bars to become straight rather than curved, and the frog to regain health and bulk up to make initial ground contact.

If your horse is already afflicted with FFS, you can fix it, over time, by
applying these principles. If your horse does not suffer from FFS, he's
probably getting a trim similar in principle to the above - lucky horse. Once FFS is a fact with your horse, it may take a little time to bring those hooves back to health, but you can do it. It's not difficult, but you must be diligent – do frequent trims and ALWAYS follow all three steps. Take pictures so you can see your progress - you may even want to frame them, you'll eventually feel so good about it.

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