Long Toe, Low Heels;
How Leverage Affects Laminar Attachment

033 Archimedes and Long Toes fb
How much will the leverage caused by a long toe and low heels really weaken the laminar attachment of the hoof capsule? Let’s look at what’s really going on. What causes it and how can you stop it?

Archimedes said he could move the earth if you gave him a long enough lever and a fulcrum to place it on. I don’t doubt that, though the difficulty in proving or disproving his claim, is in finding a lever long enough and strong enough, a place to put the fulcrum and a place to stand to operate the lever.

No doubt there are other considerations, but let’s not stretch the analogy too far, we’re talking about trimming hooves after all!

People talk a lot about the effects of leverage on a horses hoof capsule. Some say it’s a problem, some say it’s useful but who’s right? Regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised to hear me say, both arguments make valid points; it just depends on where you’re starting from and what you’re trying to achieve.

What Is Leverage?

Leverage is defined as the exertion of force by means of a lever. For our purposes it means the force placed on a hoof from the ground by the movement of the leg. Breakover would be another term for it. Breakover usually refers to the forces on the toe, but during lateral movements the forces would be more on the quarters.


Breakover starts when the heels first lift off the ground and ends when the toe leaves the ground, so the forces are primarily on the toe.

Breakover is really important. It’s fundamental in propelling a horse forwards. In most cases, you hear people talking about shortening the breakover to reduce the leverage effects on the toe and thus the stress to the laminae.

It’s worth noting that these forces are what the horse is using to propel himself forwards. The more you shorten the breakover, the less the horse has to push off with, which means movement requires more muscle power and you may well have a shortened stride and less endurance.

In the case of laminitics, where reducing the stress on the laminae at the toe is very important and effectiveness of forward motion isn’t important, shortening the breakover can be very valuable. But what about cases where there isn’t laminitis?

Long Toe Low Heels Leverage

The idea that the toe growing a little long places it under so much stress from breakover that it will cause enough stress to the laminae that it causes rotation or stretching (which is the precursor to rotation anyway) seems a bit over the top to me.

Think about it. While I don’t subscribe to the idea of a wild horse trim for domestic horses, there is great value in thinking about things from the wild horse perspective.

Picture this; for whatever reason a wild horse grows a long toe and *gasp!* there’s no hooman to fix it for him!! If the effects of leverage when the horse breaks over is as important as they say, then it won’t be long before that horse tears it’s hoof capsule away from the internal structures.

That doesn’t sound likely right? Yet we apply the same reasoning to domestic horses all the time. There’s a bit of stretching at the toe, so it’s trimmed back to fix it. Does that help?

Shorter Toe = Less Leverage

Yes to a point. It helps reduce the leverage on the toe for sure. But here’s where it goes wrong for me. Was it the leverage that caused the problem? It can’t be. The toe has to have grown long for some reason. If leverage made the toe stretch, and the stretched toe is causing a leverage problem, then both things have to happen simultaneously.

A toe can’t grow long BECAUSE too much leverage is placed on it, as it would need to already be long to cause the leverage. (I keep trying to write this in a way that makes sense, but I don’t think I can, my point is… it doesn’t make sense!!)

I’m struggling with finding an analogy for this one, so feel free to add your suggestions in the comments below, but think of it like this. If someone is overweight, it’s not because they’re overweight.

It’s because there’s an imbalance in their environment. Removing the fat would temporarily remove the weight from them, but the fat wasn’t the cause of the fat, so it’s going to come right back unless other changes are made.

I don’t believe the long toe does provide enough leverage to cause stretching. Not on it’s own anyway. Laminar attachment is unbelievably strong. Strong enough to withstand the stress of the weight of a whole horse, complete with rider landing predominantly on 1 hoof after going over a 6ft jump.

That strong!

So what if the long toe was caused by the same thing that’s causing the stretching…

I believe to get stretching at the toe; you have to weaken the laminar attachment. If it’s functioning properly, it’s too strong to be upset by a little extra leverage.

Stretched White Line and Weakened Laminar Attachment

Stretching of the white line (which is a less terrifying way to say, stretching of the laminar – though they amount to the same thing – sorry) happens far more to ‘pasture ornaments’ than it does to working and competition horses (based on my experience anyway).

Yet the hooves of competition horses are clearly under a lot more stress and have far stronger mechanical forces placed upon them.

I think it’s low grade inflammation that’s causing the problem. Inflammation weakens the laminae and can cause the toe to grow much faster. It can also cause a posture issue that causes the horse to lean his weight on his toe.

Chuck in some inflammation to weaken the laminar attachment and I can totally see how you get stretching at the toe.

What isn’t clear to me is how trimming the toe back helps fix the problem. It reduces the leverage, yes, but the leverage is a by-product, not the cause. The correct trim is important, but it rarely fixes the problem. You have to find the problem!

Where to Concentrate Your Efforts?

The force on the hoof capsule, COMBINED with the force of the inflammation is what I think is doing the damage. We know that the mechanical force alone isn’t going to cause damage and the metabolic force most certainly can.

When we’re trying to correct problems with our horses’ hooves, we really do need to look at more than just the hoof capsule. Hoof balance isn’t always the answer to the problem, though it is frequently affected by whatever the real problem is.

Nothing happens in isolation. The body is all connected. It’s easy to blame hoof balance for causing a problem in the body, but if there is a connection between those 2 things then it must be possible for the body to affect the hooves just as frequently.

Trimming (or shoeing) isn’t always the right tool for the job when it comes to fixing hooves. It doesn’t necessarily reflect on the skill of the hoof care professional. The best saddle in the world won’t make you a good rider if you suck. At best it will only help you to sit in a more balanced way. Once the horse starts moving – you’re on your own!

(and yes I’m talking about myself there – I look like a great rider, right up to the point where the horse starts moving – it’s somewhat downhill from there 🙂 Good job I’ve got a lifetime to learn I guess…)

Does your horse suffer from long toes?
How are you approaching solving the problem?
Does your horse have his toes shortened when trimming?

I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below

  • Jim Brannon says:

    Excellent article! I believe there are a lot more domestic horses suffering from sub clinical laminitis than most realize. Shortening the toe solely to deal with this, while necessary, is just a band-aid. However, I routinely shorten toes to prevent undue subluxation of the DIP joint. I once saw a chart on how the forces on that joint go up exponentially as the toe gets longer. How short is too short or what is short enough is open to consideration. My thoughts are the harder the ground the more attention needs to be given to toe length. If the ground is soft then not so much. All the best, Jim

  • waymire says:

    While the wild horse hoof is an excellent goal.. domestic horses are not wild horses. They are not bred, fed, housed, or used in any way similar to the typical wild horse. Even the most determined efforts at natural horsekeeping cannot reproduce the movement, diet, or environment of the wild horse.. nor take into account natural selection which would eliminate many of the horses we are trimming in the first place, since they are simply not robust enough to survive in the wild. Their hooves are simply not going to behave in the same way. The wild horse would naturally trim (break off) any accumulated length in the toe.. I have a Wyoming bred QH that does exactly the same thing even in domestication, I hardly ever have to touch his feet. He is an exception though, his breeding is such that he is closer to the wild horse model than any other horse in my barn. If you are not going to trim toes because a wild horse would not need it.. by that logic you would not trim at all.
    As for keeping those toes short, and by short I mean beveled back to the white line if it’s tight and to the edge of the sole if it’s not.. it is the key to my trim and I have seen it do miracles. Just constant vigilance on those toes (combined with as much movement as possible and the elimination of thrush), even every few days if necessary to keep it where it belongs, will create massive change in the hoof. I’m not saying it will fix everything, but it’s the key that unlocks the door to fixing the rest. Concavity appears, frogs improve, sole sheds/builds, heels move back. You just read the hoof and make adjustments as the changes appear. As to the cause of the problem.. improper diet, not enough movement, bad breeding, shoeing.. pick one or all. Yes, it would be fantastic to eliminate the cause of the problem, but unless you can provide 24hr browsing on native vegetation, 20 miles a day of barefoot walking over varied terrain, and a mare and stallion who have the kind of feet that are forged from that environment.. over the entire life of the horse…. well you have to do what you can… and that’s not even taking into account long term physiological deformation from previous care (or lack thereof). If the forward toe is caused by years of deformation of the hoof capsule or even deformation of the coffin bone resulting from multiple founders compounded by improper trimming.. it’s not a good idea to stop doing the thing that keeps that hoof under control simply because you cannot turn back time and prevent the founder. Some hooves cannot be fixed. They can be improved, but will never be 100% correct. I’m in no way advocating the “band-aid” approach and I completely agree that you have to look beyond the trim, but you have to address the foot you have while making any possible changes to the entire horse at the same time. Everything, even something as obscure as saddle fit or the weight of a rider will affect those feet, and you can only control so much.

    • Debs Crosoer says:

      Thanks for comments. I’d agree that the wild hoof model isn’t all that helpful to a domestic horse. I don’t see how bevelling the toe creates concavity though.

      My point wasn’t about trimming – it’s very rarely about trimming. Improve the health of the horse and you’ll find the health of the hooves improves. Focusing so much on the trimming like you’re suggesting, it great if you’re fixing a trimming problem, it’s only half the story if you’re dealing with a horse health problem though.

      Absolutely everything that happens to the horse can affect his hooves, so why do we talk so much about hoof balance when trying to correct a problem?

      • Jutta says:

        Great article and discussion, thanks for that. Actually I can see how you could both be right, too. Wild horses say in Nevada or Arizona have completely different feed from horses in wetter countries. We cannot really get the food the horses have there, so we might have to treat the hooves differently from nature to compensate for other drawbacks. Hence, shorten the toe 😉

  • Liz says:

    Have you heard of hoof mapping? I went to a very interesting clinic run by tge Equine Lameness Prevention Organisation. Essentially you draw lines on the sole determined by specific points and from there you can identify where the digital phalanx, point of the pedal bone and ideal point of breakover are. We mapped cadaver hooves and then cut them open, it works. Too much information to type on a phone but search elpo and you should be able to find the relevant info.

  • Di says:

    I wish I could solve the long toe, low heels with my horse. It’s dogged us for a long while.
    No stretched white line, lives out 24/7, poor grazing, never overweight.
    I’ve run out of ideas!!
    I know that without seeing her…….
    But any suggestions welcome….

    • Debs Crosoer says:

      Yes, sadly as you’ve sorted the common causes it makes it very difficult for me to add anything helpful as it’s likely to be horse specific. I’d check posture, is she standing with her legs straight down, or are the front feet further back and/or the back feet further forward give a sort of V shape to the stance? Is the toe flicking in the air so the hoof landing is more on the back of the heel rather than the base of the heel? Is the leg twisting on landing causing more wear to the heels? If you use boots and pads for all work do the heels grow?

      Of course there’s also the obvious – are they being trimmed that way? (life has taught me it’s always worth asking the obvious 🙂 ) And are you sure you have long toe low heel. Sometimes a contracted frog can make the foot so narrow it looks like the toe is long, when really it isn’t.

      Sorry, that’s more a bunch of questions than helpful suggestions, but that’s what I’d be looking for in round one of ‘figure it out’ :)

  • Keri says:

    I don’t agree with you that long toe or toe stretching is not caused by incorrect trimming. The problem often starts from laziness or lack of skill and quickly grows into a seemingly un-correctable problem. Every horse I have ever seen with long toes was caused or exacerbated by poor farrier work. When farriers change, the problem is fixed. The problem I believe is just simply because the balance point has gone wrong and because of the amount of weight on those front feet, it quickly becomes a problem.

  • Renée says:

    I have a Welsh pony with long toe/low heels. I have made have done several things to improve his feet. He used to drink ground water and now gets tap water. I feed him with a highly dosed balancer. This contains amino acids, extra copper and zinc and has no added iron. The forage he gets is meadow hay and limited pasture time, and some alfalfa/esparcette for protein.
    I have him under a regular trimming schedule where i give a lot of attention to the toe flare, I keep the toe short and keep the quarters slightly off the ground.
    I have been working in his feet for two years now (he’s been shod before) and he has made huge improvements. The sole is less flat and shallow and the wall is at least twice as thick as it was. He’s walking soundly.
    I keep my horses on paddock paradises with varying ground surfaces.

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