Transitioning Your Horse:
Rest or Exercise for Great Hoof Health?
When the shoes come off, it’s common for the hoof to need to heal and strengthen to become fully sound and functional. What is needed to rehabilitate the hooves will depend on what problems you’re trying to address.
People are often advised to work the feet until they’re better, but this isn’t always the best course of action. The method that produces the best result will vary, depending on where you’re starting from.
This is part 3 so let’s talk about when to provide rest and when to use corrective exercise to help transition your horse’s hooves.
When I’m talking about rest, I’m not talking about box rest. I’m talking about time off from work. I mean not being ridden or asked to carry extra weight, and not being worked with human interference ie aids to force certain outlines or such like.
Rest means field rest and maybe some hand walking. Allowing the horse to choose how they want to move their own body.
While we all understand the idea that to strengthen a body part we need to exercise, it may be that the hoof isn’t ready for strengthening yet. It may need a period of healing first.
Rest promotes healing. Exercise promotes strengthening.
Rest for healing.
Sometimes you’re just not strong enough to start strengthening exercises yet. That exercise can be causing strain rather than strengthening.
We’re all familiar with how we get sore if we start working out or trying to increase our fitness and that’s ok, to a point, but it doesn’t really apply in the same way to the hooves.
To strengthen a muscle, you need to lift a little more weight than that muscle is comfortable with, or lift a weight for longer than the muscle is comfortable with. This causes minor tears in the muscle. By healing the minor tears, the body makes the muscle stronger.
This is what we’re doing when we’re working out, and you’ll actually feel less discomfort if you do this regularly than if you do it occasionally.
If you lift a weight that is exceeds the muscle’s capability, then you’ll cause a muscle tear. Not a micro tear that aids strengthening, but a major tear that will cause a major reduction in the function of that muscle. The kind of tear you’ll have to rest if you want it to heal. If you don’t tear the muscle, you may injure a tendon, ligament, cartilage or joint.
If you lift that weight incorrectly, there’s a good chance you will cause an injury to to the tendons or joints as well.
Of course, how a muscle gets stronger isn’t the best analogy for how a horse’s foot gets stronger as there is no muscle below the knee or hock. It is however, how most people understand the process of using exercise to strengthen the body, so I thought it was worth an explanation, if for no other reason than to highlight why we need a different approach for the hoof.
What are we doing when transitioning a hoof?
When we’re transitioning a hoof we are doing 2 things.
Firstly we are healing the internal structures of the foot. There are soft tissues in the hoof that usually weaken as a result of having a long term external support on the hoof capsule. Much like the soft tissue gets weak when we wear a plaster cast, the soft tissue in the hoof will be weak due to lack of use.
Secondly we are strengthening the hoof capsule. Strengthening the hoof capsule is not the same as strengthening a muscle. We’re not working it to make it stronger. We’re growing more horn product. Muscle doesn’t grow unless we actively exercise it. Hoof horn just grows.
I hear a lot of talk about desensitising the hoof after the shoes come off. I don’t really find this term very helpful if I’m honest.
On the one hand everyone is talking about how a shoe numbs the foot, and you need to take the shoes off so horses can feel their feet again. Then they talk about desensitising the foot to make it functional.
I don’t really agree with either statement. There’s a definite disconnect in the thinking as both things can’t be true.
I don’t think a shoe numbs the foot, if a shod foot were really numb, they wouldn’t go lame with abscesses or navicular. The added structure does increase the useability of the foot (in some respects, it decreases it in others). I’d just rather add that structure by making the foot more healthy rather than nailing on a shoe.
A shoe does limit the stimulation the foot will feel, by limiting the distortion of the hoof capsule and lifting the hoof off the ground. (these 2 things are also what causes the hoof to weaken)
Once the shoe is off, we start talking about desensitising the foot. We don’t often need to desensitise the hoof. Usually what we need to do is allow the hoof capsule to grow and provide more structure to protect the sensitive hoof, and/or address the cause of over sensitisation of the foot (usually inflammation).
Technically reducing over sensitisation is desensitising but the main cause of the over sensitive foot is inflammation (laminitis), and really if we’re addressing laminitis let’s call it that. Very few people think that desensitising the hoof means treating laminitis. But it does.
So...why is rest important?
We’ve identified 2 main goals. Improving the health of the internal structure and growing more hoof horn.
Until that hoof horn is thicker, exercise is going to result in over stimulation of the internal structures. Over stimulation is not going to promote healing. A hoof boot will protect from this over stimulation to a point, but how much they increase the usability of your horse will depend on how much deformity there is to the hoof.
For instance, I would say that low heels are easily the most common problem we address when a horse is first out of shoes, so let’s use that as an example.
Low heels are usually underrun, maybe to the point of being collapsed. They can be low without being underrun, but that is less common. You nearly always have a thin sole with low/underrun heels, and frequently have a weak frog too.
Low heels cause a lot of mechanical strain on the body. There’s more strain on the tendons, the knee and the shoulder, the joints and the muscles.
You’ll have a very underdeveloped digital cushion, so the hoof will not be dealing with concussion as well as it should. This will also cause strain on the whole body (nerves, joints, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage, muscle, bones)
These problems usually cause a lameness/footsoreness or gait abnormality, and muscle imbalance. If you want to grow a better balanced hoof, you need better balanced movement and a better balanced body.
The low/underrun heels often mean you have a ground parallel pedal bone (or even a negative angle). This means the hoof is landing too heavily on the back of the bone, causing forces to be going in the wrong direction, and too much strain on the bones in the foot.
A hoof with a ground parallel pedal bone struggles to deal with the forces placed upon it and will become bruised and/or abscess more easily.
It can also cause damage to the sole corium resulting in poor sole growth. The thin soles increase the chance of bruising and/or abscessing.
Abscesses will cause damage to the hoof capsule as well as strain in the body from the pain and lameness.
Does this sound like a hoof and horse fit for work?
Think back to the description of how muscles respond to exercise. To work this horse would be a great example of excessive load causing damage and being at risk of injury rather than strengthening.
But won’t my horse get unfit?
One of the biggest problems people have with giving their horse rest is they worry that they’ll get unfit and lose muscle. This is a possibility, but it can also be a benefit.
A horse who has lame or unbalanced feet is moving in an unbalanced way. This means they’re building up the wrong muscle groups and supporting incorrect movement. This not only increases the chance of injury, but when the incorrect pathways are strong its much more difficult to get a horse to use the correct pathways.
The most common way you see this is horses who have overdeveloped hamstrings and weak glutes. The glute should be the primary muscle for propelling the horse forwards and the hamstring the secondary.
You don’t need to worry about losing unbalanced muscle build up too much. Once you have balanced movement, you’ll find the muscles build up really easily.
A rest period really can be so beneficial to the whole body. I’ve found over the years that when rest is given at the beginning, horses improve dramatically. It seems the ‘slow way’ is so much faster when it comes to healing.
Exercise when you need rest is a cost. It’s a withdrawl from your health bank account. Exercise when you’re ready for it is an investment, it's adds to your health bank account.
Once you have a bit more health to the structures and you’re ready for exercise.
It could be that the exercise you need is just general riding with boots and pads, or even barefoot.
If you need a bit more concussion to toughen things up, then roadwork can be beneficial.
If you’re trying to build up soft tissue within the hoof, then lateral movements are great.
If you need to exercise but can’t afford the wear on the hoof, then boots will help.
If you want to strengthen the frogs, then boots and pads.
The important thing is you have balanced movement and a good hoof landing.
If the hoof is landing toe first, then you’re not stimulating the correct structures and you’ll be causing problems in the shoulders. Either using pads or working on a soft surface will help minimise the problem, but it is a problem you need to be aware of. (however if you have a toe first landing due to a deep central sulcus in the frog, you’ll want to avoid a sand surface)
There are so many ways to utilise exercise to stimulate the hooves to strengthen. The best thing to do is discuss what will suit your horse best with your hoof care practitioner and/or your bodyworker.
I’d love to her your experiences of transitioning your horse in the comments below
This is part 3