Do Some Horses NEED to Toe Out?

MJ was so much better for my lesson than he was in my lesson last week.

Last week he had gotten his new shoes, with a new alignment, on. He no longer has a bar across his frog for protection, he now has a full pad across the bottom of his front hooves, and as directed by the veterinarian from X-rays the farrier trimmed him which ended up with MJ toeing out a little bit with his front hooves. Not “ideal” according to cosmetic demands, but on Wednesday he showed me that it was pretty good for MJ right now.

There were many differences in my ride. The most obvious one was that all of a sudden my normal alternating calf pressures were all of a sudden MUCH more than he needed to proceed. What I got from him was “you want to trot? No problem.” I did not ask for him to trot, I was just asking him to extend his stride a little bit at the walk. However, in my 30 minute ride, he offered a trot around 8 or 9 times. Most of these I just used my “slow down” leg and hand aids to get him to walk. Other times I let him trot a little bit. In one direction his head did not bob at all, in the other direction it bobbed a lot less than before, and at no time did I feel any indications of pain in his front legs. I sat two of his volunteer trots, one in each direction, and for the first time I did not feel like I was riding a jackhammer. His trot was not totally smooth but he felt like a horse that just needed a little bit more physical conditioning and education to develop a trot that is comfortable to ride sitting down in the saddle.

This is a BIG change. I was expecting months of patient physical development until I got him to where sitting his trot could be somewhat comfortable, instead all it took was letting his toes point out a little bit from the “ideal” front to back hoof alignment.

Not only that, the new hoof alignment seems to have helped the pain in MJ's right knee.

This got me thinking. MJ has been shod for being a lesson horse with navicular disease for a long time. I presume that his farriers trimmed his hoof so the hoof axis from front to back was pointing straight ahead, like it does with an “ideal” trimmed hoof, at least neither Debbie or I saw his toes pointing out somewhat before. Now I am wondering if “correcting” his front to back hoof alignment made his navicular disease worse through less than ideal uneven stresses on the navicular bones, and if this misalignment aggravated his right knee.

This leads to a conundrum. Farriers are between a rock and a hard place, should they listen to the horse owner who wants the horse's hooves to look perfect or should they break the cosmetic rules about how an ideal hoof looks in favor of trimming and shoeing the horse the way the horse needs to be trimmed to stay sound? Human owners of the horses can be very vocal in demanding a perfect looking hoof, while the horse does not make its negative comments until after the farrier has finished the hooves and left the barn, and then the horses comments are silent and subtle.

MJ has always felt Not Quite Right (NQR) when I rode him. He has never been quick off the leg, in fact I would have to alternate my lower leg aids every stride of the walk to keep him at a decent walking speed, namely faster than the lesson horse 2MPH slog with no impulse. I was very surprised when MJ, all of a sudden, was quick off of my driving leg aids. I am going to have to lessen my lower leg aids, and I am faced with the delightful prospect of riding a horse that does not need leg aids every step of the way to keep moving properly. Just give the leg aid, release, and let the horse proceed, just like I used to ride my horses oh so long ago.

I will now have to work on getting the movement on MJ's right and left sides more even. He is still pretty sticky going to the right. I got a decent leg yield out of him going to the left as he crossed his hind legs properly, but I could not get a decent leg yield to the right. Of course it will take a while for his right knee to get comfortable again, but that is already beginning.

Whenever I backed up MJ recently I had big problems getting him to take even one step back with light aids. I would have to discuss it with him for around a minute before he would take a tiny step back with one diagonal then it took even more negotiations for him to take the next step back. This Wednesday he backed up on pretty light aids, he backed up two steps in a row, and his body stayed pretty straight. Yes his steps were more like micro-steps, but Debbie was very pleased, I asked, he responded properly, and we can work on this from here instead of getting into a long discussion each time for an inferior result—a rushed and crooked back up.

Near the end of my ride came the final confirmation that yes, stuff is different now. The ring was rather damp, the previous night's rain had erased the hoof prints in the sand from the previous day, and I could see MJ's hoof prints in the sand. We had gone up the center axis of the ring, on very light contact and no leg aids, and MJ's path was STRAIGHT with evenly spaced hoof prints until I asked him to turn. I had never noticed a straight line of hoof prints from MJ before.

My conclusion is that MJ NEEDS to toe out a little bit more than is ideal, to stay serviceably sound, to ease his aching joints, and to let his 28 year old body work properly like he was a young, sprightly, and properly conditioned horse. His responsiveness to my driving aids, his sudden willingness to trot, his much smoother sitting trot, and his trail of straight hoof prints, YES, we are finally doing something right.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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