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High / Low Conformation of the feet

by Doug Russo, CJF

This is a conformational defect that is largely the result of poor breeding practices and should not be confused with a clubbed foot.       Those of you who have been around horses for a decade or more will remember when most horses of most breeds were shorter. Taller horses became more desirable and people started breeding taller mares to taller studs without much thought of overall conformation.

The growing years of the foal are what cause this defect. For instance, a foal with long legs, a short neck, and a small head has to put one front foot out in front. A foal will consistently put the same foot out front depending on his right or left hand preference and the other front foot back or underneath himself in order to get his head to the ground to graze. The foot that is out front develops a lower heel and lower pastern/hoof angle.  The foot that is back, or underneath develops a more upright pasture/hoof angle and in severe cases becomes calf kneed in that same limb.

I don’t think that weight distribution varies largely from limb to limb.  What affects the feet is the difference in the area of weight distribution. The foot that is back, or underneath is bearing more weight at the toe while the foot out front is bearing more weight at the heal . A case study conducted in the Netherlands on warmblood foals was able to conclude that feeding foals up high and keeping them from grazing during the first crucial years would greatly reduce the severity of the high low conformation.

When I see this starting in foals, I always make the recommendation to feed off the ground. I believe this will have a greater effect than anything I can accomplish through trimming or shoeing. However, trimming on a four to six week schedule would help. Feet grow more rapidly towards the path of least resistance.  If a horse is bearing more weight on the heel, there is less resistance in the toe.  Therefore, the toe will grow more rapidly.  This is the reason trimming on a shorter interval is important.

Once the horse is mature there is nothing you can do to correct this conformation, which is true of most all lower leg and hoof conformation defects. I believe at this point any attempts to correct this defect will do the horse more harm than good. What I do at this point is trim each foot independently according to its needs. I will always be trimming more off the heel of the upright foot to achieve a  proper hoof wall pastern angle as i would trim more toe off a foot with a lower hoof angle. I’m not doing this with the intent to “match” the feet (although they do much better right after a trim).   From the time of the trim till the time I come back, they will continue to grow back to a high low state.

It is interesting that this high low conformation seldom, if ever, results in a limb length disparity (one leg shorter than the other). When standing back and viewing horses from the front, even horses with drastically different front feet. the knees and chestnuts are almost always level.  For this reason, wedging or raising the lower heeled foot almost always results in lameness in the form of crushed or bruised heels or, in severe cases, upper suspensory sprains.

I have found that most horse owners make a bigger deal out of this conformation than the horse ever does.  Although a conformation of this type may in time cause arthritis from AP joint impingement, if a horses’ feet are maintained properly I’ve seen them perform at the high levels of their discipline whether it be dressage, eventer or various western events.

Re-posted with permission

Doug russo's l bar s miniature cattle website