Saturday, 27 October 2018

Hoof Health Seminar with Dr. Bowker

*Note: This post is based on the notes I took at the seminar with Dr. Bowker. It was a lot of information to take in, and I am still processing it all. As such, I'm sure there are things I missed. I hope I have captured the spirit of what was said though, and hope you will take the time to dig into Dr. Bowker's work yourself!

“The hoof wall is a decoration.”

With that opening statement to a room full of farriers, veterinarians and trimmers, I knew Dr. Bowker was going to turn traditional thinking on its head at the two day Hoof Health Seminar held on October 24 and 25, 2018 at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon. 

Dr. Robert Bowker is the recently retired director of the Equine Foot Laboratory at Michigan State University in the USA, a world-leading expert of the equine hoof, and a scientist who has made significant discoveries that will revolutionize the way we look at our horses’ hooves and husbandry practises. He has also been someone who’s work I have followed since I started getting serious about hoof care, someone I have a lot of respect for, and someone I was very excited to meet and learn from. Dr. Bowker has done extensive studies on the anatomy of the equine hoof, navicular syndrome and other hoof pathologies.

Dr. Bowker giving the lecture on the first day.

Day 1 began with a lecture. The amount of information packed into my head will take a lot of time to digest, but the following are some of the key points that I took away from the discussion.

  •  If you have a healthy caudal portion of the foot (the rear portion), you have a healthy foot. The digital cushion is filled with thousands of tiny blood vessels, which are too small to be detected on x-rays (only 5 – 25 microns in diameter).
  • Navicular syndrome and laminitis are man-made problems, and neither is a death sentence for the horse. Just because you see something catastrophic in the hoof does not mean it will not heal if given the proper conditions. Dr. Bowker no longer believes that navicular horses cannot recover because he has seen the rehabilitation at work.

  •  Navicular begins 8 – 10 years before the clinical signs show up. The digital cushion is full of ligaments, which attach to the lateral cartilages to create a “hammock” that supports the bony column. These ligaments are destroyed over time, which is the very early stages of navicular.

  •  Don’t be afraid to come inside the white line when trimming! SHORT TOES ARE KEY TO A HEALTHY FOOT. Dr. Bowker’s physiological trim includes coming inside the white line every second or third trim and bevelling the wall from that point. If the toes are too long, it pulls the foot forward and remodels the coffin bone. Over time, the coffin bone will actually grow longer and bone density will decrease.
  • To properly utilize the frog, it needs to just kiss the ground with each step. Too much pressure will cause the frog to atrophy, but without pressure, the blood flow is compromised to the back of the foot. When pressure is applied to the frog, the ligaments in the digital cushion become taut, which creates the negative pressure in the vessels to draw blood through the foot. When the frog recedes into the bulbs of the foot, the pressure approaches zero and the blood flow is compromised.

  •  Don’t trim the frog or the sole! Every time you trim the frog, it gets smaller. It will grow if you don’t trim it. Take the toes back, and trim the hoof to change the tissues on the inside of the foot. Frequent trims with small changes are key to affecting the inner tissues. Long toes will lead to lameness because it destroys the blood vessels under the coffin bone.

  •  One of the key functions of the back portion of the horse’s foot is to dissipate impact energy when it takes a step. The tiny blood vessels in the digital cushion dissipate the energy. Putting fluid through small tubes dissipates far more energy than putting it through large ones. Just imagine the damage to your garden if you turned a fire hose (large tube) on it rather than a sprinkler (many small tubes dissipating the energy). Fewer vessels result in less dissipation of energy.

  •  Only 5 – 20% of the horse’s weight should be on the hoof wall. The hoof wall is NOT designed to be a primary loading structure! This finding contradicts the traditional way of looking at the foot, but it is so important. The sole, bars and frog should all share the load in a healthy foot.

  • If you trim a hoof frequently enough, you can actually modify the bone. The inside of the foot will adapt to what you do on the outside. The calcium in human bones is replaced every 5 years, and equine bones are similar.

  •  In the barefoot vs. shod debate, it is important to understand that a barefoot hoof has more even stresses within the hoof and on the wall than a shod hoof. The stresses are greater on a shod hoof as it can’t relieve them. High vibration caused by the impact of the shoes on the ground (in the range of 2500 – 3000 Hz) will damage the tissues in the foot. Loading the foot at the wall will also cause the coffin bone to become more porous and, therefore, weaker. Porous coffin bones become osteoporotic. Barefoot hooves have been shown to have less porosity than shod ones as the larger surface area creates less internal load on the structures of the hoof.

Carrying all this new information in our heads, we went down to the anatomy lab to look at actual hoof specimens that had been cut apart to show the internals in different ways. Actually seeing and feeling the ligaments in the digital cushion was an eye-opener for me. I was able to feel the difference in the quality of the tissue. We were also able to see differences in bone density between specimens.

One of the hoof specimens we studied.
A closer look at the ligaments in the digital cushion.
Dr. Bowker discussing the specimens.
There were thirteen of us "Hoof Geek" students there along with our mentors, Christine and Francine.

On the second day of the seminar, we began with another lecture where Dr. Bowker talked to us about creating a good-footed horse. Some of the points that really clicked with me were:

  •  Navicular is an entire foot problem. It starts in the frog with the deterioration of the ligaments, caused by long toes, and eventually affects the navicular bone. However, horses can survive even damage to the bone.

  • A horse with navicular will have 1/3 less bone density than in non-navicular horses. The coffin bone is continually remodelling through the horse’s life, and a thicker bone can support the weight of the horse better. The most dense bone should be in the caudal (rear) part of the coffin bone. Navicular horses also have much thinner lateral cartilages. In a healthy foot, the lateral cartilages will make up 25 – 36% of the width of the foot. In navicular horses, it is closer to 10%.

  • All young horses have thick lateral cartilages with ligaments in the frog up until they are 3 – 4 years old. At that point, when we begin working with them, what we do can cause the lateral cartilages to disintegrate and liquefy. If trimmed properly with the frog on the ground and the toe kept short, the ligaments can be strengthened instead of destroyed. Thick lateral cartilages have more blood vessels inside them, which make them better at energy dissipation. If energy isn’t dissipated in the foot, it stays there and destroys the structures.

  • When heels become underrun, the impact of each step hits in front of the lateral cartilages and impacts the bone instead of the digital cushion.

  • The navicular bone is a major loading (weight-bearing) structure. It is very susceptible to damage as it is suspended by just two ligaments. Too much vibration will produce movement of the deep digital flexor tendon in the navicular bone, which damages nerves and causes pain. When the impar ligament and deep digital flexor tendon start to disintegrate, holes in the bone begin. Most of the pain associated with navicular syndrome is caused by soft tissue damage, not bone damage.

  • The laminae in a horse’s foot aren’t evenly distributed around the foot. The laminae will come in thicker where stresses are higher or biomechanical loads are higher. Laminae are generally closer together at the toes, especially when toes are left long or toe clips are used. This is because the hoof modifies itself to create more structure to support the stressed area.

  • Most navicular horses can be cured!

Following the lecture, we had an opportunity to look at some live horses and hear Dr. Bowker’s thoughts on their feet and how he would trim them to promote a healthy foot. It was very interesting to see the difference between a traditional farrier trim and a barefoot trim, both of which were completed by seminar participants. Dr. Bowker watched each trim and then discussed how he would modify the trim for those of us watching. 

Looking at feet on live horses.
One of the horses that day, diagnosed with navicular, had her shoes removed that morning and a trim following Dr. Bowker’s method applied. The owner would like to try rehabilitating the hooves barefoot because the shoes have not solved the problem. Her farrier is interested in working on it with her, and she got a lot of good advice on how to proceed. The trim done on the horse was minimal as she needs time to let her hooves decontract from the shoes before major changes are made.

To say that this seminar was an eye-opener and packed full of excellent information is a major understatement. If you ever get the opportunity to listen to Dr. Bowker speak, I highly recommend it. It will take me a lot of time to process everything I learned and apply it to my trimming technique, but I am excited to try.

We are in a very interesting time in the history of equine hoof care, and I am excited to be there on the forefront. It’s not an easy place to be, questioning the methods used in the past and looking for better ways to improve the health and longevity of our horses. But it is a place worth going, for the sake of our animals. I challenge you all to think about the effects our actions have on our horses, try to minimize the adverse effects of our husbandry practises, and be open-minded when new research comes to light. The new research doesn’t have to be feared!

Meeting one of my hoof heroes.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Case Study #1: Introducing Poker, the Minature Horse

One of the highlights of my job as a barefoot trimmer is helping the little guys - miniature horses, ponies and donkeys. All too often, people have trouble finding farriers willing to trim the short ones, which leads to a lot of bad feet. I love the minis. They are some of my favourite clients!

In May, I was blessed with a miniature horse of my own to care for. I was contacted to see if I would be interested in taking in a little guy named Poker. Poker had bad feet, was laminitic, and hadn't been able to trot in about two years. His owners wanted him to go to someone who would be willing to help his feet, and I agreed to take him on.

Through out my blog, you will get regular updates on how Poker (or Pokie as we often call him) is doing. He has come a long way already since May 20 when I gave him his first trim. I am learning a great deal through my case study on his feet and am happy to share what I am learning with you.

Poker is somewhere around nine years old, is trained to carry kids, and is the sweetest pony you will ever meet. When I did my initial assessment, I noticed that he was definitely sore, tender on gravel, and was very bunched up in his muscles. He was a prime example of two of the most common issues I see in ponies and minis:

1. His heels were very high - many people who trim their own minis are afraid to take the heels down to the level they need to be, which results in a lot of pressure on internal structures and an inability to properly utilize the entire hoof.

2. He was definitely laminitic - ponies and minis are prone to laminitis as they metabolize their food differently than a larger horse. We've all heard that ponies "look at food and get fat," and it's fairly true! Pony diets need to be closely monitored to prevent laminitic attacks.

In spite of his issues, we quickly fell in love with this sweet guy.

I gave him his first trim on May 20, and have been trimming him every two weeks so we can stay ahead of any issues he might have as well as monitor his growth and the effects of any dietary issues he might have. We have already seen some great changes in him (other than shedding that winter coat). He can now trot regularly, something he hadn't been able to do before, and is less tender on gravel, although he still greatly prefers to walk on a softer surface. As he gets feeling better, his pony-tude is coming out, and it is fun to see his sassy personality.

I look forward to sharing Poker's progress with you!

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Welcome to The Barefoot Hoof

Welcome to my new blog, The Barefoot Hoof.

What can you expect to find in the posts that follow? I will share with you my adventures as a barefoot trimmer, my thoughts on hooves, their form and function, and how to help your horse maintain four healthy feet. You can also expect a lot of cute pictures of horses, donkeys and ponies.

Who am I? I am a small-town girl with a love of horses that only grew as I grew. I was raised in a tiny hamlet in Saskatchewan, where I dreamed about owning horses but had no opportunities. When I graduated high school, I took a very practical route - I went to university and obtained my mechanical engineering degree. I followed that with sixteen years, working as an engineer in the Power Industry.

In 2006, I finally realized my dream and became a horse owner. From the moment I bought Joker, I was fascinated by his feet. I wanted to learn everything I could about hooves. In 2007, my sister, Laura, and I bought our ranch, and from there our horse count expanded. As of 2018, we have eleven horses, four donkeys, one miniature horse, four goats and numerous other animals. I kept learning about hooves and started trimming my own horses in 2014, after my farrier moved away.

In the spring of 2017, I had one of those moments - you know, the kind you look back on and point to, saying, "That was when everything started to change." I signed up for a weekend clinic with the Hoof Geeks, Christine Tomlin and Francine Labossiere. At the clinic, I devoured the knowledge they presented, pushed myself to learn and understand, trimmed cadaver hooves and finally applied everything to my horse, Breezy. To say I was hooked was an understatement. I was standing on the edge of the cliff, ready to leap into the future and become a hoof geek.

I went home from the clinic and immediately started applying what I had learned. I took pictures of all my horses' and donkeys' feet and set to trimming them correctly. I flooded my new mentors with questions and pictures. And a dream was born. I wanted to become a full-time hoof trimmer "some day."

But how does one transition from a professional engineering position to a full-time barefoot trimmer? I had been an engineer in the same company for sixteen years, working my way up from a lowly engineer-in-training to a senior engineer. But I had become disillusioned with it. I loved the engineering work, but didn't love the politics and stress that were a day-to-day part of life. My health had taken a downhill turn because of stress, and I was near my breaking point. In late June of 2017, I hit it. Realizing I needed a change, and fast, I gave my notice at my "safe and secure" job and started down the road that would lead me to my calling instead.

By August 1, 2017, I was a full-time barefoot trimmer.

It was terrifying. It was exciting. It was the craziest thing I had done in my relatively safe life. But it was also a change that dramatically dropped my stress levels, improved my health and gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Since quitting my safe job, I have continued my education, taking more clinics, dissecting hooves, trimming cadavers, trimming live horses and reading countless articles and scientific studies related to hoof care. I have been under hundreds of horses with problems ranging from severe laminitis and founder to club hoof and badly underrun heels.

My learning is ongoing, and I am excited to share that with you through this blog. Welcome to The Barefoot Hoof.