Sheared heels

Q: I am riding a 16-year-old mare and my farrier says she has sheared heels and needs bar shoes. Please tell me more about this condition, and what the shoes will do to improve it.

Mandy, Auckland

A: Mandy, sheared heels are reasonably common but in extreme cases can cause the horse a lot of distress.  Sheared heels can be identified at the rear of the foot – usually in the area between the two bulbs of the heels.  The groove between the two bulbs becomes irritated and can crack further than is normal causing soreness for the horse concerned.  The most common causes of sheared heels are conformation imperfections, hoof imbalances or a problem with the gait.  The definition of the word shear is to ‘break because of a sideways or twisting force’.  This is true for the heels of a horse.  Sheared heels have occurred because of unlevel (or twisting) forces applied from above (the horse) and/or below (the ground surface).  If the foot is not landing and loading correctly – for example, one side of the hoof first followed by the other then there will be uneven forces applied to the hoof capsule.  When this happens, something usually has to give, crack or split and so this is a very common cause of sheared heels.  The imbalance of forces causes the heels to load at slightly different times and the heels to move slightly more independently to each other than is normal.

Environmental effects can also have an impact on sheared heels.  When the conditions are wet for a prolonged period, this can soften the heel area and increase the chances and severity of sheared heels.

The idea of using bar shoes to treat sheared heels by your farrier is likely to assist in reducing the shearing effect at the heels.  The bar shoe (which is a complete shoe and joined at the heels) acts to stabilise the hoof capsule and in effect, reduces the movement at the heels allowing them to begin repairing.  The use of a bar shoe should only be temporary.  In my opinion, the most important approach for this problem would be to identify what is causing the sheared heels in the first place and then remove this cause.  For example, if the problem is related to hoof imbalance then altering the hoof dressing is more important that an application of a specialist shoe.  Your own farrier (and perhaps a vet) will be able to help in explaining some of the possible causes in your individual case.

David Hankin Dip.WCF

This question and answer first appeared in NZ Horse & Pony magazine February 2006