Since my journey started with a trial-by-fire with navicular disease, I quickly became acquainted with heel first landings, or at least the desire for them. As the name implies, heel first landings are when the heel hits the ground before the rest of the foot. Ideally these heels land evenly (at the same time).
You can see a heel first landing best in slow motion video, although there are ways to watch for it in person as well. Look for a fully straight knee at landing, and even a slight tip up of the toe as the hoof hits the ground. Watch that the hoof doesn’t tilt too much to either the inside or outside when landing as well.
Now, there are times when the hoof cannot logically land heel first, such as when going uphill, and times when there should be a dramatic heel first landing, such as going downhill. The heel first landing I am talking about here is on flat, level ground, as shown above.
So why do we want to see the heel hit first?
In a heel first landing, the tendons that run down the lower limb are at full extension just as the hoof lands. Since the superficial and deep digital flexor tendon play a role in stabilizing the hoof on impact, this full extension means that the limb is ready to land and disperse energy as needed throughout the limb. Since biomechanically, the tendons and ligaments were made to function this way, a landing that disrupts this movement affects the concussion and focal point of pressure within the hoof and lower limb.
Toe first landings always make me wonder what is going on. On even, level terrain, at a forward walk if I see a toe first landing, I assume there is pain somewhere. It could be pain from thrush or an unhealthy frog, contracted heels, underrun heels, thin soles/subclinical laminitis, or even soft tissue or bone damage in the hoof. (I say subclinical laminitis, because “full blown” laminitis has a very distinct excessive heel first impact that you wouldn’t confuse with a healthy landing).
Repeated toe first landings from even something as “innocent” as thrush (though, not so innocent, in reality!) cause the soft tissue in the hoof to move incorrectly, therefore affecting shock absorption and eventually leading to soft tissue damage from all that “jarred” movement.
Central sulcus thrush split, a frog eaten away by thrush, and some pitted thrush throughout a frog. Who would want to land full impact on that first? Ouch!
Fortunately, heel first landings can help the hoof heal, as correct movement brings healing (think physical therapy!).
So how do you achieve a heel first landing?
Well, isn’t that the million dollar question. It could mean tackling a handful of things: aggressively treating any hint of thrush, adjusting diet to ensure happy and healthy laminae, adjusting the trim to ensure what is being removed wasn’t needed for comfort, and even utilizing various options for protection. Boots and pads can be great in this circumstance, as there are many different densities and thicknesses of pads to try to see what makes the horse most comfortable and willing to land heel first. Another reason why boots and pads are a good option is you’ll find that a horse’s preference can change. One day, a horse may like a thick, soft pad, and the next day may want a harder, thinner pad. The ability to adjust as needed can be helpful.
If you’re still having trouble seeing your horse’s landings, or need help determining how to make your horse more comfortable, this may be a topic worth discussing openly with your hoofcare provider.
Have you assessed your horse’s landings lately?
For more information, see Rockley Farm’s blogpost here.