Book Excerpt: Managing Conformational Abnormalities Through Hoof Care

In this excerpt from Shoeing the Modern Horse by Steven Kraus, CJF, with Katie Navarra, the head of farrier services at Cornell University explains the importance of understanding conformational defects and how they can be managed with trimming and shoeing for performance longevity.

A shoe with a lateral extension on the heel helps to support a horse with base-narrow conformation.

When it comes to buying property, all you hear is “location, location, location.” When horse shopping all you should listen to is “conformation, conformation, conformation.” Eye appeal, bloodlines, and color dominate the conversation, but how a horse is put together is more important to predict his future performance than any other criteria.

A horse’s build is often discussed in terms of how it enables him to succeed in a given discipline. For example, does the horse have a shoulder tying in too low so that he cannot elevate his front end in quick turns? Can he gather his hindquarters to perform a piaffe? Just as a house needs a sturdy foundation, a working horse needs a correct base. That starts at the bottom of the horse at his hooves and legs. Deciding which horse to buy or how he must be trimmed or shod always starts with conformation.

Now, let us get to the actual details.

Where Do Conformation Defects Start?

Conformation starts in the breeding shed. Focusing on single traits like coat color, competition accomplishments, or show-ring fads emphasizes a “desired look” over functionality. Line-breeding limits genetic diversity, which can bring out hidden conformation defects in subsequent generations. An unsound horse often becomes breeding stock because he can’t perform. Unfortunately, he is likely to produce unsound offspring with the same conformation that predisposed him to lameness or underperformance.

Think of having a basic understanding of equine conformation as being similar to having a crystal ball—it offers a chance at predicting the future. For example, a large horse with small hooves is predisposed to lameness issues more than a horse with appropriate-sized hooves.

The good news is that many conformation abnormalities are manageable through hoof care. Regardless of the discipline or work a horse does, his body structures follow the basic laws of physics: force always equals mass times acceleration. Without reasonably correct conformation, the abnormal forces produced during performance work will cause lameness in predictable ways.

Farriers and veterinarians are in the business of managing the results of unsuitable conformation to enable horses to keep working. When this skilled assistance contributes to a successful career there is a tendency to worry less about conformational defects, especially when the horse does well competitively. The real trouble begins when a talented performer, with undesirable conformation, is selected as a breeding prospect. By selecting horses for breeding based solely on performance, the resulting cross usually reproduces the same defects. As a foal is the only time defects can be corrected, either with trimming, shoeing, or surgery.

Flaws in the mature horse can only be managed, not reversed, with detailed trimming and horseshoe modifications. The visible features in a horse’s body characteristics, like size, color, and conformation, are phenotypes, whereas the genotype is a horse’s genetic constitution.

When the phenotype is altered with interventions like corrective shoeing or surgery, the genotype does not change. So, when foals with crooked legs have been corrected in these ways, they still have the predisposition to reproduce future offspring with the same defects.

In worst-case scenarios, a horse is only pasture-sound. In less severe cases, the horse may not be performing to his fullest potential. As the horse ages, naturally weaker areas are susceptible to tendon and ligament injuries, and arthritis. Specialized shoeing and additional veterinary treatments may be necessary, both of which can significantly increase the cost of ownership—all as a result of not considering conformation in the breeding or selection process.

The tricky part is that there is no “perfect” horse. If you wait for a horse with ideal conformation, you will have an empty stable. It’s unrealistic to think you will find a horse without some conformational aspect that could be improved. That being said, learning the basics of equine conformation remains a guide to good buying and breeding decisions.

Defining the Level of Conformational Issues

Understanding the severity of the defect and management options can be used to support a decision to buy or walk away from a horse. For this reason, it’s helpful to classify conformational defects as mild, moderate, or severe.

 Mild defects are quite common and are not easily recognized. Some can even be considered “normal” when they fall within certain limits. For example, horses can tolerate a slightly crooked leg or pastern angle. A slight misalignment of the fetlocks or knees can also be tolerable. Regular trimming that makes slight adjustments to align the foot with any minor imbalances serves these horses well. A horseshoe that is appropriate for the horse’s work is shaped and further modified to adapt it to any misalignments that the trim could not achieve.

Moderate defects require extra attention, often through shoes specially designed to add support in specific areas of the horse’s foot. For example, a shoe that is shaped to reduce leverage and correct gait faults can keep the horse sound and comfortable. Here is where attention to detail matters. Generic horseshoes without specific modifications will not help a horse with moderate conformation defects.

 Severe defects require critical management decisions. These abnormalities are obvious—there is a noticeable crookedness to the leg or a twist at the joints. Often there are multiple severe defects on the same leg. A high-maintenance individual may not hold up under hard work regardless of the care he receives. Surgery and specialty shoes may be the only options. Caring for a horse with severe defects requires teamwork between a farrier, a veterinarian, and the horse owner to provide the level of trimming and shoeing to compensate for the issue.

Another thing to consider is that the taller and heavier a horse, the more likely he is to have soundness issues from conformational abnormalities. Taller horses produce more leverage on crooked legs or joints that can have negative consequences for bones, joints, and soft tissue.

This excerpt from Shoeing the Modern Horse by Steven Kraus, CJF, with Katie Navarra, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (



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