Hoof Pads for Healing

They come with an assortment of labels: "high-tech hoof pads," "comfort system pads," "hoof support systems," etc. They come in a variety of thicknesses and materials. But by whatever they’re dubbed, these designer pads have two things in common: They are constructed of space-age materials, and they’re used for addressing various physical problems.

"High-tech hoof pads fit between the shoe and the hoof to absorb concussion and dissipate force," explains Derek Poupard, CJF (Certified Journeyman Farrier), Equine Services Overseas, Inc., The Plains, Va. "They differ from regular pads by their composition and thickness. They are more cushioned with more shock-absorbing qualities."

Generally, he says, the softer and thicker the pad, the more force it will absorb.

Most "traditional" hoof pads are constructed of a thin piece of leather, plastic, or Styrofoam for the general purpose of preventing a shod hoof from becoming bruised from rocks or uneven hard surfaces. A high-tech pad is composed of materials such as ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) foam, polystyrene, netting-encased pour-in compounds, soft gels, hard plastic, honey-combed plastic, polymers, thermoplastic olefins, etc. Some will mold to the foot’s shape and retain that shape for an extended period, rather than compressing. Robert M. Bowker, VMD, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathology at Michigan State University, says, "They appear to represent a continuation of the industry to produce materials that can better withstand the loads imposed upon the foot by the horse as well as not become permanently deformed once the loads of the horse have been imposed upon the pads. Because these pads do not seem to become permanently compressed as some others may, they hopefully would provide a ‘softer’ type of support, especially for the severely laminitic foot."

Most importantly, notes Gene Ovnicek, President of Equine Digit Support System (EDSS), Inc. in Penrose, Colo., high-tech pads address specific lameness conditions.

Benefits of Padding

Horses with particular diagnosed hoof and foot problems might heal faster or feel more comfortable with the aid of a high-tech hoof pad. "Our Comfort Management System Foam pads can address founder, thrush, abscesses, hoof cracks, stone bruises, cuts, punctures, navicular disease, and sore soles," says Tommy Lee Osha, CEO of Osha Products in Auburn, Wash.

"For example," Osha continues, "for a horse with a sore sole that can’t tolerate weight on the affected foot, the farrier can take a base plate of our foam pad, put it down as the base, and then load it with a different thickness of foam back over the frog. You load up the frog and back of the foot with no pad over the sore sole, so it doesn’t bear any weight."

Ovnicek believes that polystyrene pads help save the lives of many laminitis sufferers. "Polystyrene pads are extremely important in the acute stages of the disease," he says. "However, in the next stage, we usa a urethane pad we developed for the treatment of navicular disease as well as laminitis that functions in two ways: Its attachment is at the toe of a seated-out (concave) shoe. The pad is pulled away from the sole of the foot to insure that there is no contact over those sensitive areas of the sole. It also has a frog-like portion molded into the pad that will accommodate adjustable parts to increase or decrease support to the coffin bone (P3) through the digital cushion."

Bowker, too, has seen high-tech pads help ease laminitis. "The pads appear to help relieve some of the stress and pain. The horses seem to be more comfortable on the pads," he says.

Besides aiding horses already suffering from lameness problems, high-tech pads might also be helpful to reverse hoof deformities that cause lameness. "We can detour a potential lameness by recognizing hoof deformity early and getting things turned around to head off problems before they become serious," Ovnicek says. "For example, draw a line across the foot at the widest part (approximately three-quarters of an inch to one inch behind the frog apex). If there is more ground surface of the foot ahead of that line than there is behind the last ‘bearing point’ of the foot or shoe, the foot is deformed.

"Hoof preparation and shoe placement play a key role in why feet become deformed. Therefore, proper hoof preparation and shoe fitting is important to reverse the hoof deformity that can cause serious lameness. Hoof trimming guidelines that involve the use of the frog, sole, and widest part of the foot (those structures directly related to the position of the coffin bone) are necessary to achieve proper P3 balance to the ground. Once proper hoof balance is employed, special pads might be an important adjunct to restoring the foot to normal."

In select situations, high-tech pads can be used in absence of veterinary or pre-lameness conditions. "Horses that have thin soles and are prone to stone bruises benefit from these pads," states Poupard. "They are very useful when a lot of road work or work on hard surfaces is being done."

Adds Bowker, "The potential uses in helping sound-footed as well as lame horses are only slowly being realized by the manufacturers."

Fads and Fashion

Although they have a role in healing, high-tech hoof pads have an express purpose, and they should not be used arbitrarily. Reports Ovnicek, "There are high-tech pads used for absorbing concussion for events such as endurance riding. The fact is, the hoof can absorb its own shock and its own stresses if proper hoof components are next to the ground. The frog buttress is designed to make initial contact with the ground from a heel-first landing. The digital cushion, lateral cartilage, blood within the foot, and natural dirt compaction in and around the frog and bars are a few of the key components involved in absorbing shock naturally."

In other words, most horses with healthy feet shouldn’t need a high-tech hoof pad.

"The equine industry looks at the hoof wall as the main source of support for the horse, and that’s not correct," Ovnicek states. "The newest research shows that the rest of the foot is equally important for support, in particular the frog, the digital cushion, and all of the internal components. The hoof wall is not designed to absorb concussion by itself. The theory of absorption of shock through the wall is partially correct. A close look at hoof function shows clearly that the wall will always chip, break, and remove itself to the level of the sole, wanting to involve the other structures in supporting the horse."

Ovnicek notes that current fashion is to equip normal-footed endurance horses with high-tech pads. "Wearing a pad unnecessarily can cause the foot to not function as it was intended, because the pad covers up its natural exfoliation function. Therefore, the hoof distortion that can occur may cause deformation, which may lead to the early stages of navicular disease. For example, hooves can become sole-bound when pads are used for extended periods of time. Being sole-bound is a condition of the foot where the dead, nonfunctional tissue of the sole that is usually flaky and has a chalky texture appears to be live and sensitive, giving the farrier an unclear view of how much sole can be removed when the foot is trimmed. This can happen when an owner simply wants pads on a horse without really needing them—in this case, he is actually creating a situation for this horse that can lead to hoof deformities!"

High-tech pads can also lead to more frequent shoeing, which can be a problem for horses with unhealthy hoof walls. Explains Poupard, "One concern is that the thicker and softer the pad, the more it compresses and the sooner nails loosen in the shoe. Imagine a cushion between the shoe and the horse’s foot with the nail securing the shoe. Every time force is generated on the cushion, it compresses and will lose some of its absorption and flatten out. This loosens the nail in the nail hole, the clinches will rise, and the shoe might move. This can and often will lead to a lost shoe and in some horses a loss of hoof wall.

"For horses with a solid hoof wall that can be nailed high and deep, this is often not an issue," says Poupard. "However, I find that the need for this type of pad is in the soft-walled, thin-soled horse that feels every little stone it walks on. So, there is a balance here that warrants the use of these pads: The severity of the lameness or intended workload versus reshoeing at shorter intervals."

A hoof pad needs to be used in the correct situation, and it also needs to be applied correctly. Cautions Osha, "You can overload the height or use too hard of a density if the hoof is too sore. If you overload the height, the horse feels like he’s in quicksand. Too much density is like putting a high heel on, and the pad doesn’t seal to the hoof when you load it."

Good Decision-Making

Because inappropriate application of a hoof pad can harm the hoof, the decision to use a hoof pad should be a team decision made by the owner and a veterinarian and/or farrier who have a good understanding of foot function.

"The horse owner should ask herself/ himself if the horse really needs a pad and to define the reason the horse needs a pad," Ovnicek states. "If there’s definitely something wrong and the horse’s needs are not being met, and a pad can help service those needs, then the pad will be helpful."

In choosing and assessing a pad, rate the force dissipation quality, advises Poupard. "Most pad manufacturers will indicate the (shock) absorption capabilities of their different pads. For example, a honeycomb pad absorbs 40 times more force than a regular plastic pad."

If possible, try a couple of different pads on the horse and see how he responds. "We let the horse decide what goes on his feet," Ovnicek says. "Does the horse travel better, look better, or feel better, or doesn’t he do better? A keen-eyed person who knows what he’s looking for should be able to tell if there is some positive or negative response within 30-45 minutes. If there is no change, then that pad probably isn’t going to be very helpful."

Remember the goal of applying a hoof pad is to improve foot condition. "Most farriers will agree that pads are not the best thing for the horse’s foot," Ovnicek emphasizes. "I agree. The idea is to restore the foot to its natural function so the horse can do without the pad. That’s the reason we use them and how they should be used."

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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