New ‘Open-Toed’ Shoeing Technique Could Correct Hoof Problems, Shift Paradigms

by | 04.17.2015 | 5:48pm
A story by Sarah Coleman on the ROST toeless shoe was our most-read story of 2015

Dr. Johanna Reimer has developed a unique horse shoeing technique for use on her own horses that could have a significant impact on equine comfort.

Reimer, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and board certified  veterinarian in cardiology (all species) and large animal internal medicine, has over 25 years of experience in equine diagnostic musculoskeletal ultrasound. She was a staff veterinarian at both the New Bolton Center  and Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital before striking out on her own running a mobile diagnostic ultrasound service in Kentucky, and in her time at the hospitals, she realized that the equine toe is a hidden culprit in many lamenesses.

“Toe discomfort from traditional shoes may be an unrecognized cause of foot lameness, particularly in flatter-footed horses,” said Reimer, “because it surprisingly can be difficult to detect with hoof testers.”

Reimer is familiar with hoof issues. She has owned off-track Thoroughbred horses for years and battled shoe-related lameness issues with many of them—everything from hot nails, toe cracks, quarter cracks, and lamenesses that resolved with shoe removal. Even though all of the farriers Reimer used were skilled, educated horsemen, Reimer had been applying glue-on shoes herself as a last resort, recognizing that her horses' hooves were difficult for even the most skilled to manage. Hoof deformities are often blamed on the high impact of training, environmental conditions, the horse, or the farrier, but Reimer questioned if the use of an ages-old horse shoe may play a greater role.

One of Reimer's retired horses had large, misshapen feet that were difficult to fit with a traditional aluminum or plastic shoe. In an effort to keep shoes on and keep the horse comfortable, Reimer cut a pair of synthetic Polyflex shoes in half, straightened the branches, and glued them on.

After noticing how comfortable the horse was and that there was no forward migration of the heels as is usually seen with traditionally shaped shoes over time, Reimer experimented with the technique on her other riding horses.  With further shoe use, she discovered that long, misshapen hoof capsules were reshaping to normal, and the shoes remained intact for riding activities, including jumping. The Reimer Open Shoe Technique (ROST) was born.

How Does It Work?

A ROST shoe utilizes a traditionally shaped plastic or aluminum shoe, but the shoe is cut into two distinct pieces, and the toe portion is removed. These “branches” are then glued onto the bottom of the hoof wall, just like traditional horse shoes, with careful grinding of the inner edges of the toe end to avoid sole pressure. Any farrier experienced with glue on shoes can apply shoes in the ROST technique.

ROST also prevents bruising of the toe if applied properly. A ROST shoe “may allow the hoof to function more normally: the heels are allowed to expand, and the toe, which may move downward and inward during weight bearing, may be able to do so more freely, without jamming against a shoe and causing discomfort,” said Reimer. Other styles of open-toed shoes have previously been available, but are not used very often, possibly due to the lack of exposure of the collateral grooves and frog to ground surfaces and pressure at toe ends if the shoes are not applied properly. That contact with the ground could be important for proper heel expansion.

Implications For Thoroughbreds

It's difficult to change a long-held way of thinking and a technique steeped in tradition, such as farriery of Throughbred racehorses. Encouraging shoeing for correct angles and balance, instead of the traditional long toe, low-heel look that has been in favor for so long at the racetrack will require a change in the perception  of “quality” foot. While this change in thinking will be a true paradigm shift in how horses are shod, hoof imbalance issues must be addressed in order to prevent lameness and injury.

The ROST shoeing technique may be a simple and effective method to assist in that paradigm shift by correcting contracted heels and eliminating toe pain. Thus far, ROST shoes appear to “allow restoration of concavity [of the hoof], perhaps via the open-toe nature of the shoe,” said Reimer.

A 'before' and 'after' of one of Reimer's cases, managed with ROST shoes

A ‘before' and ‘after' of one of Reimer's cases, managed with ROST shoes

Only a small number of horses outside Reimer's herd have been shod with the technique, but so far, results have been favorable.  Critics of the technique believe that sole and frog prolapse and/or toe cracks could develop, however paradoxically the opposite has occurred in horses studied to date: two horses with prolapsed soles (one of which had been lame for over 1 1/2 years under the care of four experienced farriers) have developed concave soles, while the preexisting toe cracks in one  of Reimer's own horses are growing out.

Will a ROST horse shoe be a viable alternative to traditional shoes? Much remains to be learned about the effectiveness or problems associated with the technique, and which horses it may help. As with any shoe, improper trimming and shoe placement can lead to problems, and adhesives can trap infections. Reimer hopes the concept will be interesting enough to others that they will begin using ROST shoes and engineer new solutions. To encourage further investigation, Reimer has set up a website providing free tutorials to farriers who want to learn more about the method.

Will the shoe hold up to race training and reduce the hoof distortions so commonly seen in Thoroughbred race horses?  It's unclear if a horse wearing ROST shoes will have enough traction to break out of the starting gate on dirt tracks, but traction on the grass is better with the ROST shoes than with traditional horse shoes in Reimer's experience. If the shoes can tolerate the impact of racing speeds, they could theoretically be used for training and a “racing shoe” or toe attachment (if someone were to invent it) could be applied for race day.

In Conclusion
“Could we ‘reinvent'a device and method of application that is a thousand years old with the benefits of current knowledge and modern materials?” asks Reimer. “There is still much to learn, but a ROST shoe may be a better physiologic alternative to previous shoeing methods based upon the hoof capsule improvements and comfort level of the small number of horses shod in this manner seen to date.”


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