Donkeys and mules are often known for their extremely tough and hard hooves. In fact, it is this very wonderful characteristic that can get them into a world of trouble! Because of their strong hooves, the notion that hoof care in the mule and donkey world is not as critical as it is in the horse world is a myth that is commonly repeated.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Mules and donkeys do have strong hoof structures. But it is important to understand that while their general leg and hoof structure sets them up for a more upright appearance of their hooves, there still needs to be a good balance of hoof appearance and animal health.
What Is A Contracted Heel?
When we pick up a hoof and look at the bottom, we should see an almost round shape. The frog should be wide at the back of the hoof, and when the mule or donkey steps down heel first they should touch the ground with the frog. This contact is critical to stimulating good blood flow. The frog should take up about 2/3 of the length of the hoof and about ½ of the width at the back. If it is smaller than that, the contact with the ground will not be sufficient.
In the case of contracted heels, the heel bulbs and frog appear pinched and the back of the hoof is narrow. This can lift the frog so that it does not touch the ground and that changes everything about circulation. If allowed to persist, the hoof and its shock absorbing qualities will malfunction. Circulation, nerves and alignment will suffer. This can lead to extensive damage and many problems.
Remember that when the mule or donkey steps, the heel should hit the ground first. The heel and frog should have good contact to promote circulation and the toe must be of an appropriate length and shape as to “roll over” as the stride continues.
A lot is at stake here. Tendon and ligaments, bone structures, circulation and nerves all depend on the balance of the trim.
How Does This Happen?
Most of the time, contracted heels occur because of poorly balanced trims or improper shoeing. Some people feel mules and donkeys don’t need hoof care like horses. Others find the trims more difficult because of the tough structures, uncooperative animals (those that have not been properly trained to stand for farrier service) or improper shoeing techniques.
The simple fact is that if the hoof is not properly shaped a couple of things can happen.
- If the toe is allowed to get too long, there will be excessive pressure on the back of the hoof at the heel and this pressure may cause the heel to roll in and contract.
- The other scenario is short toes and high heels which lifts the frog off the ground and the heels begin to contract or narrow.
If the mule or donkey has an improperly fitted shoe, the hoof can be severely restricted in its movement. Some shoes actually pull the heels inward and promote contraction. I have personally seen this in a few mules. The balanced trim must be fitted with a shoe that permits expansion of the hoof wall. Just because the hoof wall is very hard in a mule or donkey does not mean that it does not expand with weight bearing.
Another contributor to contracted heels is a lack of exercise or use. Mules and donkeys are not built to stand in stalls. They need to walk and be active. If the trim or shoeing is marginal, the thing that will put this into the “red zone” will be the lack of exercise.
Contracted heels cause compromised circulation. Without the shock absorbing features of the frog, tendon and ligament damage can happen as structures are abnormally shifted forward. Nerves will be impinged upon in some cases as the animal starts to rock forward on his toes to protect against the pain from this misalignment. This only serves to make the entire problem worse.
In addition to all of this, cracks can form, inviting infections like thrush. It is very difficult to try to fix a hoof that is filled with infection, so first treating any additional conditions like thrush is imperative.
Bottom line is you will have a lame horse, one that could require months of work to reshape the hooves and get the frog and heel performing as they should. It may even be necessary to perform some corrective shoeing, though barefoot therapy is often the route of choice. This may mean that the animal will not be used for some time if terrain requires shoes.
During the phase of correction, your farrier needs to have a plan and keep trimmings routine and frequent with careful attention to getting the balance back. This is done gradually to avoid additional trauma and requires patience and persistence.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
If you are a donkey or mule owner, your farrier should be skilled at mule and donkey hooves. Make sure that all of the old myths about infrequent care or the lack of importance of trims have been tossed out the window! Your mule or donkey needs balanced trims with good shape, proper heel height and toe length and the frog must make good, healthy contact with the ground.
Feed your animal well, exercise him regularly, trim him routinely, shoe appropriately and keep a close eye on those heels. You will not be sorry. If you have questions, give me a holler. I’ll try to point you in the right direction!