Foundered hooves often require extra support to help them heal and grow while also offering the horse pain relief. But, rarely is the hoof undamaged and easy to shoe after a laminitic episode, said Chris Gregory, MS, CJF, FWCF, of Heartland Horseshoeing School in Lamar, Mo. For these cases Gregory employs a W-shoe custom made for the individual horse and hoof.

Gregory, who authored "Gregory's Textbook of Farriery," discussed the design and implementation of the W-shoe in his lecture "Introduction to the Principles of Using a W-Shoe on Foundered Feet" at the 2012 International Equine Conference of Laminitis and Diseases of the Hoof.

A W-shoe is a hand-forged therapeutic bar horseshoe named for its appearance, which takes on the form of an abstract "w." Opposed to a traditional bar shoe, the W-shoe has an open toe (imagine a standard horseshoe place backward on the hoof) and a v-shaped frog support, which is attached to the bar and creates the "w" shape.

The W-shoe is related to a heart-bar shoe, which is a continuous bar shoe with the same v-shaped frog support. The two are so similar looking that some people refer to the W-shoe as an "open-toed heart bar."

"The W-shoe isn't as common as a heart-bar or frog-support pad, primarily due to knowledge and farrier skill--or lack thereof," Gregory explained to the group of veterinarians and farriers at the conference.

In theory, heart-bar shoes transfer weight from compromised parts of the hoof that usually bear weight, sharing the load with other structures. The W-shoe (like a heart bar) transfers weight from the damaged hoof wall to the frog.

When using a W-shoe to manage a foundered horse, Gregory often pairs the shoe with a pour-in filler (commonly sold under the brand name Equipak), made of urethane, that covers the sole and further distributes weight across the hoof.

Modifying the traditional weight bearing of a hoof to help a laminitic horse requires an educated and experienced farrier working in coordination with a veterinarian, Gregory said. "Whenever a shoe is applied that causes an area of the foot to bear more load than it was meant to, there's always a potential for problems, especially if the shoe is applied without sufficient knowledge or skill," he warns.

When describing the benefits of using the W-shoe, Gregory said it:

  • Can be easier to fit than a heart-bar shoe.
  • Eliminates the possibility of the shoe putting pressure on the toe.
  • Can be easier to keep on the foot than other shoes.
  • Makes the horse is less likely to stumble.
  • Is easier for the farrier to make than a one-piece heart bar shoes.
  • And can be made by cutting the toe off a heart bar shoe.

He concedes that the W-shoe isn't perfect and pointed out specific drawbacks as well, including:

  • It does not provide the stabilization or protection that the full heart-bar does.
  • The toes of the foot may penetrate the ground more than desired if the horse is on soft terrain.
  • And it might cause unusual foot remodeling if overused.

Considering the pros and cons of using the W-shoe, Gregory said it offers a much needed option when a veterinarian and farrier are working to make a laminitic horse more comfortable. "The W-shoe is just another arrow in our quiver (for treating laminitis) and not a cure-all, every-horse answer to founder," Gregory said.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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