There's No Such Thing as a Toe Rocker
I'm not sure about everyone else out there, but up until this weekend, I didn't really understand what a toe rocker was supposed to be. I knew that there were a variety of accepted methods for dealing with the front third of a bare hoof, and how to set breakover from a radiograph, but toe rockers were still something that had me completely stumped. That really bothered me, since from all reports these rockers were supposed to dramatically speed up healing. They sounded like something that was worth knowing about!
From discussions that I've seen and participated in, I think a lot of other people out there are in the same boat, so I'll do my best to explain the situation.
First of all, lets do a quick rundown on the various methods you can use to deal with the toe of a barefoot horse. The first four are relatively easy to explain, so lets get those over with first:
1) Do nothing - welcome to the world that most domestic horses live in. Go out into the average horse paddock, and you'll see lots of barefoot and shod horses that have pointy toes, with breakover right at the outer surface of the outer wall. This isn't ideal for a variety of reasons, but its what most horses deal with everyday.
2) Mustang roll - a term coined by Jaime Jackson to describe the smooth rolled appearance of high-desert feral hooves. When applied to domestic hooves, it is used to promote proper breakover, but also to transfer load to the sole, to combat white line separation, and to prevent wall chips. Proper application of the mustang roll has the entire wall involved in the roll at the extreme toe, with progressively less wall thickness being rolled around to nothing at the heel buttresses (which are left flat).
3) Toe bevel (modified Mustang roll) - something I first encountered on Pete Ramey's website, and basically a modified version of the mustang roll described above. Instead of a smooth roll, a 45 degree bevel is applied instead, with the same taper out to the buttresses. While functionally identical to the mustang roll, this slight modification enhances the effectiveness of the role it plays in combating white line separation, using a slight redirection of ground support force. I noticed that Pete now uses the term “mustang roll” when talking about these toe bevels, which initially caused me a bit of confusion.
4) Vertical rasp cut - I think credit for this one has to go to Dr Strasser, but if I'm wrong, feel free to drop me a line. Here, breakover is forced into the right spot by a holding the rasp perpendicular to the ground plane that the hoof would normally stand on, and the toe wall is removed to some degree (normally to the outer edge of the white line). Largely the same as a mustang roll or bevel, but it trades the ability to deal with separation at the toe for a longer-lasting change in breakover.
5) Toe rocker? - the nebulous one.
So, what the heck is the toe rocker? As I said, up until this weekend, I pictured the "toe rocker" as being a mystical fifth way of addressing the toe...probably something that was used in conjunction with either #2,3 or 4. After all, everyone had been saying to apply my mustang roll or vertical cut after completing the toe rocker. So it had to be different, didn't it?
When I picture a rocker, I have in my mind the image of a rocking chair, or a French curve (used for drafting curved lines). And since it was always referred to as helping breakover, maybe it was something that helped to "ease" the hoof towards the breakover provided by the defined start of the mustang roll. In my mind it looked something like this:
That sort of fits the description, doesn't it? Especially if most of the support for the average hoof occurs at the pillars, maybe this made sense (did to me, at any rate). (Nagging question: then why don’t ALL hooves support on 4 points, when some clearly show other sorts of wear patterns) On top of that, when I applied that sort of "rocker" to my horses hooves between the pillars, look at the incredible change in roundness that occurred in the front hooves (there’s only 1 week between these photographs):
So I was pretty happy, and thought I'd figured it out. After all, I'd asked my horse’s hooves if what I believed to be true was in fact the case, and they seemed to be agreeing that it was. The problem was, nothing like that ever showed up in a photograph of a feral hoof...or even in shots of healthy domestic hooves. The need for the rocker was supposed to eliminate itself over time (no more than a few trims), but I was having to keep adding the rocker at almost every trim. That bugged me, because like Pete Ramey always says, if you cut something off and it immediately grows back every time, odds are you're doing something wrong. Maybe it only needed that rocker for a short time, after which point I didn’t need to add it anymore. After all, if my horse’s hooves became rounder, now that they were round, they might not need the rocker anymore. Still, it didn’t sit right. If I was right, how on earth did I know which feet needed the rocker, and which didn’t?
The last inconsistency with my original rocker was what I knew I was doing to the toe callus. That's a point that most other people worry about as well - how on earth do you apply a "rocker" without invading toe callus? I even read an article by Gene Ovincek where he answered someone’s question on toe rockers. In that article, he said directly that you don't touch the toe callus with a true rocker, and whatever you ended up cutting wasn’t really toe callus at all.
Well, fast forward to this weekend and the clinic I attended hosted by Susan Engel, featuring Pete and Ivy Ramey. While the only thing that didn't come from the sky when the heavens opened up was sunlight (it rained and hailed all weekend), the clinic truly shed some amazing light on this subject for me (thanks Pete!).
So, after all this lead-in, what's a toe rocker? The short answer is - there's no such thing. The slightly longer answer is - it's really just a correctly applied toe bevel. The long answer is as-follows.
When a hoof has problems with flare in the toe, setting breakover by using the dorsal wall just doesn't do a good enough job. Since the laminae attached to underside of the toe wall might not have been connected to the laminae on the coffin bone for some time, setting breakover using the mustang roll or a vertical cut alone isn't likely to be enough to bring breakover back to where it should be:
So, in that case, we need to get a bit more assertive. A horse breaking over on flare can’t help but make a bad situation worse, since new attached growth gets torn off at the root if force is applied to a flared wall (think of trying to do a handstand supported only by your fingernails). By projecting the line of connected growth at the coronet down to ground level, we can accurately locate where breakover should in the foot that we eventually want to grow.
That doesn't mean that we can move the breakover point back to there immediately (the toe callus may not be properly developed, for example), but it's the goal to shoot for over time. A proper breakover allows a horse to stride out more comfortably, and gets us closer to that all-important heel first landing, but a horse with this sort of flare may not have the development at the back of the foot necessary to support that sort of force just yet (boots are great here). Too much stimulation to the back of a damaged or underdeveloped foot is going to cause the horse to throw his weight up onto his toes again to avoid loading the heels, which will bring breakover completely in the wrong direction. As such, knowing how quickly to bring that breakover back is where the art comes in to all this science, and where the "it depends" comes into this concept (didn't think it was going to after seeing all these photos and drawings, did you?).
So, in a perfectly healthy hoof, the toe rocker really doesn't exist, per say...its just the mustang roll/bevel projected through an unhealthy patch of flare and wedge. As such, yes, it goes away when the mustang roll is sufficient to do the full job, and yes, it isn't applied every trim. It truly doesn't touch the toe callus, and doesn't clash with the photos out there showing healthy, functional hooves.
When learning about all this the first time, I think I got confused when I saw drawing of rockers being applied to hooves with no visible toe wall flare. So, for clarity, this is the sort of foot you should be thinking of when you hear the term “rocker” being discussed:
All the information that I've passed on here was what I understood from the clinic, but it may not be 100% as-intended, so make sure you do you own checks on my logic (ie, don't blame Pete if I've still got it all wrong). I think it's an important one to have down, however, since there's still a lot of confusion out there among us horse owners regarding what a toe rocker is. Hopefully, this helps a bit.
So great, one more concept down...only 1,000,000 more to go!
PS—so why do I think Marshall’s hooves reshaped so nicely when I applied my pseudo rocker? Stay tuned...that’s for another story :)