Northern California Farrier Center Debuts with Natural Balance Clinic

by Dawn Jenkins

Note: Images with captions appear at the end of this article.

Published in the April - May 2002 Issue of Anvil Magazine

Imagine a dream Farrier Center and work facility, located on a 15-acre Spanish Land Grant parcel. Picture a fully stocked farrier supply store where you could access every nail, pad or shoe you could possibly want or need. Envision the huge barn complex complete with box stalls and special horseshoeing stalls adjacent to a full blacksmith shop with forges, anvils and trip hammer. Now see the full veterinarian wet lab and latest technology in multimedia presentation for educational clinics.

This is Michael DeLeonardo's fantasy-and he has created just such a facility-the Northern California Farrier Center in Salinas, California, the culmination of his lifelong dream. Michael DeLeonardo, President of the Western States Farrier Association and former American Farriers Association President, showcased his newly built Farrier Center on December 1, 2001, with a one-day seminar presented by Natural Balance Clinician Gene Ovnicek. The pristine state-of-the-art, eight-stall barn with extensive work area was packed with tables, chairs and about 70 seasoned farriers. Among them were famed AFA tester and examiner Gene Armstrong from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly, Pomona researcher, Mike Savoldi.

The massive 160-foot long barn and Farrier Center is in itself a work of art. Inside, a tasty lunch of sandwiches and pasta salad was provided; the day was wet and wild with intermittent showers and during the break the shop forges were fired up to take off the chill. Gene Ovnicek presented his lecture and slide show in the morning; after lunch, he demonstrated a live trim and shoe job that was broadcast on closed-circuit TV.

Harry Patton Horseshoe Supply North, the well-stocked, 2400 sq. foot farrier supply store was open for business throughout the day. Michael's partner, Ada Gates Patton, made sure her friends and associates were well cared for. Stocked to the rafters with shoes, hammers, anvils and all kinds of supplies from America, Canada and Europe, the recently opened store was custom built to accommodate the needs of local and nationwide farriers. (Having trouble finding concave bar stock? No problem. They ship UPS all over the country.) Featuring a custom sales counter with built-in digital scale and fully computerized invoicing and shipping (you can even get a year-end summary of your purchases for ease of tracking expenses at tax time), Michael and Ada have thought of everything. They even have a small museum featuring shadowboxed photos of Ada's late husband, Horseshoe Hall of Famer, Harry Patton.

So why bring in a Natural Balance clinic? According to Ada, who also operates the Harry Patton Horseshoe Supply South near the Santa Anita Racetrack in Monrovia, California: "We sell so many of the Natural Balance Shoes, we wanted to understand how they are to be applied and thought we'd bring in the man himself." Gene's lecture began with the many questions he had mulled over in his mind about the feet he had seen in his everyday practice, both those he could and could not seem to help. As a farrier for over forty years, Ovnicek, a Certified Journeyman Farrier and former instructor for seventeen years at Flathead Valley Community College in Montana, realized that some of what we do as farriers just doesn't seem to help the horse.

He recalled the horses he had seen in his youth, rugged, barefoot and sound that seemed to go forever. He wondered why traditional methods of shoeing were failing some of these animals. Could it be that many of the structures we farriers have been taught to routinely pare-back are actually important to leave intact for the health of the horse? He connected with some top veterinary researchers to determine what actually takes place within the foot, what these structures do and how they work. Through this study, his Natural Balance Method has evolved.

After hearing his lecture at the 1995 AAEP Convention, Ovnicek collaborated with Dr. Robert Bowker Ph.D., bio-neurologist and researcher at Michigan State University, which opened up a whole new set of questions and answers. Dr. Bowker discovered a large volume of proprioceptors-sensory nerve endings that affect coordination-at the buttress (rear portion) of the frog. This, combined with the discovery of Dr. Barbara Page of Littleton, Colorado, that sound feral horses land heel first, confirmed what Gene had suspected in his own research of horse's feet.

One of the comments I heard at the clinic was how impressed people were with the research Gene has done. Gene Ovnicek continues to prove his theories and put them to scientific test, such as the "callus" of the sole supporting the coffin bone. Working with Dr. Page, he marked the dorsal walls with BB's and took radiographs to measure the coffin bones in relation to the hoof capsule. Then, trimming the foot to remove the tighter- knit and "grainier" sole callus, he took radiographs again and found that every coffin bone dropped within the foot, up to 1/4 inch. The sole callus, it would seem, aids in holding the bone in place within the foot. It also serves to protect the circumflex artery that surrounds the bottom of the coffin bone.

In Gene's experience, the biggest mistake people make is to remove too much sole! When we knife into the live sole and take more than just the chalky, dead sole out and invade the callus, we are setting up potential failure, creating a flatter, more run- forward foot. How do we use this information? Trim to the live sole only, and stop at the waxy, glossy sole-don't be tempted to take too much off!

How about the frog? The "lip" of the frog, the ragged sides we have been trained to routinely remove, work to hold dirt in place in the commissures. The rear portion of the frog contains proprioceptors, and the cushion behind the apex of the frog helps support the Duckett's dot area, the widest part of the foot. Other than take out dead, exfoliating tissue and clean the "central sulcus," the frog does better left alone. It helps with traction, coordination, and helps support the weight of the horse.

Dr. Bowker has identified a series of mini blood vessels, which are "microvessels" within the foot that appear to work to dissipate energy concentrated in the frog. Unlike the larger vessels and arteries that work like straws for supplying nutrition to tissue, he hypothesizes that this series of smaller "swizzle stick"-type vessels work as a fluid hydraulic, shock absorbing system. Perhaps this is yet another reason why a healthy frog and a heel-first landing is so critical to the longevity and soundness of the horse. Also, analysis of stride length done at Colorado State University confirmed that a heel-first landing lengthens stride in every case. Why? The digital cushion fills the back of the foot, and Dr. Bowker's research confirms that a good digital cushion is critical to soundness and energy absorption. He has found that sound feet develop tough, gristled `fibro- cartilage' tissue throughout the digital cushion between the lateral cartilages.

Yet every navicular foot that Dr. Bowker has dissected has had a digital cushion of fat only, with little to no fibro-cartilage. And the lateral cartilages of navicular horses are thinner; the blood supply to navicular horses is less efficient than in sound feet. Navicular horses shift their weight to the toe, and the laminae at the toe is thinner-closer together-on these horses.

What causes the development of this fibro-cartilage? Dr. Bowker found fibro- cartilage starting in horses from the ages of four to six years old, and determined that horses develop this shock-absorbing ability from stimulation, movement and use. In fact, inactivity-lack of movement as would be found with stalled or confined horses-causes a buildup of painful lactic acid in the foot and pooling of blood which could contribute to laminitis. Horses were intended to move, and raising them in confinement detracts from their natural ability to perform. "Movement and a heel- first landing are essential to maintaining soundness." According to Gene, "Getting a heel-first landing is one of the most important things we employ in any horse we shoe."

Both Dr. Bowker and Gene Ovnicek are proponents for allowing dirt: clean, compacted dirt, not manure-to build up in the commissures of the frog. The function of this dirt is to further support the coffin bone. Dental impression material, Equithane, even Easy Boot Foam, are some of the man-made replacements we can employ to mimic the job of dirt compaction. The problem with setting the shoe full to the end of the toe is that, depending on the distortion of the foot, the dirt then compacts in the toe region, rather than the heel, and causes more strain than support. By bringing the entire shoe package back under the limb and not letting the foot run forward, the dirt stays and compacts in the rear portion of the foot, adding support and stimulating the proprioceptors. Why offer support? Gene's research found that by raising the coffin bone inside the hoof capsule the horses move sounder and stay sounder. By trying to attain pastern alignment, we often find ourselves interfering with the callus and removing too much sole. When this happens, the foot lays down scar tissue to hold the wall in place, which incorporates the tip of the frog. The wall then migrates forward, pulls the frog forward, pulls the heel forward, and causes under-run heel, long toe syndrome-all as a result of our just trying to do our job.

When we shift our emphasis from pastern alignment to support of the coffin bone and bring the support back under the limb with the frog in contact with the ground, with heels back under the horse, and at least half the shoe behind the widest part of the foot, wonderful things begin to happen. The dorsal wall begins to grow straight down from the coronet. The navicular bone changes position, and actually raises in the foot. It now lays more vertical, less horizontal. This can be seen from "before" and "after" radiographs. By attaining the heel-first landing, the foot functions and the phalanges align before the foot is loaded. In fact, in a healthy foot, movement is most pronounced at the hairline above the widest part of the foot. This is good. A narrow, rigid coronet band holds the coffin bone down in the foot, not allowing it room, contracting it. By supporting the back of the foot, the coronet band expands and the bone is allowed enough room within the capsule.

Natural Balance is a holistic approach to farriery, and many considerations work together to make the Natural Balance concept what it is:

 Trimming to live sole and not invading the callus

 Setting breakover to the inside edge of the sole callus (1/4" in front of the coffin bone)

 Frog contact with the ground

 Dirt compaction in the back of the foot

 Heel-first landing

The benefits of this approach include:

 Increase in stride

 Reduced interference and stumbling

 Dirt compaction in back of foot, rather than the toe region

 Better support to the coffin bone, prevents its sinking in the foot

 Promotes better blood supply, better navicular bone position and more natural foot function from histological (microscopic study of tissues) standpoint

 Ease of breakover allows optimal kinematic (motion) function

 Overall healthier, sounder hooves

To learn more about Natural Balance, or to contact Gene Ovnicek, go online to his web site:, or phone his company at: 719/372-7463. To contact Michael DeLeonardo about activities at the Farrier Center or to order from Harry Patton Horseshoe Supply call: 831/442-9150.

Ada Gates Patton mans the counter at the Harry Patton Horseshoe Supply Store North in Salinas, California. The well-stocked, 2400-sq. foot farrier supply store carries equine supplies manufactured in America, Canada and Europe. They ship UPS all over the country.

Michael DeLeonardo (pictured here at the 2001 AFA Convention), former AFA President and founder of the Northern California Farrier Center, which includes a fully stocked farrier supply store, barn complex, full blacksmith shop, and veterinarian wet lab.

Natural Balance Clinician Gene Ovnicek demonstrates hoof preparation at recent Northern California Clinic.

Feeling the hoof for the "sole callus"-_the tight-knit, grainier textured raised area of the sole that corresponds with the perimeter of the coffin bone.

Hoof prepared by Gene Ovnicek for shoeing. Lines are drawn at the widest part of the foot and at the toe "callus" to mark ideal point of breakover.

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