Shoes For (Equine) Olympic Athletes

Meet Tokyo Olympic Head Farrier Ben Benson of Great Britain, and learn what it takes to keep high-performance horses shod during the Games.
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Shoes For (Equine) Olympic Athletes
Ben Benson (GBR), lead farrier at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, shows the farriery to Steven Wilde (GBR), Summer Games equestrian announcer. The shop is stocked with 10 to 12 shoe styles in eight sizes. |Courtesy FEI

The Olympic Games are all about the coming together of the best of the best, and the human and equine athletes have been meticulously prepared for the occasion. An essential part of that preparation is shoeing and, just as with human athletes, a horse can only perform at its best if the shoes fit perfectly.

This is where Olympic lead farrier from London 2012 and Rio 2016, Ben Benson (GBR), comes into play at Baji Koen Equestrian Park. Benson is working with a hand-picked international team and 18 Japanese farriers to provide an all-round shoeing service to the on-site horses.

While many teams bring their own horseshoes, the equine shoe shop–officially known as the farriery–is stocked with 10 to 12 shoe styles in eight sizes. Ben Benson and his team can copy any type of shoe, the goal being to change as little as possible.

As well as being able to analyze the horses’ biomechanics and balance, farriers must know exactly what type of shoe is needed for each of the three Olympic Equestrian disciplines in Tokyo: dressage, eventing, and show jumping. For horses competing on sand, a shoe with a light grip is preferable to keep their feet on top of the surface, whereas they require a firmer grip on grass.

Shoes For (Equine) Olympic Athletes
Photo: Courtesy FEI

“It’s all about traction and support,” Benson explains. “But a set of shoes is only as good as the person who puts them on.”

Shoes for dressage horses should have a degree of flexibility, allowing them to perform set patterns of movements on the flat. For cross-country, eventers need a more concave shoe, which can cut into the grass footing and provide stability. The jumpers will look for a something in between the two and, as for the eventers, require the option of customizing with studs for extra grip when needed.

As with so many things in life, the devil is in the details. Many Olympic-level horses are on four- or five-week shoeing schedules. In an ideal world, horses arrive at the Olympics having just been shod and head home in time for their next shoeing. But the quarantine period horses underwent prior to arrival in Tokyo meant many horses have reached their shoeing deadline on-site, so Benson and his team have kept busy.

To be selected to be part of an Olympic farriery team is a career highlight, and Benson is always eager to share his depth of knowledge and has provided know-how to numerous farriers over the years.

Being lead farrier at multiple Olympic Games comes with a lot of responsibility. It requires building a relationship of trust with the athletes and their support personnel, as well as excellent communication within the farrier team.

“It’s not always easy when the stakes are this high,” Ben Benson says, “but it is clear everyone at the Olympic Games is an expert in their field. Despite the immense pressure, athletes need to trust that the team is made up of the best farriers in the world and that their horses are in the best possible hands.”

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