The Barefoot Equine Athlete: Big Shoes To Fill?
And it’s no wonder. These horses showed all the benefits of a barefoot lifestyle. They even got the full backing of the veterinary board at the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI).
“If it’s the right horse, with the right management, under the right conditions, (competing barefoot) is absolutely optimal for the horse,” said FEI Veterinary Director Goran Åkerström, who, around 2000, spent six years directing the farriery school in the Veterinary Faculty at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, in Uppsala.
The Swedes don’t have the monopoly on going barefoot, of course. Competitive riders throughout the world have shown shoeless horses in a variety of events across the decades. But Sweden has a particularly strong recent history of it.
Swedish scientists have studied the art—and the risks and benefits—of keeping all or some of their Warmbloods’ and their coldblood harness-racing horses’ feet bare. They’ve developed their own protocols for transitioning sport horses to barefoot. And since Åkerström led an investigation into barefoot trimming practices on behalf of the Swedish Animal Welfare Board in 2005, they’ve been transparent in exposing the dangers of unhealthy barefoot trimming.
“Some of (the barefoot trimming) was excellent, but some of it was really detrimental to horses,” Åkerström told The Horse. His investigation led to legal cases, and some barefoot trimmers were banned from owning and working with hooved animals. The findings and subsequent sanctions highlighted the importance of recognizing the many wrong ways of doing barefoot and that equine health and welfare only benefits from barefoot being done the right way. “It had quite an impact,” he said of the investigation.
The sanctioned cases in the 2005 investigation “were all very far from what you saw with the horses in the Tokyo Olympics,” Åkerström said. “In the Olympics, you can see how it can really work.”
That doesn’t mean barefoot is for everybody, he added. “It really depends,” he said. “It’s complex.”
Why Shoes Can Be the Right Choice
Ostensibly, shoes are designed to protect working horses’ feet, which often fail under the stress of domestic life, said Angelo Telatin, PhD, associate professor of equine studies at Delaware Valley University, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where all 40 sport horses under his care are barefoot. In many show barns, especially when horses are stalled, hooves weaken from exposure to urine and lack the constructive experiences that build up the feet of wild and feral horses. So we can’t use the argument “that’s the way nature intended,” when it comes to keeping these horses shoeless, if they’re managed in an unnatural environment, he said.
Why Shoeless Can Be the Right Choice
The barefoot sport horse—when healthy—has major advantages over the shod horse, said Alicia Harlov, a full-time hoof care provider in Northeastern Massachusetts and the creator of the Humble Hoof Podcast.
“The compressive forces on the hoof capsule can equal more than twice the weight of the horse at speed,” she said. “If the hoof isn’t allowed to naturally deform and flex under these circumstances to disperse the ground reaction forces properly, or if there isn’t proper caudal (toward the rear) support (which a well-trimmed bare foot would have naturally on footing), we can see a negative impact on the feet, such as a compromised frog or digital cushion atrophy,” she said. “With a then-weaker caudal hoof, the shock-absorbing properties aren’t as strong, which can impact the ability to handle forces from intense work.
“Not only that but, anecdotally speaking, we often see less torque on the proximal interphalangeal (pastern) joint and often fewer instances of soft tissue injury,” she added.
For the Swedish farrier behind the show-jumping team’s trims, it’s also about letting the foot sink correctly into fiber-sand footing the way it should for optimal support. In modern arenas, shoes block that process—leading to reduced shock absorption, said Peter Glimberg.
Elsewhere, depending on the ground forces, these same sport horses might be better off in shoes or removable boots.
Åkerström agrees. “Barefoot horses on wet grass could be detrimental,” he said. “It could be dangerous for both the horse and the rider, not to mention that it would also reduce performance.”
The Smart Horse Owner’s Guide To Bare Feet
The barefoot sport horse trend is a good one, Åkerström said. But riders must tread with caution.
“Each case needs to be evaluated individually,” he said. “You really need to consider each horse and his discipline, and you need to manage the case and give it enough time. And you need to be very, very observant on how to manage that horse in the best way. You will find that, quite often, it depends on the horse and how much and of what quality hoof he has, how quickly it grows back, the footing, and so on.”
Our sources say successful competitive barefoot riding requires:
- Skill. The farrier and the veterinarian must be open-minded and well-trained in barefoot horse health, from evidence-based trimming techniques to a keen eye for subtle lameness.
- Time. Give the horse’s feet ample time, usually several months, to adjust to working barefoot—especially if the feet were shod previously.
- Genetics. Did the parents have good feet? Select for horses that appear to have the genes for high-quality hooves.
- Nutrition. Horses can’t grow good hooves without a healthy, well-balanced diet.
- Environment. Strong hooves develop in more natural environments where horses can move around over varied terrain, rather than standing for hours with their feet in feces or urine-soaked bedding.
- Discernment. Even if the horse’s feet look great, some situations and terrain call for extra protection, whether metal or plastic shoes, a layer of adhesive resin, or removable boots.
- Humility. A horse’s health and welfare are more important than the rider’s pride. If going barefoot doesn’t work, it’s time to step back and use shoes—at least temporarily, while figuring out the next steps.
“For both performance and welfare, you have to evaluate each case individually,” Åkerström said. “And always, of course, with a focus on equine welfare as your No. 1 priority.”
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