The barefoot debate: Do horses need shoes to compete? H&H asks the experts *H&H Plus*

  • Some say barefoot is natural, others argue that modern competition horses are purpose-bred and need shoes. Polly Bryan consults three farriers, a vet who is also an examiner for the Worshipful Company of Farriers, grand prix riders competing in showjumping and dressage, plus a grassroots eventer for their opinions...

    There are few more heated debates in the equestrian world than that of whether horses can and should go without shoes, especially when discussing the pros and cons for competition horses. While many proponents of keeping a horse “barefoot” argue that shoes hinder a horse’s natural movement, inhibiting blood circulation, those at the opposite end of the spectrum feel that shoes play an essential role in keeping competition horses sound and performing at their best.

    The answer arguably lies somewhere in between, and will depend on each horse.

    “When it comes to whether or not to shoe a horse, one size most definitely does not fit all, and it has to be based on a scientific appraisal of that particular horse,” says Richard Stephenson MRCVS, who is also a veterinary examiner for the Worshipful Company of Farriers (WCF) and former chairman of the WCF examinations board.

    He maintains that going barefoot is the right thing to do with certain horses, but not because it is a “natural” approach.

    “It’s important to recognise that the typical competition horse you see before you today is not a natural animal. Horses have been highly bred and selected to perform jobs that are not natural. Some horses can do well without shoes on, but it’s not a valid argument that barefoot is better because it’s natural.

    “Similarly, many think that having horses shod is almost compulsory, but not all horses need shoes. You need to consider many things including the horse’s conformation, its job, the surface – even things like the weight of the rider will have some relevance to whether it can work successfully without shoes.”

    There is a tendency to assume that farriers are inherently opposed to horses being barefoot, but this is disputed by Haydn Price, consultant farrier to the Hong Kong Jockey Club elite performance programme and former team farrier to the British dressage and showjumping teams, who counts Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin among his clients.

    “I’m an advocate for barefoot, where it is appropriate,” says Haydn. “If your horse can comfortably go barefoot and genuinely doesn’t need or benefit from any form of application, then I am an advocate for the horse being barefoot. If a horse doesn’t need any biomechanical assistance, why shoe them?

    “However, in my 40 years of being a farrier, I’ve probably only seen eight horses that have conformation conducive to being barefoot; that is, horses that can maintain stability of limb and biomechanical function without any form of support through the shoeing process. There are very few Usain Bolts, to put it in human terms.

    “It is possible to take the shoes off a competition horse successfully, but there are many individual elements that have to be factored in – the biomechanical effects on the limb, the individual joint movement and loading, and range of motion.

    “There is no doubt that some horses have underlying conditions and pathologies that do improve through going barefoot,” Haydn continues. “The traditional application of nails means the horn structure is definitely compromised by the shoeing process, there’s no question about that. In barefoot horses, the hoof capsule tends to be a lot better without being infiltrated by a series of nails that can separate the horn.

    “However, too many people focus too much on the hoof capsule, rather than taking a multi-factored holistic overview. Careful and appropriate shoeing creates a platform conducive to a horse’s individual limb, and this can have a dramatic effect on an individual joint’s range of motion.”

    Haydn points out that ultimately, most competition riders are looking to achieve an increase in the amount of power that their horse produces, whether that’s power to jump a fence, accelerate in a jump-off, or to produce advanced dressage movements.

    “Shoeing, depending on application, can affect the stance time – the time during which the foot is engaged with the ground,” he explains. “Increasing or decreasing the stance time can affect the force the limb has created while engaged with the ground, which from a rider’s point of view translates into the stability of the limb and the reciprocal power that comes out in the ‘push off’. A rider is interested in power output for performance.”

    Barefoot success stories

    While the vast majority of sport horses do compete in shoes – and Haydn says that none of his current competitive clients are barefoot – there are barefoot success stories to be found.

    French grand prix showjumper Julien Epaillard competes several of his horses barefoot at the very highest level – recently winning at the Al Shaqab CHI5* in Doha with the barefoot Alibi De La Roque.

    “I think it’s better for the blood flow and the horse’s articulation; the natural action of the foot comes back,” explains Julien, who puts shoes back on his horses when he competes on grass. “One of my owners, Michel Hécart, has been doing this for two years now and we are seeing fantastic results.”

    Richard agrees that going barefoot can be “fractionally better” for blood supply, but that a properly shod horse should have minimal effects to the blood flow. “A properly applied shoe should not have a dramatic effect on the physiological function of the foot. But if a horse is badly shod, it can have a dramatic effect on blood flow,” he says, adding that for some horses, it is perfectly possible to take their shoes on and off depending on demand, but warning against assuming a causal connection between going barefoot and success.

    Both Richard and Haydn agree that if a horse is experiencing no issues with its shoeing, there is little need to change. But the same “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” logic can be applied both ways.

    British grand prix dressage rider Serena Gordon has always kept her current top horse, the 12-year-old World Of Dreams gelding Wonderland, barefoot.

    “I tend to buy my horses as foals and start them off barefoot, working on the basis that if they need shoes, we put them on, but if they don’t, we don’t,” she explains. “Wonderland has really good feet, and when we first backed him, I agreed with my farrier that we would start him without shoes. He’s now just starting at grand prix, and unless there is a problem, why would I change? It’s certainly cheaper and I don’t have to worry about losing a shoe.

    “It all depends on the horse. I think a lot more could go barefoot, but it’s not for every horse,” adds Serena, who has a mixture of shod and unshod horses, who are all attended by her farrier every six weeks.

    “All my hacking is off road, simply because the road I live on is very busy, and if I did do a lot of road hacking, I would rethink having them barefoot. But all the horses walk across hardcore every day to the field and Wonderland doesn’t blink at it. He has competed all over the place and I’ve never encountered a venue that has given him any problems. And it certainly hasn’t impacted his ability to train to grand prix.”

    Take advice

    For those interested in going barefoot, Richard advises asking the advice of a fully qualified farrier who already knows your horse and, for those horses already barefoot, continuing to use a farrier to trim and maintain the feet on a regular basis.

    “A large part of a farrier’s extensive training is centered around trimming feet, and it’s not the case that you need a specialist barefoot trimmer for a horse without shoes,” he says.

    Farrier Mark Aiken, who is also on the editorial panel for Forge, the official magazine for the British Farriers and Blacksmiths Association, also advises owners to employ a fully insured and regulated professional to care for their horse’s feet, and not to assume that a farrier will automatically discourage an owner from looking into going barefoot as an option.

    “Very few farriers have a problem with horses going barefoot, if it is the right thing for that particular horse. A third of my clients are barefoot and these vary from pet animals to riding school horses and those hacking on tracks and working in arenas.”

    Mark also points out that it is not as cut and dried as opting for traditional steel shoes or going barefoot – there are many variables.

    “There are so many options nowadays when it comes to shoeing – I frequently use composite shoes that can allow greater flexibility during the stance phase, and there are many different orthotics available. Going barefoot actually removes a lot of options that could be beneficial – any type of shoe, once attached, becomes an integral part of the distal limb and as such can be used to manipulate the ground reaction forces that occur when loading, therefore having the capability to reduce stress on either the foot or limb.

    “Shoeing is an intervention caused by the domestication of horses, and whether you’re trimming or shoeing, it is dependant upon what is best for that individual horse. Farriers wouldn’t use the same type of shoe on every horse, just as not every horse can go barefoot. There are a huge number of complex variables to consider.”

    Case study: Is it possible to event with no shoes?

    Those who do well barefoot tend to be dressage horses or showjumpers who primarily work on a surface. However, eventing should not be regarded as impossible, as Lisa Dalton proves with her 13-year-old coloured gelding Mr Harry Patch, who competes successfully at BE90 without shoes.

    “When I got him nine years ago, he had a full set of shoes on, but as my hacking was 90% off road, I opted to take off his hind shoes,” says Lisa. “A year on, his feet were really good, and after a lot of discussion with my farrier, we took off his fronts too.

    “I researched and ensured he was on a feed with low sugar, low starch and high fibre for a good month to set him in good stead, then we went for it. At first he was sometimes careful, but never footsore, and I didn’t have to reduce his workload or avoid roadwork – he took it all in his stride.

    “One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed in him being barefoot is that previously I always had to use brushing boots on him, as he would knock his fetlocks, and now I don’t. His feet are rock hard – my farrier works up a sweat just trimming them!

    “He shows you don’t need perfect conformation – he’s pigeon-toed and has sidebone from prior to being barefoot.”

    The pair began eventing in 2014, and Lisa explains she does have to focus on maintaining balance.

    “It makes me ride more correctly and be very aware of where his outside shoulder is – you can’t be sloppy when you have no studs. When I walk cross-country courses, I have to walk my lines and stick to them. Showjumping can be more of a challenge, and dressage too if the grass is too short. If there is good grass coverage it’s fine. But I have had to ride some cautious tests.”

    Lisa says that eventing Harry without shoes has surprised some other riders.

    “Some people tend to look at me aghast. But I will always do what is best for Harry – if my farrier advised putting shoes back on for whatever reason, I would.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 4 June 2020