The perfect fit: Standard and therapeutic shoeing options for your horse

  • Your farrier has a huge array of standard and therapeutic options at his disposal to optimise your horse’s health and performance, as Briony Reed discovers

    The importance of equine hoof care has long been understood – bronze horseshoes were found in an Etruscan tomb dating from 400BC, and horses in Roman times wore “hipposandals” not unlike a modern hoof boot.

    In recent decades, scientific research has finessed the wealth of knowledge in the profession. Dynamics and biomechanics are now taken into account to ensure that whatever your horse’s job, the correct shoeing will optimise his performance and address any imbalances or foot conditions.

    Discipline, surfaces, hoof condition and conformation will all affect shoe choice, as will the level of support and grip needed, and shoeing cycle length. Racers wear thin, narrow shoes of light steel or alloy – aircraft grade in some cases – whereas dressage horses working on an artificial surface will have very different weight and grip requirements.

    Different again will be those for hunters: shoes with shorter heels allow for the large amount of fast work, reducing the chance of pulling a shoe. This means that a shorter than average shoeing cycle of two to three weeks is often necessary.

    What’s the norm?

    The vast majority of horseshoes are made of traditional mild steel. The extra weight compared to alloy or plastic shoes is compensated for by its cost-efficiency, malleability that allows a precise fit when the horse is hot-shod, and comparative durability.

    The concave fullered shoe is “the standard UK riding shoe,” says master farrier Ben Benson AWCF. “Fullered means that a groove is cut in the ground surface of the shoe, reducing the weight and providing grip. It can be fitted with stud holes, and is suitable for work on multiple surfaces.

    “An alternative is the three-quarter fullered shoe, which is fullered only on the sides – a flat section at the toe forms a stronger, squarer section for extended wear and protection. It does provide less grip, but would be well suited to a horse working mostly on a surface – a dressage horse or showjumper – or one doing roadwork.”

    A third standard shoe is the continental concave or hybrid, with a more rounded channel than the concave fullered, broader, flatter heels, and a more concave shape at the toe.

    Ben explains: “The grip is less aggressive, which keeps the horse on top of the surface, allowing movement and so relieving pressure on the tendons. I feel they are the best multi-surface shoe for arena and grass work.

    “A critical point to bear in mind, whichever kind of shoe your horse wears, is that for every 1cm a horse’s foot is too long, the extra strain on its musculoskeletal system as the hoof angle changes is equivalent to 50kgs on its back.

    “In a standard shoeing cycle a hoof will have grown by 1–2cm on average, in effect adding 50–100kg. Don’t leave it too long between farrier visits!”

    Therapeutic shoes

    Conformational issues, injuries or other veterinary problems can mean a horse needs therapeutic shoeing. Increasingly, off-the-peg machine-made shoes for any given condition are being superseded by a tailored approach informed by technological advances.

    Carl Bettison, AWCF (Hons) and managing director of Stromsholm Ltd, explains: “Technology such as slow-motion cameras and MRI scanners can be used to ascertain precise biomechanic and diagnostic information.

    “For example, a camera can provide details about a foot’s break-over point or the length and height of a stride, while an MRI might pick up ligament damage. This gives farriers specific information about what is required therapeutically for each individual, and often means problems can be treated far earlier than used to be the case.”

    Carl continues: “Although such techniques are costly, they do benefit the general population – the knowledge gained through investigations performed on high-value competition horses trickles down as farriers see patterns and can make more educated assessments even in cases in which such technology is not used.

    “As with any horseshoes, it is critical that the hoof is trimmed and balanced to ensure that loading is correctly distributed through the hoof and leg before application.

    “Of course, prevention is better than cure – therapeutic farriery can do a lot, but ultimately it is unwise to breed from any horse with bad feet.”

    Ben agrees: “Fitting therapeutic shoes is very specific to the injury itself, the site of the injury, and the mechanics and proportions of the foot. They must be precisely fitted to help rather than hinder the recovery.

    “Tailored fitting is easy as farriers who routinely shoe these horses have vans that are set up and kitted out like mobile workshops, allowing therapeutic shoes to be manufactured to each foot’s specific needs using standard shoes and inserts,” he adds.

    Bar shoes: The family of bar shoes can address a multitude of sins. Carl says, “Bar shoes are still the most common therapeutic shoes as they increase the surface area of the shoe and eliminate the two loading points, namely the heels on a normal shoe.”

    Laminitis is one condition they can alleviate. Carl continues: “Heart bar shoes are still the most popular shoe used on laminitic ponies. Glue-on versions are available, which help further by reducing the trauma of nails being hammered into a sore foot; glue-on shoes are now common, especially on thoroughbreds.”

    Karen Coumbe MRCVS, of Bell Equine, is convinced of the efficacy of good shoeing for laminitis, when done the right way.

    “Decent shoes for laminitis are wonderful and can turn a case around impressively when done in the right way at the right time – namely, early on in the disease process, rather than as a last resort. If one waits until the pedal bone has sunk catastrophically, nothing will ever work,” she says.

    Advanced possibilities: Greater expectations of soundness and performance for horses in combination with scientific and technological input have driven developments in farriery in the past few decades, as happened with veterinary science around a century ago.

    A horse pulling a milk float needed to be sound only at walk, but today’s leisure and competition horses are asked for far more. This has driven changes in therapeutic farriery just as much as for standard shoeing techniques.

    “Modern materials play a very important part in shoeing a lame horse, and can be used in conjunction with different types of shoes,” says Carl. “Products such as Vettec hoof packing are very popular, and modern adhesives are used on foals’ hooves to help correct limb deformities.

    “Thanks to MRI, shoes designed to help damage to collateral ligaments in the hoof have now been developed, especially for the sport horse. These have a wider branch on one side than the other, to reduce the extent to which the hoof capsule sinks into the surface.

    “Composite shoes (made from rubber or other materials) are now being used. These help to eliminate shockwaves and vibration travelling through the hoof into the leg. They are becoming more popular, especially with the focus on standardising the all-weather surfaces in different countries when the Olympics and World Championships are held.”

    Ben adds: “Just as Usain Bolt’s running track is tuned before he runs, FEI competition surfaces are created to very specific requirements. Long gone are the days of woodchip: at London 2012 the exact frequency at which the surface would reverberate was specified; by Rio the requirement was the same frequency plus the ability to absorb 100ml of rain in an hour and to dry in 20 minutes; planning for Tokyo demanded the same capacity but for 130ml of rain.

    “Top-level farriery will be honed to work so precisely, and the knowledge gained will ultimately trickle down through all levels of farriery, improving the support available for your horse.”

    ‘His whole body has changed shape’

    Amy Struthers’ event horse Fabriano (Fred) had always had very low heels and long toes, but was transformed when shod with bar shoes.

    “Fred’s movement could be very flat, especially when galloping,” says Amy. “He just didn’t pick up properly off the ground.

    “Over the past two years, Ben has changed his shoeing. We started with a quarter-clipped heart bar with glue to support the heels and shorten the toe – the glue helped reduce concussion and support the heels over the shoeing cycle. Now, he has quarter-clipped straight bar shoes.

    “Fred’s whole body has changed shape as a result, not only his feet. He looks and feels completely different, especially in trot. He is now engaging from behind, and working more evenly and with more spring, taking the contact positively.

    “We have now been able to move up to advanced for the past two seasons. He wouldn’t have made the level without the therapeutic shoeing – he physically couldn’t work in the correct way.”

    A stable foundation

    Lauren MacBurnie’s Kerayasi, known as Edward, had spent years adapting posturally to very low heels and long toes, making him stiff and sore, especially behind. A three-quarter fullered lateral extension under the hind toes helped him stabilise himself better when ridden, and to “sit” and collect more.

    “Since Edward has been shod by Ben Benson he has found the more advanced movements easier,” says Lauren.

    “Movements that felt like hard work before now feel a lot easier. As an ex-racehorse he’s not naturally built for high-level dressage, so anything I can do to help him is key.

    “Since the change of shoeing we have made our advanced debut and plan to compete at prix st georges this year. Edward is 18 years old – I had considered retiring him from competitive dressage, but he feels better than ever these days.

    “Ben says it’s the small percentages that make all the difference, and the way he shoes Edward definitely contributes to his soundness, way of going and competition results,” concludes Lauren.

    Ben adds: “The lateral extension meant better stance and more correct posture and balance, and so better and more correct movement. This led to much better muscling, in turn regenerating its own support system, and we could reduce the shoes back to a ‘normal’ perimeter type sport shoe.”

    Softening the blow

    Sometimes the shoe alone cannot provide all the protection and support a foot needs, which is where pads and padding come in. As with shoes, your farrier is spoilt for choice.

    “Different structures in the foot and different conditions will require greater or lesser levels of flexibility and ‘give’,” says Ben. “A laminitic might need the equine equivalent of Crocs, while an event horse may benefit from something with more bounce – a horse’s Nikes, if you like. Varying the exact combination can give an eventer the same feel over the ground throughout the season, as the ground itself changes.

    “A flat pad with a frog piece will increase the loading on the frog, in turn relieving pressure on the heels, and a plastic wedge with chevrons can, at the same time, improve grip.

    “From most to least flexible, a farrier’s options range from a flat leather pad, to a plastic flat pad, to a plastic pad that can be moulded in hot water and then allowed to set. Between these, and the use of packing – similar to dental impression material, and in three possible levels of softness – a solution can be tailored to each horse.”

    Why so pricey?

    It may feel horribly circular, shelling out your hard-earned shekels for… more shoes like the last lot. What exactly do we get for the outlay?

    Ben explains: “A quality set of shoes may set you back £80 for the shoes and £10 callout, plus a pound for a road pin or a stud hole, but you’re paying for the skill that comes from a four-year apprenticeship and degree-level knowledge of equine foot anatomy.

    “Twenty years ago, a similar set would have cost £58 plus £10 callout but today’s equivalent to that price is around £90 plus callout, so in real terms the cost is now lower. Think of it as insurance against vet bills, or like investing in properly fitted running shoes or ski boots for yourself.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 4 June 2020