John Whitaker: ‘I’m giving barefoot a go – that it’s cheaper appeals as a Yorkshireman’


  • British showjumping legend John Whitaker is “experimenting” with taking the shoes off some of his horses

    Shoes or no shoes? That is the question everyone’s asking at the moment. Several top riders are now competing their horses without shoes, including the world number one Henrik von Eckermann, winner of the World Cup Final at the weekend, and Olympic medallist Peder Fredricson.

    The CSI5* grand prix in Basel, Switzerland, was won by Max Kühner on EIC Cooley Jump The Q, whose shoes he’d only recently taken off, which says a lot, while Henrik of course won last year’s world championships with a barefoot King Edward. Julien Epaillard, who was one of the first to jump at the top level without shoes, is another who has been hugely successful.

    Peder and Henrik even missed Aachen last year – one of the best shows in the world – because they didn’t want to put shoes on. These top riders now swear by it.

    Taking your horse’s shoes off is not always that straightforward though – it needs careful management. On the upside it’s cheaper, some horses jump better, and a lot of the arenas nowadays are sand, which makes it possible to jump barefoot.

    On the downside, you obviously can’t put in studs, which means you can’t jump on grass, and if you decide to take your horse’s shoes off, it can take six to eight weeks or even longer for their feet to harden up.

    We do a lot of roadwork with our horses, which is also largely out of the question without shoes. Even horses who are walking around shows where it’s stony or concrete, or those that paw on the truck, will need some kind of additional protection such as strap-on hoof boots.

    We don’t shoe our young horses till they’re six or seven years old, mainly because they don’t jump on grass so much these days and when you’ve lots of young horses like we do, it works out a lot cheaper. We get their feet trimmed regularly and really they’re fine.

    So I’ve been experimenting with taking the shoes off a couple of my eight-year-olds and, although it took a while for the feet to harden up and you have to take extra care of them, when they do harden up, it seems to work and the horses appear very happy.

    It’s not just me, either – many riders are enquiring about it and asking the likes of Peder and Henrik for advice. German showjumper Christian Kukuk is another convert, winning a class in Doha with Mumbai, who had only recently had his shoes taken off.

    I wouldn’t say that taking off shoes will suit every horse, but for some it definitely seems to work. I don’t know if they feel more comfortable, but they do seem to be more careful and more attentive, so it’s certainly something that I’m thinking about.

    It doesn’t totally fit with our system and I’m not sure that I want to do it with my best horses yet, but I’m experimenting with a couple of the horses to see how they cope with it.

    It’s certainly making people think – a few years ago we wouldn’t even have dreamt of it. But anyway, the fact that it’s cheaper definitely appeals to this Yorkshireman!

    A sad farewell

    Very sadly Mick Saywell passed away early this month. He was a real character and I enjoyed his company very much. He was a top rider – very competitive and he had many good horses. In the 1970s and 1980s, when he was riding for Trevor Banks, they were a formidable team.

    He went on to run his own yard, dealing and trading successfully. The last few years I enjoyed having a chat and a drink with him at the shows where he’d support his children, Andrew and Louise, as well as his grandkids. There are many good stories about him, memories I will always treasure.

    ● Have you successfully switched to competing your horse without shoes? Let us know about it at hhletters@futurenet.com, including your name, nearest town and county to have your comments considered for publication in a future issue of Horse & Hound magazine

    • This exclusive column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 13 April

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