Shoeing elite dressage horses: top farriers share their views

  • Elite dressage farriery has become a specialist subject, with potential benefits for horses at all levels. H&H asked top farriers for their views on how modern methods can enhance performance and soundness

    Meet the experts

    Steve Wyles AWCF shoes dressage and showjumping horses for H&H’s guest editor Richard Davison and his sons Tom and Joe. He is a referral farrier at Pool House Equine Clinic.

    Haydn Price DipWCF is a consultant farrier to the British Equestrian Federation and farrier to the British dressage and showjumping teams.

    Shoeing for dressage horses

    “The standard, general purpose horseshoe is made of concave steel for grip,” says Steve. “This is good for roadwork, or for eventers, hunters and showjumpers, who need grip at the toe for propulsion, but doesn’t help the dressage horse.

    “For dressage, there should be a slide phase when the hoof lands and before it bears weight — especially in extended paces. A flatter shoe with no concave shaping allows this slide, so that the horse’s movement can flow without jarring.

    “A flatter shoe also creates a stable, weight-bearing platform that stays on top of an artificial surface. If hooves dig or sink in, the medial-lateral [side to side] or dorsal-palmar [front to rear] hoof-limb deviation puts the horse at risk from ligament strain. This is especially true in a movement such as piaffe, where heavy loading behind can cause the heels to sink.”

    Q: How are elite horses shod for performance?

    Haydn: “A horse needs natural ability, but we can maximise this athleticism through small adjustments in shoeing, vet care, physiotherapy and training.

    “The aim with shoeing is to protect the natural gait by creating a supportive platform to allow the horse’s biomechanics to be more proficient. He may need different treatment on one limb to accommodate a conformation issue. Altering shape or positioning of the shoe by millimetres can make degrees of difference in movement.”

    Q: Can shoes create bigger movement?

    Steve: “Shoes should enhance but not exaggerate natural movement. We now know that extra weight on the toe to make it ‘travel’ further overloads the ligaments. Lateral extensions on the side of the hind shoes can create symmetry in relation to the limb, but anything beyond that acts as a lever.”

    Haydn: “I think we’ve moved away from wanting only the big movement, or ‘wow factor’. Certain horses have that, irrespective of shoeing, but in British dressage we’re looking for accurate movement. It’s more about fine-tuning.”

    Q: Is assessment by the farrier’s eye, or can technology help?

    Haydn: “You must see the horse moving, both in-hand and under saddle. I use a motion sensor system that assesses each limb individually and detects symmetries and acceptable — or adjustable — asymmetries. I can then execute change, if necessary, before remeasuring. This applies objective technology rather than relying on a subjective visual assessment.

    Q: Is barefoot realistic at higher levels?

    Haydn: “I’m an advocate for barefoot, when circumstances allow. Without a shoe, however, the foot works slightly differently — the surface area is reduced to the solar plane, whereas a shoe can be made slightly wider. Without that you’re potentially altering the range of motion of the joints. I’ve yet to see a horse able to do grand prix with bare feet that can support fully loaded limbs.”

    Steve: “If a horse has a slight conformation problem, the shoe can create the correct platform. You can extend it at the rear to provide support for piaffe, for example, but you can’t do that with barefoot. And unless conformation is perfect, you won’t get the ideal 50:50 central rotation of the foot that a shoe can create.”

    Q: Are modern materials gaining ground?

    Steve: “Glue-on plastic shoes have really come on, but there’s still the risk of sealing in bacteria on the hoof perimeter that will affect horn growth. Some glue-on shoes encase the hoof capsule and don’t allow for its natural expansion and contraction under load. I wouldn’t choose them over nail-ons, but they have their place if you can’t physically nail the shoe or you’re very close to the laminae.”

    Q: Fuego wore some interesting ‘rock ’n’ roll’ shoes at the 2012 London Olympics. Will we see more like this?

    Haydn: “On the Continent you can see some seriously complicated stuff, and media interest in top horses is bound to make people look at what’s being used. There are shoes on the market that can help horses with underlying conditions, but I’m all for sticking to basics and deviating only slightly to accommodate a horse’s individual requirements.”

    Q: Will dressage horses at lower levels benefit from innovation at the top?

    Haydn: “Yes. What we throw at elite performance horses in an attempt to win medals — the learning, understanding and development — does filter down to the grassroots owner. We now have a better understanding of how to look after horses for longevity, accommodating potential issues sooner to prevent long-term problems.”

    Q: Elementary or Olympic: what’s the difference?

    Steve: “The same shoeing principles apply at all levels: balance, performance and protection from injury. It’s important to read the foot and recognise any distortion, but the farrier should take note of and understand a horse’s conformation — looking at the limb and upwards — before shoeing him accordingly.”

    H&H 26 March 2015