Friday, April 8, 2011

Hunter under saddle: Shoeless?

"Spend a few moments at the back gate of the US Equestrian Federation Hunter Trials or the big year-end hunter finals, and you won't be able to miss it--the rows of aluminum shoes flashing in the sunlight as farriers make a mad dash to pull them off the nation's top hunters"

The Chronicle Connection March, 2011. [article in this issue]

If you can believe the author Hope Glynn, it's routine for hunters to have their shoes pulled before their flat class (they're tacked on later). I don't hang out in hunter circles but this little tidbit of truth surprises me in so many ways. 
  • Is there THAT big of a difference between lightweight aluminum and barefoot?
  • Wouldn't pulling shoes from a horse that normally wears shoes make them gimpier, at least initially?
  • Does it really make the difference between "top" and "mediocre" ribbons?
This isn't about barefoot vs. shod
To me it's a question of how a horse that's normally shod moves better right after shoes are pulled. I've witnessed the opposite many times. It's also hard  to imagine that a horse will move that much better barefoot vs. aluminum that has been drilled out.

I posted my questions to COTH's hunter/jumper list. Most responders thought it was a fairly ho-hum practice. Shoe-pulling for flat classes seems to occur mostly at the largest events (finals, etc.). If it's done rarely it probably doesn't happen enough to truly damage the average horse hoof. Problem is, some people don't know what's best for their horse.

A farrier that comes to our barn has worked at some big shows. He told me about the day he spent at the Capital Challenge pulling shoes for the flat class for $100/horse. He said a lot of hoof wall gets lost, and grooms duct tape the feet until just before the class. One horse whose shoes were pulled  was excused from the ring for gimpy-ness. Of a class of 35 horses, 29 had their shoes pulled  and tacked back on for $100. It's a couple hours work for three farriers working in an assembly line. Do the math, and you can imagine all the happy farriers.

So there are other downsides too:
  • Expense (but is this a group of people who we need to worry about?) 
  • Sportsmanship -- it does not make the hunter world look like a very horse-friendly business, and frankly it seems a little silly. Will these people do anything for a ribbon?
  • Fairness. Let's say it does make a difference in how a horse moves. What about the hypothetical horse that needs shoes and would be gimpy? What about the competitor that can't afford the farrier bills?
 Hope Glynn proposes banning it. I suppose that's the horse-friendly thing to do -- but mostly I think we'd be saving these owners/riders from themselves. Also I would feel sorry for the farriers :-).


  1. That's a totally new one on me...and I showed hunters for years....years ago, that is.

    So far, my experience is that a horse either needs shoes or he doesn't. I have one that seems super fine barefoot. I just pulled the shoes on my older boy and so far, so good. However, middle "son" goes lame without and now, with back shoes back on again as well, he looks to be moving better than ever.

    From what I know of aluminum shoes, they are not the best for horse's feet either as they can actually cause extra breakage, but that's another story. In the years when I showed hunters, I certainly did not know of this practice. Guess times and strategies have changed a a lot.

    All I can say is...yea, for the farriers. It's always nice when they can make a few extra dollars. *G*

  2. Oh, yes....for years, with his shoes on, my hunter was nearly undefeated in the flat classes. Lots of local shows, but rated ones as well.

  3. wow! I'd never heard about or seen this! Personally I'm pro-bare feet for my horses as long as they stay sound and their feet don't wear down too quickly under work. The hoof was designed to be a perfect shock absorber for the horse and adding shoes was for our convience and to make the hoof last longer (originally anyways!). I currently own a yearling with soft feet (could be because of horrible Pacific Northwest mud and muck) so I have a feeling shoes will be in our future.
    If I was just looking to preserve soundness on occasinal trail rides I'd totally invest in boots, but since I want to do dressage/eventing shoes are just part of the package most of the time.

  4. Seems like a weird practice, for sure, but I just have to respond to this:

    "If that's the case, why don't more dressage riders want to go barefoot? We're all about movement, after all. Maybe that flat-kneed sweep is aided by aluminum or barefoot feet, while the dressage horses' rounder action is enhanced by regular shoes."

    Most dressage riders don't go barefoot because it isn't the trend/fashion/tradition for dressage. Much of the stuff in the horse world isn't based on reason, but superstition, conformity,trends, long-held practices, so I would not take the scarcity of barefoot horses in dressage to reflect anything but the discipline's attitudes and traditions. And some of us have gone barefoot, BTW.

    If dressage riders are using shoes to "enhance" action, then that certainly seems to go against the training scale/philosophy of dressage itself. It's about improving the natural gaits through training, period. Weight or lack of weight on the foot shouldn't be part of the equation.

    My very nice moving youngster is barefoot; he doesn't need shoes to round up his action or enhance his already quick hind leg.

    But, yes, I do agree that pulling (or putting on) shoes simply to get an edge in the ring is silly. Shoes should be used for the horse's health, and only if needed. JMO.

  5. Totally agree with banning it. It doesn't happen all the time, it's mostly at finals. Started in the pony ring and the trend has spread like wildfire. It really bothers me, I'm not surprised at all when I see some of the horses gimping around because of it -- all I can say is shame on their owners, and serves them right for getting excused! I'd never do it to my hunter... ribbons are just not that important, and he moves great with his shoes on anyway! I will switch him from steel to aluminum before a big show for a little extra toe flick, but that's as far as I'll go. I think this practice is just stupid, frankly.

  6. Wow! I would never do that. With Pepper, I couldn't because of the broken bone in his hoof. His shoes were medically necessary.

    Oscar, too, shines with his front shoes shod. He's no longer having the mega-cracks of doom that plagued him the previous years and he's no longer too sensitive to walk on a short distance on a gravel road or path.

    Shoeless just for the flat class sounds like another bit of horseshow voodoo!

  7. This is why I just do barefoot, period. No silliness with pulling shoes then having to worry about being gimpy. My horses are sound and happy all the time without shoes, even over fences and on the flat!

  8. All mine are barefoot and happy too, doing hunter/jumper and games at breed shows.

    Seems silly, but it does makes sense that the flat-kneed movement is enhanced without the shoes.

  9. Sign me up as the farrier. Holy socks, that's ridiculous! I hadn't heard of that either, but I just can't fathom it. Why would they do that? Makes no sense to me at all.
    We're showing this weekend. Barefoot all the way.

  10. I don't think it's being barefoot - it's the change from shoes to not having shoes, which is why it's done right before they go into the ring.

    I would guess that there's some float related to unwillingness to keep the feet on the ground involved, for horses who have the flat-kneed movement already. I think if a horse had a tendency toward more knee action it wouldn't be a good thing to do before entering a hunter ring and would make them pick up their knees more.

    My horse definitely needs shoes in front, as his hooves are thin-soled and crumbly. I would never want to pull his shoes then stick them back on because it would be bad for them! He is barefoot in back, but had shoes on when I got him. It took him a few days to stop acting gimpy barefoot. I think it was the same kind of reaction if you break off a long nail - the skin under feels exposed, and so did his hooves. It wasn't that he seemed like he was hurting, just moving around funny like "this doesn't feel RIGHT!" I didn't ride him until he was past that stage, and I knew he could handle barefoot in back from his previous owner who had him barefoot until he was schooling prelim cross country jumps.

  11. I keep meaning to read that article and still haven't... I really don't understand the things people do just to win ribbons sometimes. My boys go barefoot because they have excellent feet and I have an excellent trimmer who, at the risk of sounding like a hippie, makes sure their hooves work the way nature intended. I would think that would be the best reason for a horse to go into the ring without shoes -- because it's best for him.

  12. Several show horses at our barn are barefoot. I'm jealous. Riley? Not in the cards. But barefoot, like any other management practice, needs to be for the good of the horse.

    I'm told that this whole trend started when a horse at the hampton classic won a class after his shoes were pulled. Maybe it did help that one horse, but how very foolish to do it because it worked once, on someone else's horse...

  13. Very interesting!! I have never heard of this practice.... sounds like it's based more on superstition than anything else... but all I have to say is, if their horses move better after their shoes are pulled... then why put the shoes on in the first place? In any case, they are causing a lot of detriment to their horse's feet by having the shoes taken off & nailed back on. Every time you put more holes in your horse's hoof wall you are making it a little bit weaker...
    Also... what about the old rule of never changing equipment on the day of a show.... ?

  14. Are they doing this after the soundness jog but before the class? That doesn't seem ethical to me.

  15. the hunter world has an unnatural obsession with flat-kneed, toe-flipping daisy-cutter movement, despite the fact that so many of those horses are stiff, inverted elbow movers... somewhere 'efficient' and 'ground-covering' got lost in translation, and the same lack of information seems to be fueling all these weird shoeing trends.

    i've seen this done, and i have yet to see it make a positive difference in the horses' movement - usually it's the opposite. but then, i've rarely seen aluminum shoes improve a horse's movement much, and often it gets worse from lack of support, so a lot of horses suffer needlessly because of their owner/trainer's ignorance. i mean, what's the real difference in weight for a strong, fit horse? it's impact is negligible, and if a few ounces is seriously altering your horse's movement, he's probably got other problems. it's one of those old horse-showing wives tales that somehow sticks around and gets more extreme as time goes on. it's up there with artificially long or short toes to alter stride length/knee action.

    imo, noting beats quality hoof and proper balance - shod or unshod is irrelevant. if you've trained properly, you should be happy to take the horse you have into the arena and let him be judged on his own merits, instead of searching desperately for a few ounces of advantage. and the judges should know the difference, though sadly most don't anymore.

  16. I used to do low level hunters when I was younger. I remember hearing about people pulling shoes for flat classes at the bigger shows but I never knew anyone who did. The horses I rode mostly when barefoot anyway. They had great feet come to think of it.

  17. Sounds like a very weird practice to me - for a horse to go barefoot the feet need to be conditioned and I agree that it would be an unfair thing to a horse pulling his shoes right before he has to compete. The fact that any shoe disengages almost the entire hoof mechanism is the problem. When the shoe comes off, it can sometimes feel like very painful pins and needles for them, or at the very least a strange sensation to suddenly 'feel' the ground again.

  18. You have GOT to be kidding. WHY the heck would they do that???? I'm truly disgusted. The last darn thing my H/J world needs is folks being sheep and messing with horses' feet just because it's "in." Look what happened to Tennessee Walking Horses and THEIR feet when one horse had more natural action and won more. "Oh, here we'll just weight out horses' feet down and they'll look just like him! Wait, that's not enough..." Yeah. Now they've had soring for 40 or 50 years. What are the hunter people going to do next, file some hoof off, too? I think this is just TERRIBLE and absolutely should be banned! They do NOT need to go down that road.

  19. If the horse moves better without shoes, than leave the shoes off and allow him to move better all the time. Does that sound too simple?

  20. I've never heard this. I guess I can see the hypothetical reasoning, but I simply can't believe that barefoot is making all that much of a greater difference movement then a l/w aluminum shoe. I really just can't imagine it gives anyone and "edge," and it seems to me that it's just hurting their pocket books.

  21. Yuck. Scary that hunters are being invaded by this sort of trendy baloney. For a long while it seemed like they were the last bastion of anything resembling sense in the horse world. I guess that's why they call it "horse sense," not "horse owner sense."

    As someone who rode hunters a lot at a fairly high level 25 years or so ago, I look at youtube videos of top level hunters today and don't see that there's a whole heck of a lot of improvement. Somehow back in the early 80's, every horse in a flat class was wearing steel shoes, and yet they all had exactly as good a daisy cutting sweep as horses do today wearing aluminum or nothing. In most cases it seems like I remember the top horses having far prettier movement than the top horses today. So what's been gained?

  22. Allie, I would venture to say that I can sum up the difference in today's hunter ring in one word: Warmbloods. I grew up in the New Jersey H/J world. Never had one of my own, never showed above 4-H level, but I was AROUND them for years. And what did everyone ride? Thoroughbreds. I took a pretty long hiatus from the horse world, and when I got back to it in 2000, I was astonished to see rings full of nothing but warmbloods. Where did all the TBs go? Now, I have nothing against warmbloods - I've been riding one myself for a year now (he belongs to a friend) - but when I get my own hunter horse, it's going to be a TB. I will take a lovely, well-moving TB anyday for a hunter, shoes/no shoes, steel or aluminum shoes.


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