Wednesday, July 6, 2011

If The Shoe Fits...

Back in 2008, headlines were made regarding Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown's quarter crack issues, and people began to ask themselves, "Why not let these race horses run without shoes?"  Surely it's achievable in todays day and age?  We focus on track surfaces, whether the synthetic surfaces are easier on the horse than the dirt surfaces, but is it time to look at their shoes as a solution in strengthening their disposition?  First, what are quarter cracks?  Hoof cracks [general term] typically begin at either the coronary band and extend downward, or at the weight-bearing surface of the hoof extending upward, and their location and severity directly affect their impact on a horse's performance.  The most common cracks are quarter cracks, which occur at the quarter, the thinnest most delicate part of the hoof wall.  Quarter cracks are caused by a variety of factors, including genetic predisposition, time of year, improperly trimmed feet, and traumatic injury.  Injury to the site may be a result of common things such as hard racetracks, misplaced shoeing nails, and stones.

A crack starting at the coronary (Left) - A crack starting at the sole (Right)

Cracks may also develop when horses are exercised on uneven surfaces.  According to Veterinarian Tomas G. Teskey, he and others firmly believe that to apply steel (or aluminum) to horse's feet causes harm, and what follows is a synopsis of just a few of the damaging effects of nailing shoes onto horse's hooves: 

"The horse's hoof as evolved as a conical structure, with domes and triangles arranged into one of the strongest and most dynamic constructions in nature.  When a farrier prepares the hoof for shoeing, he flattens the bottom, which destroys the hoof's ability to perform vital functions, and nailing a rigid steel ring around its lower edge further ensures its steady deterioration and deformation.  The nails driven through the hoof walls allows all manner of bacteria and fungus to enter the foot, and the efficient, physical barrier to these invaders is breached when the hoof wall is pierced.  The damage caused to the horse due to decreased shock absorption within the shod foot is well documented.  The horse's hoof is designed to handle most of the shock absorption required for traveling over any terrain.  This is accomplished when the hoof capsule moves and expands upon contact with the earth.  When steel is fixed to the hoof capsule, the hoof cannot adequately expand and the built-in shock absorbing structures within the hoof cannot do their job.  As a result, the joints, cartilages, and ligaments higher in the horse's leg, back, and entire body, must now dissipate concussive forces they are not designed to handle, resulting in extra wear and tear which produces measurable damage to these areas.  In a properly functioning hoof, the sole slightly flattens as hundreds of pounds of weight come to bear on the hoof capsule.  Shoes prevent this action, instead holding the sole in a non-weightbearing, vaulted position and the rest of the hoof capsule in a contracted state.  The sole is now unable to escape the now-punishing blows of the coffin bone above, and the forces coming down into the foot are now compromising the sole and the coffin bone together, causing bruising with every step.  The circulation factor in the horse's hoof also becomes compromised because the natural hoof moves blood with each step as it expands and contracts.  If this sounds familiar, like the blood-pumping mechanism of a heart, that's because it is.  Natural hooves perform a critical function as supplementary "hearts".  This vital heart-like mechanism is greatly restricted by immobilizing the hoof with shoes.  Reduced circulation through the feet and legs of the shod horse results in reduced circulation to the entire body."

Big Brown undergoing special hoof care for quarter cracks.
So, which trainers and owners are running their horses barefoot?  Are there any?  Sara and Brian Minsk, owners of Nine Maple Farm in Mendon, Mass. race barefoot only.  Sara writes, "I believe we were the first ones in the U.S. to breed, train and race barefoot, as we started in 2003 with Thoroughbreds.  We created a particular environment for our horses to allow their hooves to develop to their fullest potential.  At the time, barefoot was NOT in fashion, and we were quite the outcasts."  Their homebred Arabian racehorse, NMF Benraz Halim, a.k.a. Benny, trained by Leslie Bickel, has raced barefoot with zero training-related physical setbacks.  "He has never worn shoes and trains and races on concrete-hard American dirt tracks.  He was stakes placed as a Juvenile and just placed second in the Michigan Derby Stakes Race on July 28, 2007.  He has 10 starts, with 1 win, 4 place (two of those being stakes races) and 1 show."  Sara and Brian have had racing success with both Arabians and Thoroughbreds.

Another equine to bring attention to racing barefoot, is the English Thoroughbred, Saucy Night (owned by Eamonn Wilmott) when he entered the record books on January 3, 2005, by winning the 2-1/2 mile steeplechase at Folkstone, in the U.K., WITHOUT shoes.  As Saucy cantered past the winning post, yet again, the commentator shouted out, "Message to all trainers out there  -  Get your horse's shoes off!!"  Kavi, also owned by Eamonn Wilmott, is a five-year-old gelding who races on the flat barefoot.  On February 14, 2005, he was entered in a race at Lingfield Park over 1M, 4 furlongs, on the all-weather surface, and at post-time he was rated 16th of 16 runners.  Three furlongs from home, Kavi cruised up to take the win easily by 3 lengths.  Racing Post thinks it may be the first ever win on the flat for a horse without shoes.  He paid 64-1 on the tote.

Similarily, the 2006 Kentucky Derby starter, Brother Derek, trained without shoes.  As per the Associated Press 2/9/06:  "San Rafael winner, Brother Derek, galloped 1-1/2 miles without shoes for trainer Dan Hendricks.  Dan notes,  'He trains without shoes and he's worn glue-on shoes since Del-Mar to allow his feet to air out and expand naturally.'  The colt's next start was in the Santa Catalina on March 4, 2006, a Grade 2, which he won. 

Brother Derek training with his glue-on shoes.

The question still remains though, how many trainers and owners will race their horses barefoot?  Has their been enough research done to satisfy questions of safety, traction, and comfort or discomfort to the horse?  Would it ever be possible for Standardbreds to race barefoot given that they are raced more frequently, with a tougher track surface than Thoroughbreds?  Will glue-ons eventually take the place of steel or aluminum shoes?  I guess we will have to ponder this, one step-at-a-time...shoeless of course...ahem!

excerpts from Novita, Tomas G. Teskey, Barefoot Performance: Horse Racing, Thoroughbred Times

Stay safe, keep your hooves on the ground, and keep reaching for the wire. 

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