Barefootin’: A Healthy Choice for Soundness?

by | 03.01.2016 | 6:12pm

Tradition dictates that racehorses should be shod to get good traction and to protect the hoof, but some trainers believe not all horses should be shod, especially those racing on synthetic surfaces.

For the past seven years, Wayne Rice has raced all but one of his 30-horse string barefoot, making an estimated 1,200 barefoot starts. Rice is a trainer and veteran farrier from a family of horsemen that reaches back into the 1800s. Last year, he was second leading trainer on the Tapeta Footings surface at Presque Isle Downs near Erie, Penn. with his barefoot runners.

Rice said maintaining barefoot racehorses actually requires less effort than shoeing, and it's healthier for the foot.

“With shoes on, the hoof flexes less and has less circulation to the hoof, and they actually grow less foot,” he said. “Every trainer in America goes through the dance of trying to keep the hoof angles and hoof length right for distributing the weight and proper balance to keep the horse sound.”

With shoes, the horse's hoof has to have enough new growth to secure the nails. But if the hoof hasn't grown adequately, the farrier might have to wait six to eight weeks to reshoe, Rice said.

“It's hard on the conformation, hard on physical soundness,” he said. “Whereas barefoot, I can take the rasp and do a very light pedicure every four weeks religiously or between races. … We never had them bruise their feet or pound them enough to find any negatives for having them barefoot. The concussion and the flexion of the foot kept the foot growing, and growing more, and we were able to manicure these feet to have perfect angles.”

Bill Casner, whose Well Armed won the 2009 Dubai World Cup by a historic 14 lengths, keeps all his young horses barefoot until they are ready to race. He bases this practice on scientific evidence he learned as chairman of the Shoeing and Hoof Care Committee of the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit.

“One of the worst things we can do on those young horses when they are still developing and still growing is to put shoes on them,” Casner said. “Their feet really start getting contracted heels, and it has an effect on the blood flow to the digital cushion and the back third of the foot. These are all things that science shows us. And we understand that Mother Nature will provide the necessary strength to deal with the stresses that are presented it. If you put shoes on a horse, its feet are not going to be nearly as strong.”

Tradition is not the only reason Rice believes many trainers opt for training and racing with shoes. He said economics and worry about losing the client are factors.

“If the horse doesn't win, there's another trainer standing there telling the owner, ‘If he'd have put shoes on him, you'd have better traction and the horse would have won.' He'll try to convince the client to move the horse over to him so he can put shoes on and run him.

“I don't have that problem; I own all my own horses. So I've been able to do a study without having to answer to a client.”

Rice did point out that some dirt surfaces might not be suitable for barefoot racing. He is a regular at Keeneland Race Course, but since the track has replaced its synthetic surface with dirt, he shoes his horses when racing there but pulls the shoes to race over the synthetic surfaces at Woodbine in Toronto and Presque Isle.

Renowned farrier and lecturer Dr. Ric Reddensaid genetics play a big role in whether a racehorse's feet have the natural mass, strength, and durability to go unshod.

“Thoroughbreds, as a rule, are among the breeds that notoriously have thinner walls and slower growth patterns, which makes it a bit tougher to condition feet to an acceptable level of self-sustaining durability while enduring the rigors of training and racing,” he said. “However, there are those individuals that can respond well to a good barefoot program that has the farrier, trainer, veterinarian, and caretaker all on the same page and alert to the daily needs and requirements.”

Redden had this advice for trainers who want to train and race their horses unshod: “Lack of mass and water-saturated horn tissue are the recipe for folding heel tubules. Add speed and you have the proverbial crushed heel and negative palmar angle, one of the greatest perils facing most racehorses worldwide.

“The traditional mud bucket must go, as it only weakens the structural stability of horn tissue. Bedding on sawdust or shavings and using products that increase hardness is quite helpful. Trimming basically should be performed with a sanding block to maintain mass.”

  • Tinky

    Happy Alter says “Yes!”.

  • Tiffany A

    I am always shocked when I get horses I bred back from the track and look at what their feet have become. These are horses that had good quality hooves and appropriate angles as yearlings. If the horse can go barefoot and be appropriately managed, all the better. But for those horses that need shod, I have never seen such horrible farrier work as some of the horses returning from the track. I know there are some great track farriers, but they must be a rare commodity. I believe Ric Reddon once said “that some of the most expensive horses on the planet are getting shod by some of the worst farriers”.

    • peggy conroy

      Ditto….however I tried keeping them barefoot when training on a dirt track (Bowie, Md) and eventually had to put shoes on when they were fit enough to begin breezing because the toes were worn down extremely short. I’m a person who wants them as short as the correct angle allows, but they do need some toe. Training just on turf, no problem, as long as feet are rasped a bit regularly to keep them exactly balanced.

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    • Karen Vicencio

      I totally agree. Years back I was the assistant trainer at a thoroughbred farm. One time, we had a pretty good client who decided their farrier was the best, and wanted all their horses only done by him. Only problem was, he was 600 miles away. So they flew him in. He did 4 shoes on 4 horses in about 30 minutes. And spent that entire 30 minutes telling us how good he was. He was getting paid about 30% more than other farriers. When he was done, and he was saying “wow, look at those feet, don’t they look great?”, all I could do was stare in shock. He’d left the toes way out long, cut the heels down, and the shoes weren’t even on straight! I mean, the toe of the shoe was off to the side by a good inch on one hoof, the heel of another shoe was pressing into the frog with the heel on the other side hanging off the outside of the wall…it was a disaster. We had to have a different farrier come out a couple days later to fix them, and one horse had to be laid off for 2 months to get enough growth to travel correctly again without severe strain on his tendons. We usually rode all our 2 and 3 year olds barefoot, and most had decent feet. They got shod to go to the track though, and generally came back with totally different feet than they left with:(

      • James D. Jimenez

        Four horses in 30 minutes? Maybe just a little exaggeration here!

        • Karen Vicencio

          Sadly, no. There was a run of the rasp around the hoof, a few seconds worth, and the shoe was slapped on, no shaping at all, nails clinched, and on to the next one. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

          • Bourbon Man

            The sad truth is that very few “horsemen” know decent shoeing when they see it. Even in vet school, the tutorial is remedial and short, according to a farrier-turned-vet I know.

    • James D. Jimenez

      It is not fair to judge how a hoof looked as a yearling standing in a field to a horse that is pounding the track with a 150 pound rider on its back daily. The hoof changes to the workload and to simply blame the farrier is just wrong. We train many horses without hind shoes and they do well, however, we find most horses will require front shoes on a dirt track. We did train horses without front shoes when we had Poly tracks in California with success.

    • Bourbon Man

      Yep. One would think that they could figure it out. How many quarter cracks does it take?

  • nicehorsey

    I too am a small breeder and run a race horse rest farm for the past 40 years. I’m amazed some horses remain sound enough to run with the lack of heel and length of toe when we receive them. Just looking at the angle makes it terribly clear the tendons are going to be compromised. I never understood the huge “breakover” that obviously is going cause unsoundness down the line. I pull the shoes on these layups as soon as they can handle bare feet. We gently rasp when we get some growth to send them back with a better foot.

  • WT61

    Totally agree barefoot is healthier for the hoof. I do agree there are situations where shoes are necessary, however. I’ve carried this saying with me for many years – “If horses were meant to wear shoes God would have them born with them.”

  • I once had a mare come off the track with two sets of rear shoes: front and back. She was a mess.

    • James D. Jimenez

      Rear shoes on the front feet is not a big deal. The only difference between a front and rear aluminum race plate is the full swedge on the front. Steel training shoes are fully swedged on both the front and hind shoes and they cause no issues, why would a front shoe that is not swedged cause a problem?

      Perhaps the horse had Kerckhaert Synergy shoes on both the front and hind feet, these shoes are not fully swedged and you likely would not be able to tell the difference from the front and hind shoes.

  • Concerned Observer

    90% of all trainers do it the way they saw it done when they first learned. Original thinking is rare. Formula training (every horse gets the same treatment) is common. It is rare for a trainer to specifically “tell” a farrier what is expected (angles, heels).

    30 years of experience? Or one year of experience repeated 30 times? It is human nature, and not just in horse training.

  • Oda Barhuf

    Some hooves are genetically more blessed than others , but one notoriously overlooked factor, by many traditional hoof care providers , veterinarians and horse owners alike, is how the DIET affects hoof health. If you feed the hooves right, chances are high that they will be much healthier!
    If you feed hooves like this, you WILL get healthier hooves!
    http://www.hoofrehab.com/Diet.html

  • One_Jackal

    Most race horses are shod with a low heel in an attempt to lengthen their stride. John Q Public may not be aware of how many stone bruises racehorses suffer. Once the horses hoof is drained it is ready to race in a month or so. Trainers do not mention the stone bruise. Trainers just say the horse needed a few weeks of rest, he looked tired.

    • peggy conroy

      Great to see so many positive responses. I used to ride competitive dressage in addition to racing and when I got busy and let my dressage horse’s toes get too long my scores on the extended trot were a point lower. Stride length is from conformation, conditioning and proper trimming.

      • Bourbon Man

        A bad break over with a long toe does actually make horse reach farther, but the geniuses don’t take into consideration that the detriment out weighs any gain and is dangerous to keeping a sound horse.

    • Bourbon Man

      Stones on the groomed, manicured track?

  • ForLoveoftheGame

    So nice to hear from hoof care experts on the matter, who factor in the still-developing horse. There are so many factors that must be considered when racing a baby horse so as not to destroy the animal during its racing career. Great article!

  • Marc Blouin

    I’ve been running barefoot for over 10 years on all surfaces. I’ve always said I’ll shoe a horse if it tells me it needs it. I’ve yet to come across that horse. I’ve not had a horse in which hoof quality and growth did not improve once barefoot. All horses have run at the same or higher level once barefoot. Contrarily, horses that started their career running barefoot all run worst once shod. However the main point I want to make is that running barefoot is more than just pulling the shoes off; it’s a way of life. It is putting the horses’ welfare as the priority and many things need to change. The trim is different than that of a shod horse. Very hard to tack on a shoe after what I consider a proper barefoot trim. You need a balanced diet that provides all the necessary nutrients and promotes proper blood flow. You need the right environment which is dry and clean. Most importantly, you need proper stimulation which is consistent movement on a coarse terrain. This stimulation generates the necessary blood flow and physical stress for the hoofs to adapt. Hoof quality does not adapt properly if standing still and especially in manure and urine. Hands will callus only after being exposed to prolonged physical stress in a dry environment and without gloves. To me, shoes are like gloves. Yes they protect, but unfortunately in doing so also shield against the necessary stimulation needed for toughing-up. The equine hoof is one of the organs with the greatest capacity to adapt to its environment. My horses are turn out 6 to 8 hours a day. The harder the ground the better my hoof quality and growth. Once toughen-up maybe they can be maintain in a track environment but I am not sure if every horse will be able to toughen-up strictly from the minimal stimulation of a track environment. It is remarkable to see the changes as the hoof adapts: it toughens-up, heels come up, never a quarter crack, solid hard walls no cracks, no flat sole. It is amazing the sole will actually cup-up. When the hoof cups-up is when I know for sure that the horse can run barefoot without discomfort. I believe the sole needs room to drop for proper shock absorption. It’s this new enhanced shock absorbing capacity of the hoof that helps with soundness. Ankles and knees will take the brunt of the shock if the hoof does not do its role in shock absorption correctly.

    One mare in particular made me a strong believer. When I got the mare I actually assumed she would never run barefoot. She had a dreadful way of travelling and horrible feet and ankles because of it. She continually lost shoes, had run down heels, flat sole, she had nine nails holes just on the inside of her left front hoof. She would wear the heel of a aluminum shoe down to the thickness of a sheet of paper within 4 to 5 weeks. But to my surprise, using glue on shoes as a transition phase, her hoofs eventually toughen up and she was able to go barefoot. That heel grew so quickly and hard that I had to rasp it every two weeks. Her soles cupped-up and she developed strong and perfectly functional hoofs. The best part is she got sounder and happier. Went from a $10,000 claimer with an average speed index (Equibase) of 49.2 to a $25,000 claimer with an average speed index of 78.4 (2 wins, 2 thirds and a fourth). The amazing part was her ankles got better without any joint injections or anti-inflammatory drugs. My wish is if someone is not sure if running barefoot will work, and after reading this they will at least try. Take the human criticism, which will be abundant, with a grain of salt, and do it for the well-being of your horses, and if they are like mine they will praise you for it.

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