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.”

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