The conclusion of the 2020 Olympic Games has left riders with plenty to reflect on. Horses have returned home safely for their well-earned breaks, yet equestrian minds worldwide continue to stir over the unforgettable events of the Tokyo games. One highlight in particular dominates barn conversation — the success of the barefoot horses representing Sweden.
Sweden proves the barefoot model
In case you missed it, two-thirds of the Swedish showjumpers competed shoeless — Henrik Von Eckermann’s King Edward and Peder Fredricson’s H&M All In. Along with their “shod” teammate Malin Baryard-Johnsson on Indiana, the “Shoeless Swedes” made Sweden (and barefoot advocates) proud by bringing home a very well-deserved team gold.
The team was consistently victorious all week. Fredricson and All In won individual silver. Henrik Von Eckermann and King Edward were just shy of a medal in the individual competition, coming in fourth. The entire Swedish team had only two rails the entire week of competition, despite the extraordinarily difficult, technical, massive courses that required absolute perfection to finish clear.
Henrik von Eckermann’s barefoot experiment
What accounts for their success? Obviously the masterful riding and athletic, brave horses of the Swedish team claim most of the credit for the championship. Yet, equestrians around the world can’t help but wonder if the unconventional (if not extremely rare) practice of competing shoeless granted the team an extra competitive advantage.
Henrik von Eckermann explains his reasoning for going barefoot to the World of Showjumping. The break from competition during the COVID-19 pandemic was his opportunity to experiment. Henrik pulled some of his horses’ shoes because he “really believes it is good for them,” and was open-minded and curious to find out the effects of going barefoot.
The experiment paid off, as he found that his horses moved more comfortably. CSI5* Grand Prix and Olympic success soon followed.
More riders showing barefoot horses
Many top riders around the world are catching on to the potential benefit of going shoeless. French showjumpers Michel Hecart and Julien Epaillard are often called the pioneers of barefoot showjumping for sparking the trend. After proving their success in Grand Prixs without shoes, more showjumpers followed suit, such as Maziar Jamshidkhani, Simon Delestre, Christian Ahlmann, Roger Yves Bost, and a growing list of others.
The trend is emerging in endurance and eventing disciplines as well. Barefoot advocacy groups call this the beginning of a “shoeless revolution.”
Could your horse go shoeless?
How does removing metal shoes benefit performance? Why might a rider go against the grain and defy the shoeing standard of the world’s best riders? Theories include added comfort, the promotion of soundness, or lightening up the feet to make the reach over the large fences just a bit easier.
Before you jump on the barefoot bandwagon, here are some important questions to ask.
1. What does science say about barefoot benefits?
The matter is far from settled in the vet/farrier community. Little has been studied about the effect of going shoeless on high-level performance. However, some believe there is a compelling case for keeping some horses barefoot.
According to the work of Dr. Bowker, VMD, PhD, metal shoes can restrict proper energy dissipation when the leg strikes the ground. Without a metal shoe, the frog and sole are able to take weight off of the hoof walls, allowing the foot to absorb shock through the digital cushion and bone, rather than straining surrounding soft tissues. This is considered biomechanically correct and more likely to promote soundness and longevity.
Additionally, shoes disrupt the ability of the hoof heel to twist and bend upon impact, ultimately straining the horse’s joints and ligaments. The hoof also has an expansion and contraction quality necessary for shock absorption, which is likely disrupted by the attachment of a metal shoe, according to Vern Dryden, DVM, CJF, APF.
Skeptics warn that keeping a horse’s foot “natural” (barefoot) isn’t necessarily appropriate for horses living and working in unnatural conditions (e.g., indoor stabling, exaggerated dressage movements, and jumping high fences). Plus, sturdy feet seem to have been bred out of our modern domesticated horses, warranting the compensation from metal shoes.
Both sides agree: more maintenance for barefoot horses
Both skeptics and barefoot advocates alike agree that pulling shoes will require more maintenance and attention to detail in your horse’s care.
2. Do you have the time?
Barefoot horses are higher maintenance than horses wearing metal shoes.
Farriers recommend trimming or “shaping” a barefoot horse every four to five weeks, as opposed to the standard six to eight weeks for shod horses. Even between farrier visits, you must closely monitor your horse’s hoof development and performance, especially in the beginning of the shoeless transition.
Barefoot horses also require more exercise or turnout, and a more careful diet lower in carbohydrates.
Metal shoes certainly offer convenience. Realistically consider if you have the time to experiment with going shoeless. If your horse doesn’t react well without shoes, how will this affect your riding goals? Is this a practice you can dedicate your time and energy to?
3. “If it ain’t broke, dont fix it.”
Change for the sake of change won’t guarantee progress. If you’re satisfied with your horse’s performance and hoof health, why make a change? Consistency and stability are traits of excellent horse care.
With that said, suboptimal performance or recurrent feet issues may warrant a little shoeless experiment, under your farrier or veterinarian’s guidance.
4. What does your farrier say?
Most importantly, what does your farrier recommend and is he or she willing to assist with the barefoot transition? Also consider your farrier’s experience with barefoot trimming.
Pete Ramey, a farrier specializing in barefoot care, says the experience is critical, because the shoeless practice demands an individualized approach. These farriers typically offer a selection of hoof boots and glue-on accessories to ease the transition from shod to shoeless.
“Contact the American Hoof Association (AHA), Pacific Hoof Care Practitioners (PHCP), or Equine Science Academy (ESA) to see if there is a competent professional in your area. Proper fitting and selection of hoof boots is as critical as it is for metal horseshoes.”Pete Ramey, from HorseandRider.com
Ultimately, treat your horse as an individual. Know his needs and his preferences. If you decide to pull his shoes, use the Prospeqs Equestrian app to track and record his performance and monitor the details of his progress.
Only time will tell if shoeless horses truly have a competitive advantage. As the practice gains traction (so to speak), more research will follow, and more personal testimonies will give us a better understanding of this “back to basics” trend.