Barefoot vs Shoeing in Dressage

I came across two very interesting and related articles about barefoot and farriery in dressage and how it affects a horse’s performance. In this post I have summarized both these articles key points and finished with my own opinion on the use of shoes in dressage.

Are Unshod Dressage Horses at a Competitive Disadvantage?

The first article from the Horse and summarises a scientific study looking into whether being barefoot is a disadvantage for dressage horses. This research took place to challenge the common myth that shoes give horses “beautiful” gaits.

The researchers took 7 kinematic variables which could potentially affect a horse’s dressage score:

  • Stride Duration
  • Fetlock Extension
  • Scapular rotation
  • Elbow Flexion
  • Carpal Flexion
  • Increased Hoof Height
  • Stride Length* (although stride length not judged as such, a short choppy stride is often undesirable.)

The study found that there was no significant difference between shod and unshod horses for; stride duration, fetlock extension, scapular rotation and elbow flexion. However, the study found that horses with shoes showed more carpal flexion and hoof height (these traits are believed to be linked.) As a trend, shod horses showed “enhanced joint flexion” compared to non-shod horses, but it wasn’t a significant difference.

However, the study also found that the weight from the shoe can cause the horse to have a shorter, choppier stride. So adding the weight to get more flexion can also shorten your strides.

Over all, the study concluded that a barefoot horse was at no disadvantage from a biomechanics point of view.

 

Shoeing elite dressage horses: top farriers’ views
The second article I read was a Horse and Hound VIP article interviewing 2 top farriers (Haydn Price and Steve Wyles) about shoeing elite dressage horses.

The take home points from this interview when compared to the previous article are:

  • Shoes should enhance not exaggerate natural movement
  • Unless a horse has perfect conformation (not just hoof conformation) they will be better being shod

They discuss the extra strain put on the ligaments by weighting the toe and lower limb to create the Wow factor movement and also comment that British Dressage has moved away from exaggeration and more towards accuracy. You can do more fine tuning of movement with a shoe than a bare foot.

Haydn continues to say he’s an advocate for barefoot when it is possible but ends by saying “I’ve yet to see a horse able to do grand prix with bare feet that can support fully loaded limbs.”

Steve explains that correct shoeing and farriery can correct slight conformational issues a horse has to give them the correct platform to allow them to perform to their very best. He goes on to give examples of shoeing methods to help support the horse’s limbs in different grand prix movements.

This second article suggests a different conclusion to the first article I talked to you about. This article suggests that correct shoeing can enhance a horse’s movement to potentially get better scores. But not only this, correct shoeing can also help the limbs load correctly and reduce the risk of injury to horses performing complicated movements.

 

Conclusions

There are a few reasons why the two articles might have different conclusions. The first could be that they were talking about different groups of horses. The horses involved in the first article were only competing at novice level or below. Whereas the farriers in the Horse and Hound article were talking about top level dressage horses performing more demanding movements. Haydn Price is the regular farrier for Carl Hester and attended Rio Olympics as part of team GB.

The second reason could be that they are coming at it from a different angle. The scientific research article was using the principles of dressage to choose kinematic variables to measure to look for a significant difference between the two groups of horses. Whereas the farriers were talking about how much the correct shoe can support the limb, protecting the horse and allowing them to perform at their best.

From these two articles I believe that as long as your horse has reasonable conformation, at the lower levels of dressage being barefoot is no disadvantage. However, as you progress up the levels or if your horse has particularly poor conformation, they will probably benefit from wearing shoes. While the shoes may not do anything to improve their performance, they may help reduce the risk of injury.

What do you think of these two articles? Do you agree with what each article has said and/or how I summarised them?

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