Two Swedish high jumpers at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics flashed their bare feet over every fence. H&M All In and teammate King Edward, ridden by Peder Fredricson and Henrik von Eckermann respectively, battled their way to team gold, and they did it shoeless. Since then, these high-profile successes have shone the spotlight on a growing trend in the world of sport horses, where more and more horses are “going Swedish”, throwing off their shoes and heading to the competition ring only with their hooves.

And it’s no wonder. These horses showed all the benefits of a barefoot lifestyle. They even got the full support of the Veterinary Council at International Equestrian Federation (EIF).

“If it’s the right horse, with the right management, in the right conditions, (competing barefoot) is absolutely optimal for the horse,” said FEI veterinary director Goran Åkerström, who around 2000 spent six years running the farriery school at the Veterinary Faculty of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala.

Swedes don’t have a monopoly on walking barefoot, of course. Competitive riders around the world have shown horses without shoes in a variety of events over the decades. But Sweden has a particularly strong recent history.

Swedish scientists have studied the art – as well as the risks and benefits – of keeping some or all of their Warmbloods and racehorses cold-blooded barefoot. They have developed their own protocols for transitioning sport horses to barefoot. And ever since Åkerström conducted a survey of barefoot trimming practices on behalf of the Swedish Animal Welfare Council in 2005, they’ve been transparent in exposing the dangers of unhealthy barefoot trimming.

“Some of them (of the barefoot cut) were great, but some of them were really detrimental to the horses,” Åkerström said. Horse. His investigation led to legal action and some barefoot tailors were banned from owning and working with hoofed animals. Findings and subsequent sanctions underscored the importance of recognizing the many wrong ways of going barefoot and that the health and welfare of equines only benefits from being barefoot the to the right way. “It had a huge impact,” he said of the investigation.

The cases sanctioned in the 2005 survey “were all very far removed from what you saw with horses at the Tokyo Olympics,” Åkerström said. “At the Olympics you can see how it can really work.”

That doesn’t mean bare feet are for everyone, he added. “It really depends,” he said. “It’s complex.”

Why shoes may be the right choice

Apparently the shoes are designed to protect the feet of working horses, which often fail under the stresses of domestic life, said Angelo Telatin, PhD, associate professor of equine studies at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. , where the 40 sport horses under his care are barefoot. In many show stables, especially when horses are boxed, the hooves weaken from exposure to urine and lack the constructive experiences that build the feet of wild and feral horses. So we can’t use the ‘it’s the way nature intended’ argument when it comes to keeping these horses without shoes if they’re being managed in an unnatural environment, he said. -he declares.

Why Shoeless may be the right choice

The barefoot sport horse — when healthy — has major advantages over the shoed horse, said Alicia Harlov, a full-time hoof care provider in northeast Massachusetts and creator of the Humble podcast. Hoof.

“The compressive forces on the hoof capsule can be more than twice the horse’s weight at high speeds,” she said. “If the hoof is not allowed to deform and flex naturally under these circumstances to properly disperse ground reaction forces, or if there is no proper caudal (backward) support (qu ‘a well-trimmed bare foot would naturally hoof), we can see a negative impact on the feet, such as a compromised frog or digital cushion atrophy,” she said. “With a then weaker caudal hoof, the shock absorbing properties are not as strong, which can impact the ability to handle the forces of intense work.

“Not only that, but, anecdotally, we often see less torque on the proximal interphalangeal joint (pastern) and often fewer cases of soft tissue damage,” she added.

For the Swedish farrier behind the show jumping team’s fittings, it’s also about letting the foot sink properly into the fiber-sand foot as it should for optimal support. In modern arenas, shoes block this process, which reduces shock absorption, said Peter Glimberg.

Elsewhere, according to ground forces, these same sport horses might be better shod or shod with removable gaiters.

Åkerström agrees. “Barefoot horses on wet grass could be detrimental,” he said. “It could be dangerous for both horse and rider, not to mention it would also reduce performance.”

The Smart Horse Owner’s Guide to Barefoot

The barefoot sport horse trend is good, Åkerström said. But runners should tread carefully.

“Each case must be assessed individually,” he said. “You really have to consider each horse and its discipline, and you have to manage the file and give it enough time. And you have to be very, very observant about how best to handle that horse. You will find that quite often it depends on the horse and the quantity and quality of its hooves, how quickly it regrows, the foot, etc.

Our sources say that successful barefoot riding in competition requires:

  1. Skill. The farrier and veterinarian should be open-minded and well-trained in barefoot horse health, from evidence-based trimming techniques to a keen eye for subtle lameness.
  2. Weather. Give the horse’s feet enough time, usually several months, to adjust to barefoot work, especially if the feet were shod before.
  3. Genetic. Did the parents have good feet? Select for horses that seem to have the genes for high quality hooves.
  4. Nutrition. Horses cannot have good hooves without a healthy, balanced diet.
  5. Environment. Strong hooves thrive in more natural environments where horses can move through varied terrain, rather than standing for hours with their feet in feces or urine-soaked bedding.
  6. Discernment. Even though the horse’s feet look great, some situations and terrain require extra protection, whether it’s metal or plastic shoes, a layer of adhesive resin, or removable boots.
  7. Humility. A horse’s health and well-being are more important than the rider’s pride. If going barefoot isn’t working, it’s time to take a step back and use shoes, at least temporarily, while determining your next steps.

“For performance and well-being, you have to assess each case individually,” Åkerström said. “And always, of course, with a focus on horse welfare as the #1 priority.”