I made a very bold statement quite recently. I suppose I was feeling super confident because things have been going extremely well with our barefoot endurance horses. Our best horse, Perseverance Jedi, continues to improve and get faster and faster, and now that he has got up to National Team level, that is very gratifying. However Jedi is sitting at the top of a pyramid, a very broad pyramid of horses we have bred and raised with every intention of competing them entirely barefoot. And every indication is that they are going to be much better that Jedi. They are coming through the levels and running in his slipstream.
So on this wave of confidence I said to somebody, in fact, it was to Dr Glyn Catton of Stride, I said to him: “You can write this down and I will sign it.” I said to him: “Eventually, the barefoot horses will go further and faster than the shod horses.”
So maybe you think that is pie in the sky, but I don’t. Let me explain it like this. The barefoot horses have a huge advantage, and that advantage is not immediate, but that advantage is ongoing, and it is this: The purpose of the hoof is to act as a governor to protect the body, the rest of the horse’s body, from over exertion. Too much, too soon. For example, when the hooves do a lot of work they are not ready for, the horse will get footsore. Being footsore is not in any way harmful to the horse, but it does get the horse to slow down, look after itself.
A hoof being footsore is an indicator that a horse is doing too much distance or too much speed, too soon. In fact, distance done slowly is seldom the issue. It is almost always too much speed, too soon. Think of it this way, a hoof will take about seven months to grow out from hairline to the ground. The sole of the hoof is also growing at this time, but doesn’t take quite so long. It takes that long for the toughening to work its way through the whole hoof from the inside out. When you condition the horse, you condition it with exercise, not with trimming. A good barefoot form to the hoof is only the outward sign that it is functionally right. But it tells you little about the inner toughness of the hoof. You can’t trim the hoof into toughness. You have to work, to ride the hoof into condition.
When you train the horse, the hooves, the bones, the tendons, ligaments, muscles, heart and lungs are under strain. Given enough recovery time
between training sessions they will gradually adapt to harder work. Heart and lungs adapt quite fast.
You can get a horse fit in three months as far as the pulse and breathing are concerned, but that is not true for the rest of the horse. The frame of the horse, the structure that has to bear the forces of the muscles pulling on the tendons and the pounding of the joints, cannot be ready in three months. It’s not ready in three months. The hoof is the governor for the work load on the rest of the body. And also the shock absorber for absorbing some of the concussion to the joints.
A lot of horses start work as youngsters barefoot and at some time or other early in their careers they are shod, usually at the first sign of being footsore. So the trainer will call in the farrier and put on a shoe, so that the horse can continue work. This is the uttermost folly. When the horse’s hoof is telling you that the body needs more time to adapt to the work it’s doing, the dial which is telling you this is just switched off! That’s not wise.
What the horse is telling you is this is: “Slow down, give me more time to catch up with the work you expect me to do, and when I’ve caught up, we can continue from there.” In this way, not just the hooves, but the ligaments, the tendons, the bones, the
cartilage in the joints, the connective tissues that bind the muscles together, all these things get a chance to catch up with the work. Not to mention the horse’s psychology, its mental maturity, surely that plays a role as well?
If you do it this way, the horse will last longer, rather than being retired before its time due to injury, arthritis, tendon injuries, catastrophic suspensory sprains, etc. No, if you proceed at the pace of the hoof, it will take many months longer than you are accustomed to, but the horse will build, year on year, it will get tougher and stronger year by year, slowly getting able to go further, slowly getting able to go faster, slowly getting able to bear more and more intensive training. It is a snowball effect, because as the horse’s hoof can stand more work, you can make it train harder, the horse gets faster. You can create a superhorse.
There is far less risk of catastrophic injury, for example, suspensory sprains occur too often in shod horses. The barefoot hoof is far more elastic than the steel shod hoof. It takes up a lot of the sideways strain that occurs with bad footing or slipping that leads to suspensory sprains, therefore protecting the horse. On top of that barefoot hooves have superior grip on all sorts of terrain: mud, tar, paving, boulders. There is another factor which is seldom taken into account because most riders are unaware of it. A horse wearing shoes has very little feeling in its hooves. Yes, what I’m saying is that it is partially numbed by the shoe which is a clamp that affects circulation.
The barefoot hoof is sensitive, even when it is highly conditioned, very tough, has a lot of callous so you can ride at speed over rocks and stones, the horse still knows it is riding over rocks and stones. This is not always the case with the shod horse. Shod horses are very prone to stone bruising because as they are galloping along, they come down hard on stones without knowing it. And it’s only later in the day that the bruising starts to penetrate the horse’s consciousness and he knows that he is now lame.
The barefoot horse however knows what he’s running on, he knows that it’s sand, he knows that it’s stony now. As he’s putting his foot down on a big sharp stone he feels it and doesn’t throw his full weight onto that leg. He does exactly what you do when you tramp on a sharp stone or a thorn. You gimp, you take a lighter step and you hop, hop three steps. This is what the barefoot horse does, then it carries on without a bruise, because he has never exposed the hoof to the full force of the stone. That is the reason that the barefoot horses have fewer stone bruises than the shod ones.
There are other things, barefoot endurance horses, just like shod ones, can be vetted out of a competition due to a high pulse, metabolic problems, muscle cramps and so on, however, lamenesses due to tendon or ligament injuries are extremely rare in barefoot horses, but relatively common in shod horses. This means that a lot of horses are going out of work because of lameness. Whereas the barefoot horses are able to continue training. Of course, they have taken longer to reach the same levels of performance as shod horses, because you were unable to take a short cut. But this not taking a short cut pays off because all the parts toughens up at the correct rate while avoiding damage due to pushing the horse too soon. Therefore, the barefoot horses start catching up and passing their shod equivalents.
They get better year on year and we don’t even know yet what the limit is. I don’t think we’re even close to what we can achieve in time with each horse. And as more and more horses become barefoot endurance horses, with a bigger pool of horses to select the most talented athletes, who knows what heights they will achieve? And this is why I say: “Eventually, as we learn more about high performance barefoot endurance horses, and if we continue to push the boundaries of what we have already shown to be possible, I predict that the barefoot horses will go further and faster than the shod horses.”
15 March 2011
LAURA SEEGERS, co-founder and owner of Perseverance Arabian & Endurance Horses, rode PSV Jedi for the SA national team at this year’s South African International Challenge (Tri-Nations) in Limpopo.
PSV Jedi is the first barefoot horse to be selected to ride for South Africa.
Visit www.facebook.com/perseverance.endurance.horses or www.endurancehorse.co.za for more information.
This article was first published in the April 2011 issue of the Endurance Horse magazine.