((Edit: Due to an influx in random comment spam about Viagra and the fact that I want to know who is leaving comments on complicated posts such as this one, I've had to disable anonymous posting for now. Sorry for the inconvenience.))
It's high time I touched on a subject I've been vastly avoiding for the past three months. I've heard the question asked so many times now that I have no choice but to confront it. The skeptics, the critics, the naysayers are all gleefully certain that I have failed in my barefoot quest, that obviously because of the incident at the AECs I am destined to fail and will surely change my sordid ways now. I hear the question everywhere I go, from everyone I talk to: Will you shoe your horse now?
The answer, my readers, is no.
No, I will not alter what I consider to be the best horsecare decision I have ever made, and after this long post you will understand why. I hope that by now those that know me understand that I am here on earth to make the best decisions I can for my horse's health and well-being. If that were to mean shoeing her, I would. If that were to mean giving up eventing, I would. But it doesn't. I have quite a lot to say on the matter, so get comfortable. Knowing what I know about feet - seeing what I've seen - I just can't go back. Taking the barefoot route is a choice for her health, and I will not choose metal shoes for my convenience. There has to be a better way to provide traction and protection for those that need it. There HAS to be. And do I need it beyond what I already have? Quite frankly, no, I don't.
Let's first talk about the mechanics of a bare foot versus a studded foot. The bare hoof has a certain amount of natural slide engineered into it. You want the foot to have a little wiggle room when it lands because it cushions the impact and lessens strain and the likelihood of subsequent injury. That being said, a bare hoof is surprisingly "grippy" on most footings. In a lot of scenarios, a bare hoof is actually a better option than a regular smooth shod hoof because flat steel/aluminum/whathaveyou can be VERY slick. The bare hoof might have a little give, but the metal shoe once it starts to slide doesn't stop. Think about wintertime for example - not a sane soul would keep a horse smooth shod around an icy, snowy, hilly place. Everyone either goes bare for the winter or uses caulks/borium. It's a similar situation on grass - smooth shod hooves are just too slippery. So that leaves me two options essentially - staying bare or going with something with caulks. The big question is, do I want a little bit of give to lesson the beating a leg takes while in action and risk a bigger slide than I want, or do I want to potentially torque and damage a leg through not allowing it that natural slide when it needs it? In a normal situation, a bare hoof actually provides a surprising amount of traction, much more than a smooth shod hoof. A nice, cuppy foot holds ground very well, and varied, texturized structures on the bottom of the foot increase surface area and the "grippy" factor in most situations. At the AECs, what I failed to take into account was the footing that day, because it seemed just fine at first glance. My horse had been going round the soaking wet mountains of New England all season with not ONE single slip anymore - or ever in her entire LIFE that I can EVER remember! - so I felt pretty invincible. Imagine how stupid I felt when the beautiful, totally flat footing proved dangerously slick - unlike my soft, wet New England hills, this footing was rock hard but covered with a layer of wet, slick, long grass... like a sheet of ice. In some circumstances, no one can cope with footing situations like that. Let me say this in bold to stress its importance: All feet - flat shod, barefoot, borium, calks, studs, boots, anything - can slip under the right circumstances. Your average horse weighs between 1000-1200lbs. A tiny piece of studded metal nailed to the bottom of a foot is realistically not going to stop a slide if the conditions are right. Case in point - at the AECs, the day before I ran XC, at right about the same time in the morning that I ran XC, a Prelim horse with studs all around slid right about where I slid, in no relation to any fences. My horse caught herself and continued on. That horse slid, fell, fractured its scapula, and had to be euthanized. At a Championship show, monkeys are not going around riding at Prelim. This was obviously a competent pair. Studs did not help that horse in that situation. And, quite frankly, I wonder what would have happened had I been riding a studded horse. Either the studs would have stopped the slide, or they would have seriously compounded her injuries. As it stands, I feel lucky that the damage was as minimal as it was. It could have been worse.... so much worse. And one of the reasons I believe she is recovering as rapidly as she is now is because she is bare. The blood flow in that foot is uninhibited, and free to bring a rich supply of nutrients and fibroblasts to the site of the injury. It's helping her heal.
When it comes to caulks, it takes two to tango - the foot needs to come in contact with the ground for the studs to take effect obviously, but the ground has to be firm enough to match the force and return the hold. Sure, calks add traction, but not all the time. At Huntington, for example, the stadium footing was horrible and soaking wet. You know that turf that just comes up when you step on it, the kind that you could grab a handful of and the grass would just release from the mud underneath it? That's the kind it was. No foot - studded or otherwise - is going to negotiate that well. I actually watched a studded horse refuse a fence from well over a few strides out, and he sat on his haunches like a reining horse and slid.... and slid.... and slid..... and slid, right into the fence, nearly flipping over backwards on his rider because his hind end rocketed underneath himself so fast that the rest of him didn't have time to catch up. Did Gogo negotiate that footing well? Nope. (And I have a feeling I know why that is, but I will explain that shortly). The girl who won my division had a quick, catty little horse who, as she described it, skipped right over the footing. Gogo, with her different stride length and style, didn't.
Caulks can really be a scary thing. They are designed for one thing - keep the foot where the horse puts it. If a hoof at speed needs a little bit of slide, it doesn't get it with studs. This can lead to strains, hyperextensions, and trauma. (I'm not saying it does, I'm just saying it can.) If the caulks aren't big enough, they're worthless as traction devices. If the caulks are too big, they can do damage through either the aforementioned strain, or by creating pressure points on the foot. (This is why you remove studs immediately after your ride - standing around on hard ground with studs still in can be VERY damaging.) And let's not forget what happens when a horse miscalculates where to put its legs and stabs itself in the belly/legs/chest/wherever with a studded foot. They make belly guards for a reason, you know!
So what I want is traction. I don't need protection like an endurance horse out in the rocky desert might. For the most part, I have all the traction I need with her big, gorgeous bare feet. And I'd prefer that she be able to slip a little when she needs to in order to keep her from harm. So now, it's back to a question of morals - if the footing is bad enough that I would need studs, should I even be running her at all? And, in all seriousness, it's Novice we're talking about here. It's not Rolex. If you can't get around a regular, nice-footing Novice course without needing studs, then you've got some serious issues, I'm sorry. It's been raining for a week straight and the ground is a muddy mess and you're doing to die without your biggest spikes? Well.... maybe you should just call it a day and go home with an intact horse.
I need traction. But I need give when she needs give. And I need stop when she needs stop. 99% of the time I've got exactly what I need when I'm bare. And I think the most important thing to stress now is that I don't think she slid at the AECs because she was bare.
So what happened? I have a theory. Stick with me on this one because it might take a small bit of explaining.
Remember those hock injections?
Let's start there.
Daun awakened this little kernel of thought in my head. We were talking about injecting her right stifle when she was at Tufts and how I didn't want to make my horse a pincushion but that I felt that this time, unlike the hocks, we really did have hard evidence and that I felt less ethically stressed about it. We both feel pretty much the same about injections, only I've subjected my poor animal to them and she has not. You all remember how I essentially gave myself an ulcer going back and forth about whether or not to do her hocks in August, and how I eventually caved and went ahead with it. And yep, she did in fact feel better... but it was hardly the miracle I expected. What Daun had to say about injections, particularly in the hocks, is that besides all the ethical drama behind them, they can also "move the problem" somewhere else. Making her hocks feel better (even when they were doing their job just fine before) increases the likelihood of her injuring something else. To quote Daun, "The whole leg is connected, obviously, and if you give them 5 degrees more flexion in the hock, that is 5 degrees more movement the stifle and pasterns must absorb as well. Say the horse is tracking up fine pre-injections, but now after injections the horse easily overtracks by 6". At speeds, that is a LOT more strain on those tendons reaching under, suddenly, overnight, because the hocks feel better. Stuff like that scares me. Also when changing the way of going via shoeing or the feet. The tendons and support structures need time to adjust to the new way of movement, but we don't give them time, we change things suddenly." (This is why I love Daun. Because she has brains and she uses them.) And I certainly don't disagree. In fact, I am quite certain this has quite an enormous part to do with her injuries.
We were all shocked when she did bilateral tendon injuries on XC, no one more than me because of the countless hours of slow work on tarmac that I did alllllllllll spring and summer long. Her tendons should have been made of IRON. And I think they probably were... until I changed things. Suddenly, she had a bigger range of motion. Suddenly, she had more push and more stress upon limb flight and landing. I counted it up and prior to Huntington (the first show after the injections), she hadn't taken a rail down in 9 shows. 9 SHOWS. That is astounding. After the injections, at Huntington, she smashed through a couple of warmup fences like a madwoman. Strange, I thought... she's normally more careful than that. I think perhaps she had a bit of a Superwoman complex... no need to protect those hocks anymore Ma, they feel awesome so I can take off wherever I feel like and I don't have to be careful with them anymore! And before that fifth fence, she took off early and both hinds rocketed out from underneath her. She didn't protect herself in that footing AT ALL. Not like her in the slightest. (Ironically, she handled the soppy, soggy, hilly XC like a champ, giant hills and all.) And who knows? Maybe during that slip - maybe during that last month of gallops and hacks - those newly-loaded tendons started to get a little tired. Maybe I didn't give them enough time to adjust. Maybe I overstressed them simply by giving her a bigger range of motion far too late in the season, when we were already training at maximum capacity. Whatever the case may be, when I half-halted her before fence four at the AECs, instead of carefully slowing herself and coming up in front like she normally does, she saw no need to protect her body and wasn't careful about the way she took the half-half. And the fact that during a very small, routine slip - when I have no memory of her ever slipping on XC ever before in my life - she did such extensive damage begs the question, did she have undetected bilateral microdamage before? It wouldn't surprise me. In fact, I feel pretty strongly that this has a large part to do with it.
In short: I don't think she slipped because she's barefoot. I think she slipped because she wasn't protecting her body, and because I had quite likely inadvertently caused a predisposition to an injury. It was probably me that caused her body to fail. I don't think as horse owners we sit back and think about these things enough. We rely on our trainers, our barn managers, our vets and our farriers to give us their best opinions, but sometimes all we really need is our own selves to make the best choices. Sure, Gogo felt better after the hock injections - what horse wouldn't? But she was moving just fine before. At what cost did an unnecessary procedure come? Maybe we all need to look around at all our injured and damaged horses. All right, so Sammy did a suspensory on XC when he slipped. Sure, we've got that. So we put studs on Sammy when he's better and don't think about it anymore. But maybe what we should be doing is looking back at what led up to Sammy's injury. Maybe Sammy's farrier work was unsatisfactory and that predisposed him. Maybe he was worked too hard, maybe he was injected too recently, maybe he's a 16-year-old OTTB, maybe the footing at home is terrible, maybe he's conformationally lacking, maybe he's been showing a lot and his body is tired. There is so much that goes into all of it. And at the same time, it's crying over spilled milk, and after an injury there's nothing we can do but just plow on. But hindsight is 20-20 every time, and you find yourself always thinking, I wonder if I had done things differently, would the outcome have changed?
Add, add, add, add, add. We are always adding for our horse's benefit, or so we think. My horse is working hard, so let's add a joint supplement. And let's add DMG, and an antioxident, and supplements to support his tendons and ligaments. His feet aren't so good, let's add a hoof supplement, and fancy shoes, and pads, and studs. His back is sore, so let's add these fancy new pads. He hurts from all the new strain we're adding to his body, so let's inject his whole body. Oh now he has ulcers, let's give him thousands of dollars worth of treatments that may or may not help, depending on what else his lifestyle is like. He's broken all over now, so let's double all our efforts. Soon, you have a horse living miserable in bubble wrap, so broken and over-supplented, over-shod, and over-drugged that it's hardly a horse anymore. You know, Mother Nature did design everything in the world to work well on its own without our interference. Sometimes, we should just do our best to try and stick to Her plan.
You can tell I've had a lot of down time to think about all this.
In summary, I think slapping on a metal pair of shoes isn't going to change a damn thing, except her hooves, and not at all in a desirable way. I think there is far more to all of this than a simple solution. I think it's complicated, stressful, and altogether morally challenging, like all things related to horsecare. As I said before, if putting shoes on her was the answer to the problem, I'd do that. It's not about pride in a horsecare style I've opted for. It's about her, and what she needs.
Quite a lot to think about, going into this New Year.
The very special Ridgeway weekend
3 days ago