Eventing a horse without shoes had never been a conceivable idea in my youth. Much like the way I used to use the term "gay" to describe all things stupid when I was an 8th grader and then later found out ironically that I was in fact gay myself, I realized that there may be a new, higher level of horse and hoof care that I never even knew existed. With my last horse, who was dearly loved but insufferably clumsy, he experienced slipping issues while bare behind, and so I had him shod. (Looking back now, he clearly had a lot of unaddressed issues that at that time in my life I was clueless about, but he's an interesting example – not very sure-footed and definitely not graceful. What do you do in that case? Perhaps I should have looked a little further and realized his large amount of daily sweet feed and little hay, ulcery symptoms, wormy belly and my horrible unbalanced riding may have been a contributing factor in his difficulties. Perhaps he would have gained a bit of grace and concavity in his feet for a better purchase. Alas, hindsight is 20/20 every time.) Because he had experienced issues with slipping, and he was my entire eventing experience, I assumed that all horses would slip barefoot, and no one ever stepped up to disagree. Once I had Gogo, however, and I had worked through her eternal rehab issues, I set my sights on eventing – really eventing, really competitively. We had done a few dressage and jumper shows while bare, bringing home a good number of blues already, but why couldn’t she do eventing bare too? She was amazingly surefooted, and her feet were excellent. Why shouldn't I try?
And so try we did. Not only did we attempt, but we also triumphed. Our schoolings at local XC courses were always amazingly successful, and I found her traction to be superb. I never worried about where she was putting her feet, and she seemed to always know exactly where her feet were and how they were getting there. If there were rocks, she skipped over and around them at speed. If there was slippery grass, she balanced herself and made it smooth and effortless. If the footing changed, she figured out how to make it work to her advantage. I knew that as a barefooted alpha mare, she knew exactly where her feet were at all times, and she was going to take care of her body. I was a byproduct of her care simply by my location on her back – she wasn’t going to slip, fall or hurt herself, so I was in no danger either. I felt safer on her than I ever had on a horse, despite her kooky behavior.
At her first ever 'real' event, Encore H.T. in Michigan, Gogo was in first after dressage and went double-clear on XC. She did have a rail in stadium, and finished 3rd because of it, but we found shortly thereafter that the chips and rails she was having were entirely hock-related, and a course of Adequan oiled her machinery well. On XC, she was insufferably green but very game, making some squiggles over the first few jumps but never putting a foot out of place, even after splashing through the water. One thing about eventing and traction is that event horses WILL be getting their feet wet on course, and water WILL make things more slippery, and at a show like Encore which was on rail delay from major storms, it makes the challenge much more difficult. Courses out west tend to be much drier and dustier, making this less of an issue, but out in the Midwest and especially on the East Coast, wet + grass = slippery. Despite this, Gogo never put a hoof out of place, and I was completely tickled with her performance. At her second event, South Farm H.T. in Ohio, she was in first after dressage with a 22.6 (!!), and went double clear again on XC, but also had another rail in stadium (remember the hock issues, we hadn't really pinpointed the problem until this show happened). She still was best in her division with a 26.6, and we had our first eventing blue ribbon. (Her first blue ribbon ever was one for Training Level Test 2 in dressage the summer before, winning the class with a 69.7%!) Her third event was also a success, Hunter's Run H.T. in Michigan - a big show with a maxed-out course and an enormously huge day-long downpour that delayed our XC run by a day. She was in third after dressage with a 33.0, behind another mare and a huge clonking Friesian who eliminated out on the first XC fence. The course was a muddy, sopping mess, but despite it Gogo skipped around XC like she hadn't even noticed. I even glanced at my watch and read it wrong near the end of the course, hustling over the line only to later find out that our time had been 4:03.... and the speed time was 4:03. CLOSE! The stadium warmup was so miserably sopping that I only walked and trotted one crossrail, going into the all-weather arena mostly cold-turkey. She went clean, and our overnight leader dropped the first rail, giving us the win. So awesome! The last regular event before the Area Championships and the AECs was the Erie Hunt & Saddle Club H.T. in Pennsylvania, where Gogo was in second comfortably with a 32.5. We sailed around XC and stadium with a little too much speed, and video of our rounds is a bit funny and embarrassing to watch as I had to trot a large section of my XC.... a comfortable lope was WAY too fast! Our leader also went clean, keeping us in second place, but I was still thrilled. We even won a little prize money!
Two firsts, a second, and a third, and we were headed to the Area VI Championships for BN at South Farm. We were in first after a great dressage ride with a 28.5, and I headed cockily out to XC, convinced that we had this one in the bag. Alas, this was when Gogo decided to give me a little taste of humble pie, putting on the afterburners right out of the water complex to gallop at full speed right past fence 6. D'oh! Major rider error on my part, I stopped bothering to ride and she stopped bothering to listen! She loped over the rest of the fences like she was asleep, but obviously we dropped to the back of the pack. So convinced was I that something was wrong with her that I withdrew, taking her home to thoroughly check her over and make sure nothing was wrong. She was fine, but the message was clear - you gotta be there for me, and then I'll be there for you. Point taken!
The 2008 AECs were upon us. It was hard to believe, but after all our hard work, we were overqualified and totally ready to go. Once again, my mare delighted and impressed me - while our dressage was kind of eh (we managed to scrape a 33.0 together even though we scored a 2 AND a 3 for two very frightening movements right in front of the judge!), she was foot-perfect on XC, loping around the toughest course she'd ever seen with ease. Stadium was just as easy and smooth, and we finished on our dressage score in 6th place, taking our victory gallop just as the thunder started rumbling overhead. We were lucky to miss out on the worst of the "A-E-Seas," although I have plenty of pictures of Lamplight flooding and our perilous journey home which included a dam breaking and the entire highway shutting down!! My mare's feet had done it. They had handled all types of terrain, hills, dry hardpack, soft mush, and everything inbetween without so much as a slip. But this was at Beginner Novice, the slowest and smallest you could go. How would she handle the next level?
I needn't have ever been concerned. After a winter's worth of hard work and dedication, and a few jumper shows later, we were ready for the 2009 season and for our new competitive career on the East Coast, our new home in Connecticut giving us access to opportunity untapped and plenty of close-by events of a different caliber. Wow, these shows had some serious HILLS! And the courses were TOUGH! And LONG! And BIG! Our first event ever at Novice together, King Oak H.T., had me nearly peeing myself on the coursewalk. We had just gotten in our first real XC schooling of the year a week before, on slippery and rocky terrain in a downpour, and I wasn't sure how she'd be on a real course. But once again, my mare came through for me, handling the bright white chevrons, the ditch, the up and down banks, the water with a jump right after, the offset three-stride combination (!!), and the brush fence that was a maxed out 3'7". Swear on my life, when standing next to it the brush touched my boobs it was so tall! Not only was there a long section of grass, but in the woods we had some seriously rocky trails to handle, and she crunched down them at high speed like it was all business to her. She never put a foot wrong. We were in first after dressage with a 31.1, and stayed there through two amazing double clear rounds to get our first win of the season, and our first win at Novice, all at the same time. Three weeks later, I found myself comfortably loping around the XC course at the Mystic Valley Hunt Club H.T., the speed much faster than King Oak's (400mpm vs. 350mpm) but with an easier course. The water complex was a bit hairy, with a moving river full of rocks, but she knew exactly where her feet were and where to put them. First after dressage with a 30.0, we went double clear again on both stadium and XC to take our second win of the season. In June, my favorite event and most memorable weekend occurred - Groton House Farm H.T.! It was the biggest show we had attended so far that season, and I was in a large division chock full of professional riders. Despite that, we tied with a big East Coast pro for second place after dressage, our 31.5 putting us directly behind our leader, another big name pro with a 31.0. Gogo had some spooky moments on XC, most notably over the drop and into the water, but we managed to hustle over the finish line to unofficially break our tie and move into second (our time was very close to optimum, a little too close if you ask me!). Daun came out to watch us tackle the stadium, and she skipped around it like it was a cakewalk, sailing into first place as we watched our leader drop the first rail. The division was so close that it bumped them down all the way to 5th. That victory gallop was one of the sweetest moments of my life, and the win secured our necessary scores for qualifying to go to the 2010 AECs. Gogo's bare feet were easily handling anything I could throw at them, from mud and stones to slick grass and big hills. Sharp turns, high speeds, and big takeoffs (her specialty) were all in a day's work for her feet. I never had to worry about her tossing a shoe and frantically trying to get any showground hack to slap it back on, I didn't have to fret over my stud choices, I didn't have to deal with all the hassle. Nature gave my horse everything she needed, and she did the rest. All I had to do was give her a balanced ride.
But like all good stretches of time, eventually something bad had to happen to our lucky streak. Unfortunately from there, the season took a major downturn, and Gogo's unexplained spookiness and dull attitude became wildly worse. At the Area I Championships, we had a pretty good dressage ride, but she was lacking impulsion and we only scored a 34.7 to fall into 4th place, the first time she'd ever scored out of the top three aside from the previous AEC. On XC, right in front of everyone and their mother, Gogo locked on to fence four and approached with confidence. She then promptly got to the base of the jump, spun on one heel, and slung me right off over her shoulder, breaking my middle finger (ironically) on the way down. It was severely out of character for her, and we were eliminated for the first time in my life. If you've never seen a Gogo spin, I will tell you this: she could have a competitive career as a reiner, only she's faster. Disappointed, I chalked it up to rider error and slunk on home, ready to tackle another event at Riga Meadow H.T. the following weekend. I can do this, I thought. I just need to give her a better ride. Well, as it turns out, even though we were once again in first after dressage with another 34.0, she once again got to a simple obstacle - the up-bank, which couldn't have been more than two feet high, and something she'd been tackling since the age of 5 with ease and confidence - and she spun out on me, this time going in the other direction. I stayed on this time, and the rest of the course was fine, but I was very upset. It was obvious that this was more than rider error. Something was wrong with my horse.
And I was unfortunately right - Lyme disease and a mild case of gastritis were to blame for this behavior. Lyme is pretty much a given here in CT, and if you live here you will eventually get it, so it wasn't a huge surprise. We also opted to go ahead and inject her hocks at that time, thinking maybe if they were sore they could be contributing to the problem. A year of conservative treatments and lots of Adequan, Cosequin ASU, long warmups and cooldowns, Back on Track hock boots, and as much turnout as she could stand were finally not quite enough. With Doxy on board, and aloe juice twice a day for her belly, her behavior and outlook on life dramatically changed, and my cheerful and brave mare was back in full - if anything, she had a little too much vengeance. At Huntington Farm H.T., our last test before tackling the 2010 AECs, she handled the sopping wet hills like a total champ, but her newfound reach in her hocks bogged her down and caused some slip n' slide before the planks during our stadium round. One rail, and our 29.5 turned into a 33.5 and a subsequent 5th place. I was surprised at her carelessness. She doesn't like to hit rails, and here she was swimming through them like Superwoman. Despite that, I was pleased with her flawless performance on XC, and prepared for our final hurrah at Novice, the AECs, which I had worked so hard for all year long.
The rest is history. A quality dressage test (again, with another brain fart right in front of the judge which resulted in a 4 and a 5) and a score of 30.0 had us sitting once again in 7th after dressage. Walking XC, I was impressed with the excellent footing, which was perfectly manicured and aerated grass. I had been galloping up the wild, wet and wooley mountains of New England all season, so this footing seemed like a beautiful treat. Following my first coursewalk, I was alarmed to hear that one of the Prelim horses had slipped on course between fences and had fallen, breaking his scapula. He was subsequently euthanized. A bit saddened, I moved on to prepare for my own ride, and once on course everything else melted away. She was foot-perfect to the first few jumps, and then went I went to give her a half-halt before the fourth fence, and when she bounced up against it she slipped. It was only for a split second, and it was a fairly common reaction on her part, so I didn't think too much of it. The only noticeable things on the rest of the course were that she had no extra gas when I asked her to move out, and that she was very careful on downhill slopes. I thought perhaps she was just being cautious after her little slide, and the rest of the ride went amazingly. She was perfect, didn't hesitate anywhere, didn't look at a thing, and loped over all the maxed-out fences and combinations (two waters, banks, a coffin complex, a corner and a skinny included!) like they were nothing. I was so proud of her, and delighted to find we had moved up a place to 6th. It was then that I noticed on the way back to her stall after checking the scoreboard just how enormous her hind legs were. Somehow, during that slip, she damaged both hinds, and ultrasound revealed a small core lesion on her left SDFT and sheath damage to the right. We withdrew, packed up our gear, and dragged ourselves sadly home, prepared to begin what would eventually turn out to be a year-long rehab.
Did she slip because she was bare? I can't say it wasn't a factor. Would studs have stopped the slide? Possibly, but probably not. They would have either saved her or severely compounded her injuries. Hooves do need a little bit of give to them in order to preverve soft tissue and joint heath, so glueing a foot to the ground isn't a good option. Why did such a tiny slip cause such extensive damage, especially since I had spent a year conditioning her so carefully? We think we can trace it back to the hock injections, which were less than a month out from the AECs - when we gave her a brand new level of movement in her hind limbs, we were already in heavy training, and her legs did not have enough of a chance to compensate and strengthen. If she had any sort of microdamage that was undetected at that point, the slip had to have pushed it over the edge into real injury. If she hadn't slipped in just this right way, we wouldn't be having this conversation. And clearly, this is all just speculation. We will never know what really happened. Any way you look at it, this isn't just a matter of adding shoes and studs to the equation and ignoring the rest. If shoes were really the answer, I would do it.
But it's so much more complicated than that. So what do I do now?