We know in our brains that where equine soundness is concerned, if something’s not broke, we shouldn’t try to fix it. We shouldn’t even look at it. Where horse showing is concerned, however, that saying has a tendency to go out the window as owners and trainers try to get the most out of an animal and edge out the competition. Often, people looking for an edge end up looking at the feet.
Clients paying extra attention to a horse’s feet is nice, for sure. For the farrier this attention could go either way. As a farrier, you might find yourself uncharitably blamed for a horse’s lack of success in the ring. This will feel especially unfair if you thought it was a phenomenal success that you got the ewe-necked, pigeon-toed, abscess-ridden conformational nightmare of an animal sound at all, let alone ready to enter a real competition.
If your client has grander ideas about a horse’s career than what you’re pretty sure the horse will be capable of, it mi-i-i-i-ght be time for a conversation about the limits of what farrier science can accomplish. If the horse is an average horse of average soundness and your client has some average dreams of modest success, there could be some ways for you to tip the scale in the horse’s favour.
Provide Support Where the Horse Needs it Most
In the farrier world, providing support isn’t just a metaphor. Each different job will put varying amounts of strain on different parts of a horse’s hoof and lower limb anatomy. The farrier can make a big difference to a horse’s soundness and performance by ensuring that its feet provide a strong base of support for whatever the horse is doing.
A basic part of the farrier’s job is to understand the mechanics of equine movement in general, but farriers can also help their equine clients out if they’re familiar with the mechanics of how horses move when they’re performing specific tasks. Lots of movements initially look the same across disciplines, but the devil is in the details, so to speak. The torque a large warmblood puts on its hind fetlocks during a canter pirouette isn’t exactly the same as the torque on a reining horse’s lower limbs when it spins. Even if the movement involves basically the same kinds of forces, factors such as speed, repetition, the duration of the turn, the movements the horse performs prior and just after the turn, even typical ring footing will all play a role in where the strain goes and how much of it there is.
There’s Nothing Like Confidence
Regardless of the discipline, comfortable horses are happier to move out and more confident performing their jobs. If you can give a jumper better traction with studs or an endurance horse more resistance against stone bruises with pads, that will go a long way towards improving their ability to do their best. The rider will (ideally) know the horse and the competition site well enough to know if any extra traction, protection or support might be needed. Ask the rider what the horse might be facing between now and the next trim so you can help them decide what modifications might be the most useful.
Give the Horse a Better Way to Go
One of the most common requests farriers get about show horses is to make changes to a horse’s gait to make it move “better.” You can’t change conformation, so there will always be limits on how much you can improve a horse’s way of going, but there are definitely ways to influence the breakover, the flight path and the landing pattern of a horse’s hoof. Conformation and balance comes first – you won’t help a horse stay sound by trying to “fix” what the horse’s feet and limbs were naturally built to do. Within the limits of the horse’s own basic structure and limb function, however, you can increase or decrease knee action, straighten the flight path of the horse’s leg, cut down on forging and improve balance. Methods of influencing the horse’s way of going can range from the simple (putting a lighter or a heavier shoe on) to the sophisticated (where you get to work with the vet and all of her fun and fancy diagnostic equipment).
Know Your Audience
Your efforts to translate all this into show ring success should also involve knowing what’s required of horses in a given discipline. Your clients and their trainers are one source of information for what’s needed out of a horse. You can also watch videos of the top competitors in your clients’ disciplines so you know what judges look for. Even better, head out to a couple of shows and see how a range of horses move (and place) in each class. Knowing how an individual horse has been made to move and knowing how the horse is supposed to move in its given career can help you develop a plan to keep it sound and showing over the long haul.
Working as a Team
Top horse and rider partnerships don’t get to the top on their own. They have a sometimes astonishingly large network of experts that include farriers (and vets and trainers and chiropractors and horse psychologists (no, I made that last one up. Maybe.)). It’s a lot of collaborative work. So if you can keep the horse’s well-being at the front of everyone’s minds and work with everybody’s expectations, that will be a success, no matter what colour ribbon the horse brings home.