Sunday, September 26, 2004

Clydesdale shoeing in Scotland: Is "couping" a welfare concern or standard practice?

A computer-based horseshoeing evaluation test will compare the gait and characteristics of a Clydesdale horse before and after shoeing with traditional (and controversial) Scottish techniques for the hind limbs.

The 2004 International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH) Scottish Equine Welfare Seminar has tapped the team behind the new Equinalysis gait and shoeing evaluation system to test the horse.

According to team leader Haydn Price, DipWCF, the test horse has already been shod with its traditional shoes. To begin the test, the horse’s shoes will be removed, and the horse will be evaluated barefoot. The shoes will then be nailed back on, and the horse will be evaluated again. Finally, the horse will be shod with full-coverage shoes, and the results of the three tests compared.

Equinalysis is a system of using video-based computer software to track the movement of joint markers as a horse is walked before cameras recording from different angles. The resulting reports compare stride length, knee action, hock action, straightness, etc. and are helpful in showing the effects of trimming and shoeing on the horse's movement. The system was used to help fine-tune shoeing alterations on horses competing for the United Kingdom at the recent Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

What is couping?  

“Couping” is the name given the practice of nailing on hind shoes that do not cover the horse’s inside heel area. Shaped like a sickle, the shoe has a protruding lateral calk and exaggerated quarter. These shoes have reportedly been used in Scotland for centuries to help Clydesdales with their work, such as navigating narrow rows of crops.

In the show horse world, couping is used to present horses in-hand with hocks that touch; this is a desired conformation in the breed. With the help of the shoes, an optical illusion is created: the hind legs appear as one limb.

How does couping affect the horse?  

While the technique appears to intentionally imbalance the horse, its proponents point out that it is designed for the horse that works in soft ground, where the outside calk is helpful. They also point to the overall soundness of horses shod in this way.

Critics point out that the horses stand on hard-floored stables and must be transported to shows on solid floors.

Comparative testing of couped and normally-shod horses  

Price pointed out to Hoofcare & Lameness that while the shoe itself is a radical instrument of imbalance, the hoof is generally prepared according to normal balance parameters, so the test horse can be legitimately tested barefoot, and shod in two different ways without having to re-dress the foot. Noted Clydesdale farrier James Balfour, AWCF of Dundee, Scotland is preparing the test horse.

The modern Clydesdale horse has been intentionally bred for characteristics that make it look quite different from this ideal stallion painted in 1820 by artist John Herring. Long legs were not an advantage to a horse working on rough ground in Scotland in the 1800s.

Welfare implications of couping  

Welfare advocates and the Scottish parliament became concerned about couping a few years ago, when a farrier blew the whistle on the practice and called for its elimination. As a result, the Clydesdale Horse Society worked with master farrier David Wilson, FWCF, BEM and published revised guidelines for hoof balance and shoe coverage, but couping itself was not outlawed.

(See "Cruelty Charged in Scottish Clydesdale Shoeing" published in  the print edition of Hoofcare and Lameness 74.)  

In the United States and Canada, single-calked three-quarter shoes are in widespread use for the hind feet of show draft horses. There are no known regulations on how draft horses may be shod for shows and no known public complaints of abuse in the United States. The terminology of "couping" is not generally used in the United States to describe this type of shoeing.

More on couping  

Couping was a topic often mentioned by speakers at the March 2003 “Heavy Horse Hoofcare” conference at Tufts University College of Veterinary Medicine, sponsored by Hoofcare & Lameness Journal, particularly by British speaker Roger Clark, FWCF(Hons).

Roger Clark, FWCF(Hons) (left) with Disney World heavy horse farrier Gary Wade at the Tufts Vet School conference on heavy horse shoeing.

More coverage of couping and follow-up of the Scottish Equinalysis test will be published in issue #79 of Hoofcare & Lameness Journal.

Equinalysis was recently introduced in the US at a seminar at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky and was featured in issue 78 of Hoofcare & Lameness Journal, in respect to hock displacement in dressage horses.

Top photo: Clydesdale shoeing competition at the Royal Highland Show, Scotland, by David McCrone, used with permission.