Thursday, April 14, 2011

Totilas: Heart Bar Shoes for the Dressage Champion

I've written so many stories about the triple-World Champion dressage stallion Totilas. I've taken so many photographs of him. But you know, I've never really seen his feet. The horse always has bell boots on. They take them off at the edge of the arena, and they put them right back on.

In case you haven't heard of him, Totilas and his rider, Edward Gal, swept the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games last fall. They took home all three gold medals for The Netherlands. 

A few weeks later, when Totilas was sold by his Dutch owners to German stallion magnate Paul Schockemohle, I wondered if he might very well have bought the horse without ever seeing his hooves. But something tells me that the hooves weren't why he paid so many millions for Totilas.

This is what we saw of Totilas's feet at the World Equestrian Games. There were bell boots of many colors.

I always had the feeling, though, that my time would come. I didn't think or wish that the horse would go lame; his Dutch horseshoer is my friend. I thought maybe there would be an auction of one of his shoes or a celebrity horseshoeing stunt and I'd be there to photograph it. Instead, the horse was sold.

Soon after Totilas was off to Germany, I found this unlabeled Swedish video on YouTube with comments from Dutch farrier Rob Renirie about shoeing Totilas. For true fans, this video will be a revelation, as it actually shows the bottom of one of his unshod feet, something not shown before, to my knowledge.

This video was made a year ago, but I only discovered it after the horse was sold.

A few weeks ago, England's Horse and Hound Magazine did an interview with Matthias Rath, the lucky German rider who has taken over the reins of the great horse. Totilas looked very sporty in the photo shoot by our friend, Dutch photographer Arnd Bronkhorst; he sported stealth-style black leg wraps with matching black bell boots. A new image!

Right about the same time, this blog started to get queries about heart bar shoes. There is nothing unusual about that. We get queries at all hours of the day and night. It is laminitis season, so questions about heart bar shoes seem logical in April. But these questions were on the order of: "Why would a dressage horse wear heart bar shoes?" Another asked me point-blank if a heart bar shoe meant only one thing: laminitis.

This image is mirrored from the Horse and Hound web site, where you can see the full gallery (and at a larger size) of Arnd Bronkhorst's photos of Totilas and Matthias Rath. Image by Arnd Bronkhorst © Horse and Hound. See lots more images of Totilas on Arnd's website:
A quick google told me what was going on. The rumor on  the Internet was that Totilas was wearing heart bar shoes. Except it wasn't a rumor. On the Horse and Hound web site, a new set of Arnd's photos was posted from the same shoot that had been in the magazine, but this series showed the bottom of the horse's feet (in bell boots, of course). And he is undeniably wearing heart bar shoes on both front feet.

Note: When I first posted this story, I did not know that the photos were taken by Arnd Bronkhorst, although I should have guessed! You can see (and purchase) pages and pages of photos of Totilas, of Rob Renirie, and of whatever else in the entire horse world you'd like to see on Arnd's searchable database of extraordinary horse photography. You'll also see where some of Hoofcare and Lameness's favorite and award-winning magazine covers originate! Arnd's website is one of the very best things on the Internet, in my estimation.

I still wasn't sure I should write anything about this great horseshoe expose. I talked it over with a friend; I could tell she wasn't impressed. I emailed Rob Renirie and Matthias Rath. But I knew that if I didn't write about what heart bar shoes were all about, the rumor mill wouldn't have an anchor. Now I just have to hope that people find this information.

This heart bar shoe made by Jim Blurton Tools in Great Britain is somewhat similar to the shoe that Totilas wears. It has sculpted heels, which provide support under the heel bulbs but are designed to have less steel at the back of the foot so the horse is less likely to step on it. A heart bar shoe for a lame horse might be oval in the heel area (called an egg-heart bar) or it might be straight across the heels, creating a firm platform and base of support both for the horse's weight and for the farrier to be able to forge the steel into the tongue. A machine-made shoe allows the luxury of pre-sculpted heels; horse owners complain a lot when horses pull off expensive shoes. (See Jim Blurton Bar Shoes page for more information.)

Then on Wednesday, I received notice that Totilas had to cancel a public appearance, and that he was suffering from an abscess in one of his left front heels. That transparency impressed me as much as the news saddened me. The message was that he needed a few days off but that he'd still begin competition the first week in May.

What's wrong with Totilas? Maybe nothing. A heart bar shoe is recommended for something as minimal as to help increase sole growth on a flat-footed horse or to relieve pressure on the hoof wall when the hair line at the coronet is uneven, so it can grow more uniformly. It might be a rest shoe. Or it might be a full support shoe for a lameness issue, but it's doubtful that his backers would still be training him.

The key to a heart bar shoe is how much, if any, pressure is applied to the heart bar. Pressure is key for laminitis therapy; support is key for sport horses in need of wall or sole rehabilitation.

As far as disorders that respond to heart bar shoes are concerned, there is a long list of conditions that might improve with a heart bar shoe if it is fit properly. It is one of several shoes that a vet and farrier will try out to see how the horse tolerates it. Some horses barely tolerate frog contact, let alone any pressure. Other horses thrive on it.

This is a heart bar shoe handmade for a horse with laminitis. Every heart bar is different because of the shape of a horse's heels and foot, and the width and length of frog. I believe that the horse's toes had been resected (hoof wall cut away). With laminitis, the only sound place to nail may toward the heel area. David Gulley/Mark Caldwell photo.
So what about these shoes for laminitis? First of all, if Totilas had laminitis, there would likely be a pad and some type of support material filling his foot, and he wouldn't have been schooling in front of a photographer a month ago.

I checked in with James Gilchrist of Wellington, Florida, who probably shoes more Grand Prix dressage horses than anyone in the USA. He concurred that there are many reasons why a horse would be shod with heart bar shoes during the off season. He immediately quoted Rob Renirie, however, in stating that, when the time comes for competition, the best shoeing is also the simplest, most uncomplicated shoeing.

James Gilchrist (right) spoke on sport horse farriery at the 3rd International Equine Conference on Laminitis and Diseases of the Foot, along with fellow sport-horse specialist Aaron Gygax, left, of Switzerland, in 2005.

James Gilchrist didn't seem surprised that a grand prix world champion horse being used for breeding and not competing would be wearing heart bar shoes in March.

That said, James and I both see dressage horses competing at all levels with heart bar shoes on. Some vets and farriers say that they like bar shoes, particularly in deep footing or if the horse has had suspensory problems, because the horse will "float" more and not sink into the footing. If a horse sinks too deep, he has to work harder to breakover, and the strenuous upper level movements can lead to early fatigue. The shoes should match the footing, but the footing shouldn't be too deep and strain the horses anyway.

Another aspect of heart bar shoes is that they come in, or can be made in, all weights and thicknesses of materials. You can pop on a set of beautiful Imprint plastic glue-on heart bar shoes right out of a box. Laminitis calls for a lot of seating out. They can be made from fullered steel, British style, or aluminum, American show horse style. As big as a Shire's hoof, as tiny as a Shetland's.

But for all the talk about heart bar shoes, what you don't hear about is that they are one of the most difficult shoes for farriers to learn to make and/or fit. And they must be truly fit to the foot and to the frog. Many farriers don't like them either because they have had bad experiences with them or they never bothered to learn to use them correctly or they prefer other methods that they feel will achieve the same results.

Possibly as many horses have gone lame because of heart bar shoes as have gone sound. The farriers who know how to fit them have a very valuable skill. But a skilled farrier can still meet a horse who won't tolerate the shoe; the skilled farrier recognizes that, as well.

Back in the 1980s, the late Burney Chapman of Lubbock, Texas gave the world the Great Heart Bar Shoe Revival. And it's still going on, as this week's news from Germany attests. (Photo © Hoofcare Publishing)

Heart bar shoes were dug up from the old shoeing textbooks and re-introduced to the horse world in the early 1980s by a farrier from Lubbock, Texas named Burney Chapman. 

Burney isn't with us anymore. He died of brain cancer eleven years ago, when he was just 57 years old. But if his shoe is helping Totilas, our friends in Germany should turn toward Lubbock, Texas and tip their hats to the man who made it possible. Totilas should take a little bow.

Somewhere, Burney Chapman is smiling.

It all comes down to this: if Totilas is sound under his new rider the first week of May when he comes back into competition after almost eight months off, we'll all be smiling. I am sure I speak for the universe when I say that no one wants that horse to be lame. He was born to be in motion.

To learn more: Hoofcare@WEG: Rob Renirie's Dutch Gold Shoeing Keeps It Simple

Call the office to order your copy or email for details.

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