Monday, February 24, 2014

White Turf: How Do Polo Ponies and Racehorses Stay on Their Feet in the St. Moritz Snow?

A ski-joring horse displays the outside of his right front hoof during a race. Coronet and hoof wall injuries are common when horses are shod with calks. (Swiss Images photo)

Calks? Check. Snow rim pads? Check. Ice-breaker hoof pick? Check. Horses competing in the polo and racing each February in St. Moritz, Switzerland are prepared from the ground--or should we say snow?--up.

It happens every February. Winter looks gray and boring and spring can't come quickly enough and then the images start showing up from the glamorous ski resort of St Moritz, Switzerland and you remember that it is possible to have fun with horses in the snow. And that there are some people out there who manage to do it with a great deal of style.

But how do they keep the horses of their feet?
Welcome to St. Moritz, playground of the rich, the famous, the well-heeled...and the sharp-shod.

They call it simply "White Turf".

For this one month of the year, the huge frozen lake at St. Moritz is turned into, first, a World Cup polo field, and then a racetrack for Standardbreds, Thoroughbreds, Arabians and ski-joring-breds.

Embed from Getty Images

What could be the world's worst horse-welfare disaster is somehow averted each year, and a great deal of the credit goes to more than 100 years of using trial-and-error in preparing the hooves of horses for these events on ice.

Ralph Lauren may design the shirts that the polo players wear, but it is the local farriers who have the knowledge and the tools to shoe the horses, sometimes just for one race, so they can perform safely.

It's not always a happy place. This year there was just too much snow, a problem that will have many of us here in the eastern United States nodding heads. And the air was too warm. They raced anyway on the first weekend of February, but racing was quickly canceled after a finish-line situation in the first race that sounded more like a rugby ruck: the horse that won tumbled after winning, and the horses behind him piled on.

Each race is preceded by an attentive picking-out of hooves. Full body clips are typical, even in the cold temperatures.

"The heavy snowfalls of the last days and weeks as well as the current mild temperatures provided low speeds that ended in a fall after the finishing line, in which five horses were involved. Luckily both horses and riders escaped with slight injuries," the organizers announced with admirable transparency in a press release the next day.

Miraculously, no one was seriously injured, but the track surface would have to pay the price. In a massive mid-winter excavation project, a front-end loader scraped the track down to the ice of the lake and replaced and repacked the snow.

The following weekend, the weather improved and racing resumed. Once again, the organizers reported that a horse slipped, this time a skijoring (pronounced "SKEE-yur-eeng") horse, and again without injury.

The basic shoe setup for St. Moritz racehorses is a Luwex (in this case) snow-rim pad and a Kerckhaert Kings Plate race shoe. Block calks have been brazed on at the toe and heels. Notice that the calks are in line with the shoe, not with the direction of travel. This is the type of shoeing recommended for ice racing by Christian Lampert.

Success in St Moritz is based on two things: 1) not getting a snowball in your horse's hoof (or worse: hooves, plural) and 2) giving your horse enough traction to race competitively.

You need a clean hoof that can scoop the snow or skim over it. Balls of sticky snow, or worse, ice balls form in the sole and can cause slipping and injuries. Smart veteran horses are known to just stop and lift a foot in the air.

Even when not racing, snowballs that ice up in a horse's foot can, if not removed promptly, cause bruising and sole pressure, especially if the horse is on the move. This is the sort of problem that was known to have paralyzed Napoleon's retreat from Moscow and brought pain and suffering to countless undocumented cavalry and work horses in days gone by.

This photo shows the raceplate alone, without the pad. You can see that the toe piece extends quite a bit below the ground surface of the shoe. (Christian Lampert photo)

It is important to know that thousands of horses and riders in the United States and around the world owe a large debt to the farriers of St Moritz. They owe an even larger debt to St Moritz hotel waiter and gas station owner Peppino Cattaneo.
Peppino wanted to own a racehorse all his life but it wasn't until he was 57 that a Hungarian racer would be his. But he had to train in Switzerland and he didn't like the way that "Einballens" and "Aufstollens" affected his horse He knew when the racehorses came to town in February, they also had trouble with the icing up syndrome.

It's not all work for the farrier. Christian Lampert relaxes in the alpine sunshine sometimes.
Peppino went to the drawing board--or the workshop at his garage, at any rate--and started thinking up a solution with what he had on hand.

He started recycling old tire inner tubes into hoof liners.

Peppino made a liner for the horses' shoes, with a small tube-like bubble that runs all around the inside rim of the shoe. The tube is attached to a flat rim pad that goes under the shoe and is rivetted on. When applied properly, the rim tube keeps popping the snow out of the foot each time the horse's foot hits the grounds.

In addition to racehorses, St Moritz attracts performing horses and all types of pleasure horses.

Fast forward to 1975, when the product was perfected and installed on horses in St Moritz. Peppino was awarded the Gold Medal at the International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva. Within 25 years, his pad design from the St Moritz White Turf would be sold almost whereever on Earth horses and snow must co-exist. He claimed to have sold a million pads a year. Variations on his design, some in plastic instead of his signature recycled black rubber, are now made by several companies and in many colors.

An interesting footnote to Peppino's story is that his way forward as an inventor may have been ordained on the day when Henry Ford wandered into his gas station in St Moritz in 1948. Two inventers stood eye to eye.

They really should be called Peppino Pads.

Traction is the other name of the White Turf game and local farrier Christian Lampert believes he has it figured out. A year ago, Christian showed up in an interview on CNN, of all places, explaining how he shoes the horses for White Turf. He's been stalked by The Hoof Blog ever since.

In the photos you see in this article, Christian has shod a racehorse with Kerckhaert Kings Plate shoes--normally used on horses racing on green turf--to which he has rivetted a pink plastic Luwex snow-rim pad. He has also braised calks at the toe and heels of the front shoes, and says he does the same for the hinds.

It's important to remember that the horses are shod this way only temporarily; these shoes would be illegal in most European countries on turf racecourses.

Christian said in an interview that not all horses thrive in St. Moritz. The shoeing style may not suite them or they may not stretch out to a competitive speed on the snow surface. "You can only try and see," he said.

St. Moritz's White Turf winter racing festival has been featured in at least two James Bond films. It's his kind of place. You don't need to speak Swedish to understand this video. The video shows a tangle between two skijoring horses and the unpadded sole of a trotter.

British trainer Karl Burke mentioned another hoof-related factor that affects racing at St Moritz. Many British racehorses, who run on turf only, have a hard time when they come to the US to race and have dirt kicked in their faces for the first time. Some don't mind, but others do.

In St Moritz, they have to run into a storm of ice pellets and snowballs kicked up by the horses in front of them. "You have to break well because you need to race handy (in front)," Burke said in the Racing Post. "You find snowballs coming back at you and you never know if a horse will handle it."

Swiss veterinarian Markus Mueller has been attending the polo ponies in St Moritz for 30 years. He noted in an interview that there hasn't been a serious accident since he's been there. Mueller added another element to the equation for success in St Moritz: the horse has to thrive at the altitude, and adjust quickly if it is coming from sea level to be competitive in the mountains.

Calks may keep the horse going forward, but they can damage coronets and hoof walls. This horse also shows signs perhaps of another winter problem, mud rash or "scratches" behind the pastern. The horses would spend very little time on a hard surface, so they wouldn't often be "jacked up" like this on the calks. They would be in stalls or in the snow. (Christian Lampert photo)

Mueller said that his most common injury is in the coronet area, as the ponies step on themselves and each other. Calked shoes can be much more dangerous than smooth shoes.

St Moritz's White Turf is a historic event in the horse world that hangs on, thanks to the backing of corporate sponsors and free-spending spectators and bettors. The horses aren't there for the money or the glory; they're there to indulge the owners and sponsors or just for the fun, and there's plenty of that.

If they can continue to do it more or less safely, there's a chance this tradition will survive. It is a testing ground for the hoof, hoof products, and creative minds who don't mind being outdoors in February in one of the most beautiful settings in the whole horse world.

To learn more:

Images for this article are the property of Getty Images, Chrtistian Lampert (horseshoes) and, which provided a superb selection of high-quality images.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing; Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is the news service for Hoofcare and Lameness Publishing. Please, no re-use of text or images on other sites or social media without permission--please link instead. (Please ask if you need help.) The Hoof Blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a headlines-link email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). Use the little envelope symbol below to email this article to others. The "translator" tool in the right sidebar will convert this article (roughly) to the language of your choice. To share this article on Facebook and other social media, click on the small symbols below the labels. Be sure to "like" the Hoofcare and Lameness Facebook page and click on "get notifications" under the page's "like" button to keep up with the hoof news on Facebook. Questions or problems with the Hoof Blog? Click here to send an email  

Follow Hoofcare + Lameness on Twitter: @HoofBlog
Read this blog's headlines on the Hoofcare + Lameness Facebook Page
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any direct compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned, other than Hoofcare Publishing. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.