Thursday, August 28, 2014

Research: Does the Unshod Dressage Horse Really Bear a Competitive Disadvantage?

Irish researcher Richard Mott writes: "This photo is an example of some of the gait analysis work I’m doing for my dissertation comparing the stride patterns of shod and unshod horses. Most previous research has measured shod horses then taken their shoes off and measured them again straight away. The result? 'Look how badly they go without shoes!' To my knowledge, this is the only study that has compared shod and unshod horses that are conditioned to that state."

At the recent International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) Conference in Denmark, a Warwickshire College (UK) abstract covered research by distance-learning student Richard Mott from Ireland: He studied the potential difference in movement between shod and unshod horses in dressage.

To be fair to the researchers, this abstract is something like a snapshot from a moving car, compared to the author's much larger research effort. Richard Mott's thesis will actually be about 12,000 words when we finally get to read it.

In email correspondence with The Hoof Blog earlier this month, Richard wrote, "The salient point of this work is that you are no worse off barefoot than shod. Barefoot MAY be slightly beneficial to some types as it will flatten and lengthen a short, choppy stride, but shoeing MAY benefit a horse with a very flat stride as it would give it more 'action'.

"With normal weight shoes, these changes are actually very small either way and are unlikely to influence a dressage judge. This study has only looked at gait patterns on an arena surface, so no account has been taken of concussion or traction -- both issues that fuel the barefoot/shod debate!"

The following abstract is printed as provided by ISES.

Researchers Richard Mott and Julie Ellis from Warwickshire College, Moreton Morrell, Warwickshire, England believe that in order to make an informed decision on whether to shoe or not, it is important to weigh up potential costs and benefits. Comparing the kinematics of shod and unshod horses, Mott and Ellis found that performance of a dressage horse is unlikely to be affected by whether they were shod or unshod and that the unshod horse is not at a competitive disadvantage.

Researcher Richard Mott
Twenty Irish Sport Horses with an average age of 13 years, of similar height and weight and used for general riding and dressage were conditioned to being either shod or unshod for at least the previous 12 months prior to the study.

Using high-speed video cameras, the horses were recorded trotting in hand on a non-waxed fiber/sand arena surface. Five key dressage performance-related indicators for gait quality (stride duration, fetlock extension, scapular rotation, elbow flexion and carpal flexion) were assessed for the shod and unshod horses.

Additional stride parameters of speed, stride length, maximum hoof vertical displacement and swing duration were also compared.

Whilst shod horses displayed reduced stride length and trended towards greater joint flexion, the only highly significant differences were in the carpal flexion and maximum hoof vertical displacement displayed. Unshod horses demonstrated less carpal flexion and less maximum hoof vertical displacement than shod horses.

None of the other key dressage performance related indicators, stride duration, fetlock extension, scapular rotation and elbow flexion, showed differences according to whether the horse was shod or not.

Mott and Ellis proposed that horses who had worn shoes for at least 12 months become habituated to the additional weight of shoes, and with the results of the study showing that shod horses did not display a significant difference in 4 of the 5 kinematic variables that correlate best with dressage marks, that shod horses do not have a competitive advantage over their unshod counterparts.

These findings differ from previous findings that have shown that shoeing improves gait quality but at the risk of increasing concussion to the limbs.


The "previous findings" referred to by Richard might be the doctoral thesis of Maarten Willeman at Utrecht University back in 1997, which included this paper:

  • Willemen M.A., Savelberg H.H.C.M., Barneveld A. (1997). The improvement of the gait quality of sound trotting warmblood horses by normal shoeing and its effect on the load on the lower forelimb. Livestock Production Science, 52 (2), pp. 145-153
Evidence in the actual dressage arena has been highly publicized, particularly in the past year, and is often documented here on The Hoof Blog. An article in the US publication Dressage Today profiled the successful competition of several dressage horses with California trainers Shannon and Steffen Peters. Biomechanics researcher Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS, has quietly made her point for years both through her research and by winning at grand prix national championships on her unshod horses.

“I chose this particular subject for the dissertation because I had seen some interesting results from the biomechanics mini-project I had done previously," Richard said in an interview on the Warwickshire College website, "and this caused me to question some of the widely-held views regarding the effects of shoeing. I was very keen to do a project that had an actual real-world implication.”

To learn more:Richard's equine research makes an international impact

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