Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Thinking Outside the Flip Flop Box: Florida Farriers Find Flex-Step Free-Heel Hoof Pad Aids Problems in Sport, Racehorse Feet

Polyflex Horseshoe flip flop on sport horse
Polyflex Flex-Step flip flop pad
Far from the racetrack, a warmblood show horse sports the new high-tech Flex Step free-heel pad. The shoe is cut to the widest part of the foot, and rabbit ear drainage holes have been opened to allow sand, footing and water to drain out. Attentive show grooms maintain the pads by inserting the hose nozzle between the pad and the heel bulbs to make sure the sole isn't packed. Two small holes in the heels accommodate studs for traction, if needed, on some models. Copper rivets on the inside of the shoe's web attach the pad to the unheeled shoe. Made by Polyflex, a company known for its glue-on shoes, the pad is designed to be partially attached to the foot with nails and requires no adhesive or hoof packing.

Sometimes you wonder where things came from. Who was that first Standardbred farrier in Europe who cut the heels off a horse’s shoe, put a plastic pad against the foot, and nailed it on? You can hear it now: the horse walking down the barn aisle with a clumsy sounding “flap flap flap flap” sound from the loose pad against the heels. The farrier probably never counted on the noise. The trainer took some teasing, without a doubt. But that horse must have won, because they’re still around.

And no one laughs at you when your horse is winning.

sponsored story on The Hoof Blog
“Flip flop” pads have been around since the 1980s (or so); we've seen them on several Standardbreds that won the Hambletonian and on many top stakes in Europe. They’ve been sold under many names.

But now they’ve been re-designed, re-engineered and they’re on the move. They’re migrating over to the hunter-jumper world now, where this odd fix-it remedy from the harness track is helping some very expensive hunters, jumpers and dressage horses stay in the ribbons in one of the most competitive show circuits on earth.

Along with a new material and a new design, the pad also earned a new, more dignified name: Flex-Step. Manufactured as an outgrowth of Polyflex Horseshoes in Wellington, Florida, the pads are now available for sale worldwide.

The Hoof Blog checked in with some Wellington farriers to find out why and how they used it, and how horses wearing this more sophisticated cousin of the harness racing flip flop were doing during the early days of this year's Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington.

"Before" radiograph, Curtis Burns client
BEFORE: Last year, Curtis Burns was called in to consult on this show hunter (you can see the quarter crack repair lacing on the hoof wall) and it motivated him to design the Flex-Step for show horses. Negative P3 palmar angle is a common problem in both race and sport horses and this flip flop should be helping it. But a flip flop must be matched to the right shoe, and be applied to the right foot. Key to the problems here is that there is a step down at the end of the shoe. Any benefits of the pad's allowance for heel expansion and lack of pressure might be countered by the risk for soft tissue stress and injury. (Curtis Burns photo)

Horseshoe designer Curtis Burns is known for his development of the Polyflex glue-on shoes. He had to take off his Latex gloves and put down his adhesive tubes to work on the Flex-Step. He understood the success of the pad in the Standardbred world but could he re-purpose it to help some of the show horses with heel problems and P-3 negative palmar angles? They need a thicker, wider shoe than a raceplate.

Curtis began with materials design, opting for a natural-type rubber product that is foot friendly; he used his 3D printer to create prototypes. Polyflex now makes the pads in a flat or wedge design. A harder version can accommodate studs.

"Some horses handle a flip flop better than a pour in," Curtis noted. "Mechanically it is like a snow shoe, it doesn’t cut into the ground in the heel area."

demonstration of fit junction between sport horse shoe and Flex-Step pad
The mechanics of the Flex-Step are obvious in this lateral view of a sport horse foot that needed some help. While Standardbreds can wear flip flop pads with raceplates, show horses wear a thicker shoe, and the Flex-Step dovetails with the abbreviated shoe to form a flat surface (orange line on photo) both on the ground and on the foot. The relief of heel pressure is believed to be behind the success of this pad on horses with negative palmar angles, underrun or collapsed heels and/or contracted heels. (Polyflex photo)

Farrier Tim Cable commented that the rubber-like material has an almost-antimicrobial effect; he was impressed with how clean the sole and frog were when he pulled the pads off. He noted that the material softens a bit over the course of a shoeing cycle, and that a reset is within expectations.

"The pad breaks in so it has its own natural expansion process," he said. "When resetting, I've had to make the pad smaller because it had gotten softer. It doesn’t spread where it is nailed, just in the heels."

prototype Flex-Step flip flop hoof pad on sport horse
Dave Farley shared this photo of an early-prototype Flex-Step pad that has been adapted for jumping studs. "This horse had a pair on for a year with so much success that the owners would not let me take them off," Dave said. "So Curtis had to incorporate calk holes for the grass as this horse will be jumping in Trump's yard soon."

Wellington farrier Dave Farley was a Beta user of the Flex-Step. "I've always been a fan of flip flops as I had shod some harness horses with them years ago," he said. "Dr (John) Steele and I have used them with great success on jumpers with contracted heels.

"With the problems that have surfaced with the new synthetic (footing) materials, we have horses that need frog support as well as a material that allows a little slide or slip to relieve the stickiness of the synthetic (footing)."

When asked whether footing got packed up under the pad, Dave replied, "The groom has it under control."

Horseshoe preparation for flip flop hoof pad
These shoes are marked where they will have their heels cut. Notice that this pair of new pads still has its rabbit ear drainage holes plugged. The plastic in that part of the pad can be removed for drainage or left in as long as the foot is hosed out daily.

Tim Cable has a lot of experience with flip flop pads, since he shoes many Standardbreds as well as top show jumpers. He has utilized different types of flip flops for the many problems that a racehorse can have, including trying the pads on young horses that wing in. 

He told the story of a two-year-old Standardbred that was very sore. "I had tried all kinds of flip flops. It seemed better with one certain type of flip flop but it’s not made anymore. I couldn’t get her sound without it."

Tim tried the Flex-Step on the filly, who went on to take second place in the Kentucky Futurity in 2016 and have a successful year of racing.

Harness racing application of flip flop hoof pad by Polyflex
This is one of Tim Cable's Standardbred racehorses shod with a raceplate and a Flex-Step pad. (Tim Cable photo)

Tim was frustrated that he couldn't always translate his success with flip flops at the track to the show ring. He, along with others, challenged Curtis Burns to design something based on a flip flop but for a show horse. "It all depends, for show horses, on what type of surface they will be on," Tim stressed. "I shoe all kinds of horses and I always take into consideration what material the horse will be on.

"I think it absorbs concussion, because other pads had to be thick between the shoe and the foot to do that, which put stress on the nails," he commented. "(The Flex-Step) allows the shoe to be tight in the middle of the foot but there’s no heel crushing by the shoe. The Flex-Step wedge (option) is really helpful.

"On 8 mm shoes, the drop off can cause damage to soft tissue. It can make negative palmar angle worse if it’s not flush.

"It's the closest thing to shoeing a horse but being barefoot," he concluded. "It enables both frog pressure and heel expansion. It will just take time to educate people. They’re skeptical."

Mushroom horseshoe effect from flip flop hoof pad by Polyflex
Ohio/Florida farrier Zach Osborn thought way outside the shoeing box on this modification of the Flex-Step pad for a sore-heeled horse. He mushroomed it by cutting out the heel areas of the pad, leaving the rabbit holes and frog area intact. This mimics a mushroom shoe in a softer material and maintains a degree of frog pressure or protection in the center of the foot. (Zach Osborn photo)

Once upon a time, the thought of flip flops and horses made us shudder. We'd all seen people go out to catch a horse or go into a stall wearing flip flops on their feet, and come back bloody. With good reason, plenty of stables and barns banned flip flops...on people. 

So this year's novel new product is a real twist: now it's the horses who are wearing flip flops, instead of the people. And no one's complaining at all: Not the horses, and certainly not the owners and trainers and riders. The Flex-Step flip flop paradigm is proof that thinking outside the shoeing box can really pay off.

 by Fran Jurga

Thanks to all the farriers who contributed information and photos for this article and to Polyflex for their continued support of The Hoof Blog.

Contact Flex-Step hoof pads from Polyflex Horseshoes

Follow Hoofcare + Lameness on Twitter: @HoofBlog
Read this blog's headlines on the Hoofcare + Lameness Facebook Page

Hoofcare and Lameness social media sharing thanks

Disclosure of Material Connection: The Hoof Blog (Hoofcare Publishing) received compensation for the service of writing and publishing this article. Hoofcare Publishing has no other material connection to the brands, products, or services mentioned, other than products and services of 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.