Monday, January 22, 2018

The Copper Horseshoe Revival: Why modern farriery's quest for healthier hooves passes through a forgotten footnote from industrial history

      This story was sponsored by Stromsholm Farriers Supplies, UK.

Copper: Why is the warm, soft red metal suddenly showing up on horses’ hooves? First it was copper sulphate compounds added to hoof packing and even hoof wall adhesive. For years, pads have been fixed to shoes with copper rivets. During the past few years, farriers have experimented with new copper-shielded nails to improve hoof wall health. Copper-alloy horseshoes have been patented in Germany and South America.

Copper is suddenly part of the conversation.

It sounds like something new, but long ago copper was spelled out in a critical footnote in farrier materials history as well as in industrial safety. Copper is still the same metal but the newest uses of it are rewriting the script, putting the metal to use for reasons never dreamed of in the past. Here, we'll look at the past and present of copper in the hoofcare world, and leave it to all of you to decide whether it has a future or not.

Copper horseshoes ceased to be industrial archeology and rocketed into the future in 2017 when Dutch horseshoe manufacturer Kerckhaert tested a new line of copper-shieled raceplates, designed for antimicrobial hoof wall and sole protection. To challenge competition farriers and publicize the metal, British horseshoe supply house Stromsholm Ltd. mounted a mail-in shoemaking competition, to be judged by many-times British champion Gary Darlow. The winning shoes, above, were made my world champion Steven Beane of Yorkshire, England. (Steven Beane photo)

Earlier this year, Stromsholm Farriers Supplies in Great Britain introduced a copper-coated Kerckhaert raceplate as a novel enhancement for the hooves of sales yearlings. Within months, a British racehorse won a Group 1 race in France wearing the plates, and a second Group 1 winner was fitted with the copper-coated plates to run in the Breeders Cup Turf in California in November.

More than a few of us sport copper bracelets or have copper-infused socks, gloves or pressure sleeves in the belief that they assuage joint pain.

This re-introduction of copper as a metal (or coating, fabric, medication/solution, etc.) to the care of horse hooves begs to be compared with the historic uses of copper, and its alloy brass, for horseshoes. Copper was the go-to alternative metal for industrial safety. The journey to today's new use of the metal is reviving interest in the historic uses that have been all but lost in the annals of the history of technology, until now.

While the jury of scientific proof is still out on whether copper nails and shoes can actually improve the health of a horse’s foot, many farriers have adopted the new products, in hopes that the anti-microbial properties of copper can be at least play a preventive role in hoof protection.

Would you want to judge these shoes? Here are a few of the handmade copper shoes entered in the Stromsholm Farrier Supplies mail-in contest in the United Kingdom last month.  The complete inventory for judging by farrier Gary Darlow included 2 pairs Fullered Caulk & Wedge Roadster; 1 x Plain Stamp Caulk & Running Wedge Roadster; 1 x pair Clydesdale Fullered Front shoe with Heels; 1 x pair front Fullered front Roadster ½ Clipped Front Heart Bar; 1 x pair Straight Bar shoes, semi concave with breakover toe; 1 x pair ¾ Fullered front shoes with bevelled toe; 1 x pair Tool & Fullered Caulk & Wedged hind hunter shoes; 1 x pair plain stamped hind shoes, rocker toe, running wedge and jar caulk. This photo also includes, at bottom left, a rogue copper-plated Kerckhaert raceplate. (Photo courtesy of Stromsholm Ltd.)

Cheshire, England farrier Gary 
Darlow judged the copper shoes for
Stromsholm from the comfort 
of his kitchen at home. Gary has
been the national champion
farrier of Britain seven times.
One of the most historic discoveries related to copper was that if it was added to bottom paint for anti-fouling use on boat and ships to prevent barnacles from clinging, and showing the hull's passage through the water. Ships were clad with copper plates to keep their hulls clean and fast; this led eventually to adding copper to marine paint and keeping hulls clean that way. But today, high levels of copper contamination in harbors have led to bans on copper bottom paint in Washington, with California expected to follow.

To stimulate interest in copper’s potential role in horseshoe manufacturing and/or hoof health, Stromsholm  recently announced a mail-in horseshoe making contest. At another level, it offered an offbeat challenge to highly proficient competition farriers to try their hands at something new: copper horseshoes.

While there was only a low entry fee for the contest, the cost of the copper stock was very dear; World Champion Steven Beane of Yorkshire, England, who won the contest, estimated that the raw material for his entry set him back 40 British pounds (about US$55). There wouldn’t have been many practice shoes, at that price.

Steven's shoes, and others from the contest, will be on display at the International Hoof Care Summit trade show this week in Cincinnati, Ohio.

But let's turn back the centuries: Why were horseshoes made of copper in days gone by?

Copper horseshoe history: From China to Peru

Fragments believe to be parts of copper alloy horseshoes excavated in 2010  in Dorset, England, dated as castings of the "post-Medieval" period. Courtesy of the British Museum.
An interesting theory about the origin of horseshoes is that they were originally used in China, and made their way westward when the Mongol hordes swept across Asia and into Europe--on horses (allegedly) wearing shoes. According to the Chinese government, horseshoes have been worn in their country for 2000 years, compared to an estimated 1000 years in northern Europe. Chinese historians say that the shoes worn by ancient Chinese horses were made of various metals, including copper.

The Chinese claims open the possibility that the original metal horseshoes may have been made of copper. Iron wasn't universally available; in Iceland horse hooves were covered in sheep horn; in parts of Asia, deer antler horn; in Japan, woven rice straw sandals; in Sudan, camel skin.

The Mongol warrior lord Genghis Khan made his weapons--and, presumably, his horses' shoes--on an anvil of bouryn, a legendary copper alloy said to have properties of both copper and iron.

Archeological evidence from England shows that the Romans or Celts may have also shod horses with copper.

Fast forward to the age of exploration: Once Spanish explorers and their horses arrived in the Americas around 1500, they quickly found out that there were vast areas where they would have no access to iron to make shoes for their horses, and that traveling through the rough mountains wore out the shoes they did have quickly. In fact, the only iron to be found might have been from the remains of meteors that had crashed into the earth.

The Native American craftsmen were skilled at forging the more common local metals, like silver and gold. When they captured or killed a conquistador's horse, they removed and hung the iron horseshoes as trophies.

When the Spanish invaded the Incas in Peru, they were annoyed to find paved roads, like this path leading to Macchu Pichu. Many of their horses had lost the last of their iron shoes and were foot sore, so the Spaniards ripped up many of the roads to give them softer footing. To save their paving, the Incas forged shoes for the Spaniards' horses from copper, since there is no iron in the region. (Lee Coursey CC by 2.0 photo via

When pillaging the rich ancient empire of the Incas in Peru, the Spaniards found their horses were crippled because their shoes were worn out and they had no replacements. They even went so far as to rip up the elaborated paved roads to the Inca temples in the Andes to give their shoeless horses softer, more forgiving footing.

To save their highways, the resourceful Incas went to the forge. They made shoes from copper and silver for the Spaniards' horses--not as expensive gifts, as some history books suggest, but as a stopgap measure to preserve their own elaborate and advanced infrastructure from destruction.

A spark from a horseshoe was blamed for a tragic explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the Civil War. Loose gunpowder had fallen onto the pavement over time. It had been building up between the cobblestones, provided to give horses traction. Friction from a horseshoe--perhaps a calk in the recess between stones--sparked an explosion that killed 78 citizens, mostly unidentified women and children who were working inside the complex. (Library of Congress photo)

The Hoof Blog has covered the industrial use of copper horseshoes in the past; both copper and brass shoes were used on pit ponies and mules who worked in mines around the world. (Brass is an alloy of zinc and copper.)

Another area of interest, which has not been widely documented, is the need for horses to wear copper horseshoes to prevent sparks in gunpowder manufacturing and storage, as well as below ground in mines.

The use of copper horseshoes in the industrial age had nothing to do with beauty, color or antimicrobial properties. A horse wearing iron shoes could ignite a spark that would kill mine or factory workers. Copper didn't spark. It was the safe alternative.

Industrial Archeology documentarians I.A. Recordings in Wolverhampton, England has documented the use of copper shoes at the Glyn Neath Gunpowder Works at Pontneddfechan, South Wales. According to I.A., the works closed in 1931, when black powder was taken off the 'Permitted List of Explosives'. Black powder had been widely used to blast deeper into the coal mines of Wales.

A brass-studded hoof boot used in British mining operations to prevent sparks. Courtesy of Keswick Mining Museum, Cumbria, England.

The buildings at the works were spaced far apart, so that the inevitable and multiple explosions might destroy just one building (and its workers) at a time. A horse-drawn tramway was used to move the material from one building to the next, as it was processed closer and closer to the final powder. The horses wore mandatory copper shoes to prevent sparks.

At a powder mill in Maynard, Massachusetts, the grounds were off limits to shod horses; the mill used barefoot mules within the powder zone. Naturalist neighbor Henry David Thoreau criticized the works for its foul smells and throat-irritating emissions.

Copper horseshoes worn at the Glyn Neath Gunpowder Works in South Wales. (Images used with permission of IA Recordings)

One of the most frightening stories is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where 78 people, mostly female employees, died in an armory explosion during the early years of the US Civil War. Investigations found that leaky barrels of gunpowder had been delivered to the armory. The leaked grit had fallen between the cobblestones in the street. When a spark from a horseshoe hit the grit one day, it formed a long fuse. The burning gunpowder traveled the grooves until reaching the point of explosion.

One of the worst civilian disasters of the US Civil War happened far from the battlefield. An iron horseshoe is believed to have sparked gunpowder spilled between cobblestones at an armory in Pittsburgh, killing 78 people.

The announcement from Stromsholms comes at an interesting point in the news cycle. Here in the United States, we are still recovering from the recent devastating fires in California. The fires bring to mind the old belief that sparks from steel-shod horses have likely caused forest fires in the dry high country of the US West for centuries.

This copper (or brass) hind draft horse shoe is currently for sale for 160 euros on eBay in Europe. It is dated to 1942 and placed as having been made in Baden-Württemberg, near Stuttgart in southeastern Germany. In the highly industrial munitions areas during wartime, copper horseshoes would have been a safe investment, and steel was directed to the war effort. The farrier's or forge's initials/logo are stamped on the foot surface side, with the date. Baden-Württemberg is the home of the 500-year-old Marbach state stud, the oldest in Germany, and known for breeding the famous local "Black Forest" heavy horse.

Horseshoes came into the forest fire conversation in 1922. It was the early days of Hollywood, and making a silent movie on location was a very expensive proposition. California state authorities believed that a horse’s shoes had sparked what turned into a large fire in the Angeles National Forest in the southern part of the state. Sparks from shoes in the flinty soil could set grass and weeds alight.

But a Hollywood studio desperately wanted to shoot a western scene with hundreds of horses on location in Calaveras County, in the foothills of the Sierras east of Sacramento. In a historic first, the state agreed to license the location, under the condition that all the horses on the set be shod with copper horseshoes, using a copper-tin alloy. Old records say the alloy was chosen so that the shoes would be hard enough to withstand some wear.

Given the cost of copper stock, contestants didn't make a lot of practice shoes. Steven Beane did make this Clydesdale yearling shoe for Ted, a special customer, as a gift on his 90th birthday this fall.

The shoeing clause must have been an expensive one for the studio; the documentation doesn’t mention whether regular steel nails were used or not.

Why the fuss? Once again, like in the mines, copper doesn’t spark. Forestry authorities even suggested that the state of California should require copper shoes “upon the hoofs of all horses to be used on public domains, where there is any measure of fire hazard.”

Steel horseshoes have long been blamed for starting forest fires, but in 2013,  tests were done on the ability of rifle shots to start fires. Lead core copper jacket bullets caused the fewest fires, but in 2012, 26 forest fires in the state of Utah alone were blamed on firearms. In the past, these fires might have been blamed on steel horseshoe sparks.

All of these examples show how, when and why copper horseshoes were used, and all the examples are based on one of two factors: 1) copper was the only metal available; 2) copper (and its alloy, brass) do not spark, although iron and its alloy, steel, do.

(Story continues below graphic)

It's been almost 100 years since the Hollywood copper horseshoes story, and we're seeing copper being used on horses' feet for different reasons: the metal's antimicrobial properties. While the benefits of using copper on a diseased foot may not be well proven, other than by quoting studies on other species, farriers around the world have shown interest in copper's anti-bacterial properties.

As long ago as 1880, a patent was filed by Albert S. Dennison of Watertown, New York for an electrical copper-zinc hoof treatment, described as "a pad composed of zinc and copper strips united together and forming a battery, and placed with its zinc face next the hoof, whereby an electrical current is created that oxidizes the zinc and produces a healing effect upon a sore and tender hoof." Dennison was probably frequently advertising for horse holders.

More than 100 years ago, Dollar and Wheatley documented the use of copper sulphate in the treatment of canker in their landmark book, The Handbook of Horseshoeing.

Copper sulphate footbaths have been tested extensively for dairy herds. In studies over the last year at the University of Kentucky’s Coldstream Dairy, the farm’s 66 Holstein cows have walked through several different formulas of copper sulphate footbaths as part of a digital dermatitis prevention program.

What's next for copper? While we aren't likely to see horses wearing solid copper horseshoes like the trophy specimen crafted for the Stromsholm competition, they have ignited interest in what the metal might be able to do for the horse's foot. More copper alloys, coatings, threads and solutions may find their way into new lines of future"copper-ish" hoofcare products.

Copper's next chapter will be written by entrepreneurs and farriers who are willing to experiment...but who also spend the time to study their history.

Welcome back to copper horseshoes.

--Written by Fran Jurga

Sources and acknowledgments:

Thanks to English farrier Ben Chamberlain, who loves to make commemorative shoes from copper and was generous with photos and information.

Power Over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism, 1400 to the Present by Daniel R. Headrick; Princeton University Press, 2012

The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz Del Castillo, J. Hatchard and Son, 1844

The Day Pittsburgh Exploded by Kellie B. Gormly in Pittsburgh Quarterly (Fall 2017).

© 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? Send an email.
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