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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Burghley Best Shod Horse 2019: What was he wearing...and why?

Shoeing for hind foot of eventing horse
Farrier Paul Varnam hot fits a hind lateral extension shoe on Ivar Gooden, an Irish Sport horse judged the "Best Shod Horse" at the 2019 Burghley Horse Trials in England last week. The horse previously won the same award in 2017, when he was shod almost exactly the same way by a different judge. He is ridden by Imogen Murray of Leicestershire, England. (Paul Varnam photo)

Each year, England's five-star Burghley Horse Trials gives a prize to the best shod horse, and the selection of that horse is always a story in itself. On Wednesday last week, 67 horses stood patiently and had their feet picked up, shoes and hooves examined, and notes taken.


To the casual observer, the shoes would have all looked pretty much alike. To the judge, the finer points of each horse's conformation, condition, hoof health and shoe construction were abundantly clear. Laid out in front of him were hooves representing a range of work, of standards, of abilities, of levels of mastery of skills and of national styles and traditions.

Those 268 hooves represented the state of the art--for better or worse--of sport horse farriery from all over Europe, the United States, and New Zealand. But the winner was a horse not far from home: Ivar Gooden, ridden by Imogen Murray of Leicestershire, England. Horse and rider rose from 60th place after dressage to eighth after cross country, and then moved up two places with a clear round in show jumping to finish sixth overall.

Ivar Gooden's four new shoes before Burghley.
This year, the choice of a best shod horse is a tale of coincidence, perhaps, or convergence of farrier philosophy. It is also the inversion of a traditional farriery paradigm, specifically: a therapeutic shoe is intended to achieve a specified goal on an injured or unsound horse.

When, if ever, should a set of therapeutic shoe be used on a sound horse? Should you wait for signs of weakness or lameness to ramp up the shoe design? Is a lighter, less complicated shoe always the preferred option for a sport horse? Paul Varnam, the winning farrier, used what would otherwise be therapeutic shoes on all four feet of this extraordinary athlete, with the goal of "optimal balance" for a horse with the challenge of competing on the world stage.

Non-traditional logic in the very traditional arena of British horseshoeing makes a good story. And when good things happen to talented horses and hardworking people, especially at an international event with a global audience, the praise of "Well done!" echoes far beyond the forge where the hammer originally shaped the shoes.

For the past 15 years, Hoofcare Publishing has reported on these Best Shod Horse prizes at the Burghley Horse Trials each September. The judge is appointed by the Worshipful Company of Farriers, which runs a program to train farrier judges specifically for these prizes at major horse events.

The judging is quietly conducted after the first veterinary inspection. You won't see an anvil or a farrier van or even an apron. Some judges wear the traditional bowler hats and white gloves; neckties are pretty standard. Judges bring or recruit assistants who jot down scores.

With a little from friends (and Facebook), we have been able to track down the winning farrier and judge and provide some insight into the role that shoeing may play in the success of one of the world's top eventers.


Best-shod horses at Burghley Horse Trials


In the last four years, two horses have repeated as winners of the Burghley Best Shod prize, but in alternating years. Last year, Tom Crisp's Coolys Luxury (shod by James Hayter) won the award over Ivar Gooden; the two have traded places in consecutive years since 2016. This year, Coolys Luxury was sadly a late scratch before the event began.

Coolys Luxury is a superstar of the "Best Shod" winners; he has won it three times at Burghley, shod by Hayter each time. Hayter is tied with Burghley event farrier Stephen Hill, FWCF, who has also won three times, but with two different horses and riders; Cornsay Grouse is another horse that won Burghley's award twice. Jim Blurton and now Paul Varnam have each won it twice; Blurton's winning horses were both ridden by Polly Stockton. We often find Jim working as the judge for the award in the spring at Badminton.

If the Best Shod winners list looks a bit incestuous, it's just a reflection of the close-knit fabric of horse competitions in Britain, where farriers have a way of passing along their philosophies--along with their preferences and prejudices--to apprentices, and a farrier can stay with a rider's family for generations. Paul Varnam has shod for Imogen Murray since her pony days; now, even though her life partner is a farrier, Paul still has the job.

The story is ongoing; the best-shod winners tend to be a remarkably hardy group of horses who appear at four- and five-star events on a regular basis. The 2015 Best Shod horse, Ringwood Sky Boy, was the 2018 Burghley champion and was eliminated on cross country this year when he stumbled in the water. Arctic Soul, Gemma Tattersall's former Badminton best-shod winner, also had his feet judged.


The setting
Burghley House, England
Burghley House and its vast "park" are treasured landmarks in English history. With over 100 rooms, it preserves part of history going back to the time of the reign of Elizabeth I in the early 1500s. (Photo credit: Judith via Flickr.com)


Held in Stamford, Lincolnshire at the vast 499-year-old, 2000-acre Burghley House estate, the Burghley Horse Trials has attracted some of the sport's most accomplished riders and horses since 1961. 

Honoring farriers at Burghley House makes sense when you tour the grand house and see a floor to ceiling mural wall of hammering smiths painted by Antonio Verrio, an Italian artist responsible for murals at WIndsor Castle; he dedicated ten years to painting inside Burghley House, which has more than 100 rooms, in the 1600s. (Flickr.com image by Can Pac Swire)


The judge: Alex Mercer, AWCF

This year's judge was Alex Mercer, AWCF, a farrier who lives in Lincolnshire. Alex learned farriery while serving in the British Army, and is now retired from the military and running a successful shoeing business on his own. He also runs a company, AWM Tools, that specializes in his designs for aluminum farrier tool boxes. He's involved in farrier training as a lecturer for the British system at Warwickshire College.

If you could turn back some years in Alex's career, you'd find him learning how to shoe horses from Mark Watson, FWCF, then the senior farrier for the British Army School of Farriery

These photos of the winning horse's front feet were taken after the horse inspection for this story by Stephen Hill, FWCF, who provides farrier services at the event--and has won the best-shod award three times himself.


Coincidentally, Mark Watson judged the Best Shod Horse prize at Burghley in 2017. He picked one horse out of 61 entered. Two years later, his former student judged 67 entered in the competition.

They both picked the same horse: Ivar Gooden. Alex was not aware of the horse's previous win nor the identity of the previous judges. He just liked what he saw under Ivar Gooden.

The horse

Ridden by Leicestershire's Imogen Murray, Ivar Gooden is shod very nearly the same now as he was then: front side-clipped bar shoes and hind lateral extension shoes.

Imogen Murray and her Irish Sport Horse Ivar Gooden had such a fast and flawless trip around the rolling cross-country course at Burghley on Saturday that they rose from 60th place after dressage to 8th. On Sunday, their clear showjumping round bumped them up another two places to finish sixth. (Peter Nixon photo used with permission) 


Ivar Gooden, or "Sir Charles" as he is known around the barn, is a 12-year-old, 17-hand Irish Sport Horse gelding. In 2017, he completed his first four-star event at Badminton and was the only horse to complete both Badminton and Burghley with a double clear that year.

The horse is owned by Aivar Ward and MS Team Eventing.

Ivar Gooden's data page on the British Eventing website is impressive. In 2019, he completed both British five-star events (Badminton and Burghley), finishing in the top ten in each one. In 2018, he also completed both Badminton and Burghley, along with four three-star events.

The farrier

Paul Varnam, DipWCF, is a farrier in Leicestershire, England who has shod horses for Imogen Murray since she was a young rider. He modestly attributes his success with the double best-shod award to the overall care and program that keeps Ivar Gooden sound. 

"To win Burghley, you need a horse in a good training regimen," he said after learning he had won the prize for the second time, "And the horse needs the right team: vet, farrier, trainer, physiotherapist, saddlemaker."

Here you can see the two different front feet, shod with similar straight bar shoes of the same size, but fit differently. Paul Varnam, the winning farrier, considered the foot size and shape and the horse's natural toe-out conformation. The right front is rotated, accordingly, and has only five nails while the left front has six. 

The same team that supports the horse also supports the farrier, according to Paul. "What they do enhances your work," he said, "and, in the end, they all help to make the horse work more efficiently."

Like many farriers, Paul insists that the success of his trimming and shoeing for the horse is attributable to balance. "Not just balance, optimum balance," he insisted. "So the horse can work more efficiently. It's all about the balance."

Paul shared that both the front bar shoes and the lateral extensions behind were tried on the horse at the veterinarian's suggestion. And, since they worked and the horse has continued to succeed, they have kept with the same shoeing program.

Ivar Gooden's handmade hind shoes sport wing-like lateral extensions. (Photos courtesy of Paul Varnam)

Contrary to most traditional farrier applications, Ivar Gooden has front bar shoes not to correct a problem or recover from an injury, but as a proactive support. 

For the past four years, the winners of the Burghley Best Shod Horse award have worn straight front bar shoes.

Paul took great care with the heel fit on the front bars, and was kind enough to photograph them so farriers reading this can see the heel fit, as well as the difference in heel height/shape in both feet. While the shoes look identical at first glance, you will notice that the right front has five nails and the left front has six. Normally, British horses would sport toe clips on the front shoes, but Paul Varnam opted for side clips on these shoes.

(For more detail how Paul shod the horse, please read the details in the 2017 story on Ivar Gooden and his farrier at Burghley.)


The judge's final say:

Alex Mercer shared his summary observations of the horses he judged at Burghley this year:

"There were a lot of well shod horses this year but the majority had machine-made shoes on. Some of them had welded modifications, such as lateral extensions or medial inserts for collateral ligament support, or pad inserts to disperse concussion. 

Alex Mercer, AWCF was the judge of the Best Shod Horse prize at Burghley in 2019. (Image courtesy of Alex Mercer)


"I’d say there were far more well-shod horses than poorly-shod ones--you could count them on one hand. But this is only my opinion!

"What I did find disappointing was that there where only ten horses with handmade shoes.

"But, thankfully, Imogen brought forward Ivar Gooden and again he had handmade front concave straight bar shoes with double stud holes. But the difference this year, compared to two years ago, was that he had 3/4 fullered lateral extensions instead of concave (with double stud holes).

"All four shoes were well forged and complimented his feet and will benefit and enable him to complete all three disciplines over the weekend."

• • • • • 

What happens after a horse wins the Best Shod Horse prize at Burghley Horse Trials? Ringwood Sky Boy won the award in 2015; his shoes are being transformed and mounted by the Horseshoe Mementoes in New Zealand by rider Tim Price. The bronze finish is accented with copper nails. (Photo courtesy of Horseshoe Mementoes, used with permission)

It takes more than four eye-catching horseshoes to win a five-star eventing competition. Most riders who qualify at this level won't take chances with the shoes and feet of their horses nor with the people they choose to be part of their teams and tend to the feet.

What it comes down to is this: At the end of the event, when the prizes are announced, one hard-working farrier gets some recognition for keeping one horse going with a display of skill, and that one horse has a modest, if eccentric and fleeting, claim to fame. That's it.

Except, that is, on The Hoof Blog, where winning the Best Shod Prize at Burghley is cause for a spotlight on the horse and rider and owner and farrier. Each year, thousands of people read these stories.

With each year, the overall appreciation of a farrier's hard work, problem-solving ability, and skill continues to grow. Thanks for reading about this unusual aspect of a major sporting event.

To learn more:

Read about Ivar Gooden's first best-shod horse award at Burghley in 2017, with more details on how he was shod, and why.

From the archives: Read about the origin of the wing-like lateral extension shoe for hock support in this Hoofcare & Lameness article from 2004 with British farrier Haydn Price.


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