Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Barefoot by the Numbers: Swedish Standardbred trotters are faster without shoes, but risk breaking gait

Researchers at Sweden's University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) at Uppsala have analyzed the performance records of trotting Standardbreds based on varied configurations of fully shod,  front or hind shoes only, or without shoes entirely. 

According to the University, the times from just over 75,000 starts and 5,000 horses were included. The research showed that horses raced statistically faster when barefoot. The practice is not without risk, the study found, since data on the all-barefoot horses showed an increased tendency to break stride, causing elimination from the race.

No data was included on how long the horses had been without shoes.

The risk potential of breaking gait and disqualification was then analyzed in over 111,000 starts, reflecting the performance of 6,400 horses. Those results showed that the breaking risks increased by 15-35% if the horses competed fully barefoot. 

However, the results also showed that if the horses competed with shoes only on the hind feet, the risk of breaking gait did not increase.

The statistics were on trotting horses only; pacing gait racing is most popular in the United States. This research was not a direct investigation on whether pulling shoes at race time resulted in a faster time for an individual horse over its previous performances.

Racing barefoot is common for trotters in Europe, although the horses may be barefoot only for a matter of minutes before racing. Swedish trainers in the United States have also employed the practice here, with key successes in major trotting races when the shoes were removed immediately before the race. 

The practice has been investigated from a welfare standpoint in France at the École Nationale Vétérinaire d'Alfort (National Veterinary School of Alfort or ENVA) and CIRALE, under the leadership of Professor Jean-Marie Denoix. French rules require barefoot horses to be declared to the racing public in advance. 

The Swedish study authors noted that since the data was collected, rules in that country have been put in place to ban barefoot racing during the winter months.

The Swedish research results showed that barefoot horses raced an average of 0.7 seconds faster per kilometer than horses shod on both the hind and the front feet. The difference was a little smaller (0.3 s / km) if they were without shoes only on the hind or front feet but they still raced faster than if they had shoes on all four hooves.

The raceday-barefoot practice first made headlines in the 1990s, when American champion Moni Maker raced in Europe and set a track record; her Swedish-born horseshoer Conny Svensson revealed that her shoes were pulled before the race. In a second attempt without shoes, however, the famous mare broke her stride.

Barefoot trotters were less common on American racetracks than in Europe until about five years ago; tracks here are much harder than European tracks, but an influx of successful Swedish trainers resulted in some major victories for horses like Sebastian K.

The research was led by Spanish geneticist Marina Solé, PhD, who is currently with the Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics at Uppsala.

"Competing with shoes on the hindquarters seems to be a risk-free strategy that nevertheless increases performance," the researchers concluded. "Further research is needed, particularly to investigate the quality of the hooves in frequently raced unshod Standardbreds and to examine beneficial genetic factors for barefoot racing conditions."

In the Prix d'Amerique in France in 2015, 15 out of 18 starters declared that they would race without shoes.  In October 2018, Homicide Hunter set a new world record for the fastest trotting mile ever at the Red Mile in Lexington, Kentucky, with his shoes pulled. He was reshod the next day.

“The track was extremely fast; the conditions were perfect,” trainer Chris Oakes told HarnessLink. “I was contemplating whether I was going to take his shoes off or not, but if you don’t do it on a day like that, you’ll never do it. I thought it was the right conditions and he was OK with it."

From the standpoint of equine welfare, CIRALE researcher Claire Moiroud concluded her study with the comment, “ If the shoe removal is well planned and the foot of the horse adapted and prepared, I think that this practice is acceptable.”

It's interesting to compare today's shoeless strategies to enhance speed of trotters with the high-engineering efforts of horseshoers in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Trotters were shod with a variety of weighted and unweighted shoes or with asymmetric calks, as was the case with the famous pacer Dan Patch. 

Volumes have been written on both proven methods and elegant theories to increase speed on the harness track by varying shoe designs. Debates have raged about toe angles, half rounds vs swedges, square toes, bar shoes, and even nailing on shoes backwards, as well as the value of an inventory of bandages and weighted boots for the pasterns, shins, knees and hocks.

In July 2019, Harness Racing Hall of Fame trainer/driver Ron Gurfein endorsed barefoot for some horses when writing for Harness Racing Update. His explanation of why barefoot-at-racetime works: "Horses that need a nominal amount of weight in their shoe to stay trotting are likely to pace when their shoes are pulled. If you are lucky enough to have a great-gaited horse, then it’s just a matter of physics why removing his shoes (at least seven ounces of weight) will help."

That's Standardbreds. Thoroughbred trainers, on the other hand, have been experimenting with shoeless training weeks, and then nail or glue shoes on for race day. Godolphin has had notable success with this regimen, which is the inverse of the harness paradigm.

Back in 2004, Professor Emertius Albert Gabel, DVM, Dip. ACVS of The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, commented on the suggestion that Standardbreds should race without shoes. At Ohio State during Gabel's time, the lameness case load was 45% Standardbreds; he also raced and trained them after his retirement. 

"Rarely, extremely well-bred elite trotters, which do not require weight on their front feet, can race without shoes," Gabel wrote in a letter to the editor of the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. "Their light shoes are taken off just before the race and replaced immediately after the race to protect their feet. 

"Shoeing Standardbreds is a science and an art," Gabel concluded.


Solé, M, Lindgren, G, Bongcam‐Rudloff, E, Jansson, A. Benefits and risks of barefoot harness racing in Standardbred trotters. Anim Sci J. 2020; 91:e13380. https://doi.org/10.1111/asj.13380

Note: The SLU research article is published as "Open Access" and may be read online or downloaded in full without fee or sign-in requirements. The PDF is available to you on the Animal Science Journal website at this link.

More about barefoot harness racing: 

Barefoot Research: What Are the Consequences of Shoe Removal for Trotting Racehorses?

Shoes, Half Shoes, or No Shoes At All: Swedish-Trained Trotters Ruled Hambletonian Day

Prix d'Amerique 2015: 15 of 18 Horses Will Race "Barefoot" by Pulling Shoes Before Race

© 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 hoofblog@gmail.com.  

Follow Hoofcare + Lameness on Twitter: @HoofBlog
Read this blog's headlines on the Hoofcare + Lameness Facebook Page
Disclosure of Material Connection: The Hoof Blog (Hoofcare Publishing) has not received any direct compensation for writing this post. Hoofcare Publishing has no 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.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin