Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Olympic Hoof: US Eventing Horses Try British Concave Shoes for Tokyo

Concave horseshoes on eventer
Two distinct styles of horseshoes dominate the sport of eventing, one based in Britain and one in Europe. There is no middle ground, or wasn't, until the US eventing team prepared to embark for Tokyo.

Part 1 of an article series on international eventing shoes the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Hoofcare wisdom has always held that if you want to tell what country an eventing horse is from, you don't need go looking around the stable for a saddlecloth with a flag. Just pick up its feet. You can at least narrow down the possibilities. But after this Olympics, the world map of horseshoes may need to be redrawn.

Fran Jurga, editor
The USA has "red" states and "blue" states. The eventing world has traditionally been divided between “concave” shoeing countries (roughly Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia, along with some other British Commonwealth nations) and “everyone else”, especially continental Europe and the United States, where wider, flatter Euro-type shoes are the norm. 

Horseshoe selection matters in this sport. Farrier competency, of coruse, trumps the shoe choice. But the same shoe has to serve the horse well, and safely, in three disciplines, on three surfaces, and in all kinds of weather, and whether the horse is turned out, in a stall, training, in transport, or competing. 

Eventing is one of just a few sports where the farrier hands over a newly shod horse, knowing that the rider and groom tinker with traction, adding two or sometimes three fearsome studs per foot before cross-country. The farrier also knows that over-zealous or incorrect use of studs can twist the shoe or even bend it beneath the horse. 

Finding the ideal trim, shoe type and reset schedule for an event horse can be a fluid, if not "fiddly" job, and requires good communication between rider, groom and farrier, but when it's right, the horse knows it, the rider feels it, and the scoreboard usually reflects it.

In June 2021, Team USA hired a British farrier with a penchant for concave to consult on shoeing its eventing team horses for Tokyo, leading to a pre-Olympic switch of the three starting team horses to British-style concave shoes just weeks before the Team left for quarantine in Germany.
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Our story begins back on April 25, at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.  Both horses ridden by world #1 eventer Oliver Townend of England lost shoes during the competition, but his Ballaghmor Class, the horse he is riding in Tokyo, completed cross country in three shoes, rose from fifth after dressage to first, and recovered to win the event. Townend's second horse failed to pass the horse inspection before show jumping.

Lost shoes in eventing aren’t usually newsworthy, but Danvers Child and Paul Dorris, stalwart veterans of the event's long-time volunteer farrier crew, kindly pointed out to me that a British farrier happened to be at the Kentucky Horse Park that day. He stepped in to help his countryman's team by replacing the lost shoes with spares sent with the horse by farrier Jim Blurton. The horse, which is currently in second place in Tokyo, went on to win the event.

Enter Russell Deering, DipWCF.

What is concave?

"Concave" refers to a prescribed shape of bar stock used to make a horseshoe. The stock is pre-milled to create a 3D "profile" that decreases the ground surface while maintaining the width of steel against the foot. A narrow ledge of the shoe protrudes around the foot; it is bisected with a heel to heel crease, where the nails sit. A slight angulation exists from the creased ledge to the ground surface, making the shoe an excellent traction device along the entire length of the shoe, from heel to heel. Dirt accumulates in the crease, helping prevent slipping. The angulation of the profile varies according to the size of the stock.

US eventing team consultant farrier Russell Deering
US Eventing Team farrier consultant Russell Deering (far right) at the US Eventing Team Mandatory Outing in July, watching team alternate Tamie Smith trot her horse, Mai Baum. Tamie is the fourth, or alternate, member of the US team for Tokyo. That week, Russell, team management, and riders/owners agreed to re-shoe three of the four horses selected for Tokyo with British style concave shoes. (Image: Lindsay Berreth, used with permission)

In our first interview, Russell mentioned that he expected to be named the US Eventing team farrier and that he would help prepare the US horses for Tokyo.

The US Equestrian Federation wasn’t ready to announce who would (or would not) be the US eventing farrier nor if that person would make the trip to Tokyo; a new team farrier had not been officially installed since the recent retirement of Steve Teichman, who had served the team since 1997 at international events and Olympics Games.

Billy Crothers, Handmade Shoes
Former World Champion farrier Billy Crothers came to America in 2003 to promote his "Handmade Shoes" company, which makes and promotes British concave shoes. To succeed, he would need to convince American farriers to make a radical shift in thinking what a horseshoe should look like, and what it should do for a horse. (Hoofcare + Lameness file photo)

When the team’s “final four” was announced, a mandatory outing brought them all together in Virginia on July 1 for a test run with coaches, veterinarians and the team physiotherapist on hand to evaluate the horses. Russell Deering was also on hand; that week he removed the existing shoes on horses ridden by Boyd Martin, Phillip Dutton and Liz Halliday, and replaced them with concave shoes, mostly handmade from concave stock.

Shortly after the outing, Liz Halliday withdrew her horse from the team, leaving only Boyd Martin’s and Phillip Dutton’s horses with Russell’s concave shoes, while the other two horses designated for Tokyo, Vandiver and Mai Baum, continued to wear shoes believed to be provided and maintained by their farriers at home.

Hind concave shoe on three-day event horse
The white-gloved hand of a "best shod" farrier judge, also wearing a bowler hat and necktie, inspect a horse at England's Badminton Horse Trials in 2014, looking for a horse to receive "The Farriers Prize" from the Worshipful Company of Farriers. This is a hind foot, shod with concave; the angle of the inside web is clearly shown.  Part 2 of this article delves more into shoe selection criteria for eventing. Does the "best shod horse" at an English event have to be shod with concave? Frequent Badminton judge (and former best shod winner) Jim Blurton answers that question in the next segment of this article series. (Hoofcare file photo)

On the newly-converted team horses, E-head nails were used, and two or three stud holes per shoe drilled and tapped, with toe clips in front, side clips behind. The hind shoes did not have lateral extensions, Russell confirmed; he was assisted by Pennsylvania farrier Andrew Neilson.

Russell was nonchalant about changing from smooth, flat shoes to grippier concave so close to the Olympics. “It’s really all in the trimming, anyway,” he said. “I’m not stuck in my ways. The Team wanted the change, and the vet was involved.”

concave bar shoe on three-day event horse
The best shod horse prize at the 2017 Burghley Horse Trials in England went to 
Ivar Gooden, shod in handmade front concave bar shoes by Paul Varnam. 

On July 9, the US Equestrian Federation confirmed by phone that Russell Deering had been consulting on shoeing the team horses in preparation for Tokyo. In addition, USEF shared that the team would not send an eventing farrier to the Tokyo Games, but that Russell would go to Aachen, Germany in July to work on the horses again when they were in quarantine.

USEF declined to give permission for photos of the horses’ feet to be published before the Games.

Russell has many points to make for why concave is a good choice for the American horses. Previously, with wide, flat shoes, most American horses customarily require “buttered” heels before cross-country. “Buttering” is the application of filler adhesive around exposed parts of shoes in the heel area. Front shoes can be pulled if a horse in motion over-tracks with a hind foot onto a protruding front shoe, and cross-country can be full of scrambling, particularly on wet days and in water, so shoes are easily pulled. Many horses wear bell boots to protect the heels of their shoes, whether they are buttered or not.

Hind lateral extension horseshoe on three-day event horse
The hind foot of Ivar Gooden, the best shod horse at Burghley in 2014,  required an exaggerated lateral extension, as prescribed by the horse's veterinarian, but farrier Paul Varnam still undertook making the shoe from concave stock. (Hoofcare file photo)

British-style concave shoeing generally is done with a tip of the hat to the traditional “hunter fit” in the heels, as practiced by British farriers to prevent shoe loss in the hunting field.

We can no longer make assumptions about how a horse is shod -- or by whom -- based on what flag is on the saddlecloth. While Great Britain has always dominated the sport of eventing in terms of sheer numbers of events and riders, it has also attracted some of the world’s best and most affluent riders to move there to train their horses and compete. Once there, the local farriers may convert them to concave.

handmade tool and fullered event horse front shoe
The "best shod" winner at the Burghley Horse Trials in England in 2015. New Zealand team farrier Andrew Nickalls went to great lengths to craft a "tool-and-fullered" concave shoe, starting with square stock and using anvil-top swage tools to create the inside web angle from ground surface to crown rim. This is akin to milling your own flour to bake a cake. He then went on to "fuller", or crease, the narrow edge that the horse actually stands on when on hard surfaces, then shaped the heels, and added clips, nail holes and stud holes. With advances in British steel milling, "concave" stock became available readymake to farriers, but they can now buy readymade shoes from companies like Handmade Shoes. Historically, the British Army required concave shoes on all the Empire's cavalry horses. The rider of this now-retired horse, New Zealand's Tim Price, is currently in fifth place at Tokyo. (photo courtesy of Andrew Nickalls)

In the Olympics however, Germans have won the individual gold in the last three Games. Germany or France won the team gold medal in the last four Games. 

As with all things about hoofcare, the real point may not be what type or shape of shoe is on the foot, but the experience, skill, and knowledge of the person who trimmed the foot and selected that shoe. This is true of any type of shoeing and is the hardest thing of all to make people understand, but the fact that traditions and styles of shoeing still have national characteristics makes equestrian sports like eventing that much more interesting, and worth studying, from the ground up.

Good luck to all the horses and riders!

Embed from Getty Images

Above: click the right arrow for images of Team USA's Phillip Dutton in action at Tokyo. His horse, Z, left the USA wearing British-style concave horseshoes. Click the edge arrows to advance the images.

About Russell Deering

A native of England, Russell earned his Diploma of the Worshipful Company of Farriers after completing an apprenticeship with British farrier Mark Rose, who was the longtime resident farrier at the Animal Health Trust equine referral hospital and research center in Newmarket. (The Center closed in 2020.) Since then, Russell has lived and worked in India, but now calls Austin, Texas his home.

Deering came to the USA at the behest of  former World Champion farrier Billy Crothers of England, who owns “Handmade Shoes”, a manufactory of concave hoofwear. The company strives to market shoes as well as gain converts to the benefits of the British traditional horseshoe material, which has been updated with Billy’s innovations. Russell was hired as sales leader for the USA, although the shoes have been available here for about 20 years.

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