Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Olympic Hoof: Therapeutic plastic horseshoes helped two US dressage silver medal horses in Tokyo

horseshoes at the Tokyo Olympics 2020
Horseshoes, like Olympic medals, can be made from different metals. But this week in Tokyo, the world saw that they can also be made of plastic...and help bring home a medal.

For Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics this year, dreams are made of gold, silver, and bronze. But for two horses, those dreams had a plastic lining, although you might not know it unless you happened to see the bottom of their hooves.

Fran Jurga, author
Background: The United States Olympic Dressage Team scored its highest Olympic medal honor since 1948 this week in Tokyo, when silver medals hung around the necks of riders Adrienne Lyle, Steffen Peters, and Sabine Schut-Kery. The Americans outrode the predictions of the experts, with only the dressage juggernaut of Germany above them on the podium. In addition, US rider Sabine Schut-Kery placed sixth in the individual freestyle, with teammate Steffen Peters tenth.

Most things about dressage are steeped in tradition, and the shoes are usually no exception, other the various bar shoes seen on several horses this week in Tokyo.

But what you didn't see on tv from Tokyo might surprise you.

Team USA Olympic dressage medal history

For the past few years Team USA riders have trained and competed with their horses' front feet shod at different times with an extra-wide plastic-coated heart bar horseshoe. It contains an inner flexible steel core. The "EasyShoe Flex" is a hybrid design used by farriers challenged to keep a horse in training for a critical performance.

Easy Shoe Flex plastic horseshoe
The Easy Shoe Flex, worn on the front feet of two US team horses, is thick polyurethane encasing a spring-steel core thin enough to be flexible over uneven ground. (Polyflex photo)

But the US trainers and riders didn't just order these shoes online and hand them to their farriers to put on. For two of the American horses, the shoes came later. First, the riders hired consulting farrier Curtis Burns of Royal Palm Beach, Florida to evaluate the situation. 

Curtis Burns, horseshoe innovator
Horseshoeing consultant Curtis Burns 
"I'd like to express my gratitude/appreciation for the opportunity to be involved with these horses," Burns said via text on Wednesday. "My interest in problem solving created my business but also has created opportunities for me, like this one."

Curtis's unusual consultancy résumé details work on champion hunters, jumpers, dressage horses, and western performance horses, as well as well-known Thoroughbred racehorses like Triple Crown winner Justify. 

As an advocate for the benefits of plastic shoes on the foot, whether glued on or nailed on, Curtis often uses his own "Polyflex" brand of polyurethane glue-on shoes, as well as the nailable EasyShoe Flex.  

easyshoe flex sprint steel core
The EasyShoe Flex has a flexible steel core 
A "Flex" is thicker than a traditional steel-only shoe, and, in Curtis's experience, stimulates hoof growth, and leads to a more balanced growth pattern. A joint project between Curtis's Polyflex company and his longtime collaborator, EasyCare Inc president Garrett Ford of Durango, Colorado, the Flex is manufactured and marketed by EasyCare.

“We are so excited to see EasyShoes helping the USA team and hoping for a medal," Ford said the night before the competition began in Tokyo. "(We're) sending good energy to all the riders.”

Another farrier has a role in this story. About a year ago, Curtis Burns referred his consulting client, US team rider Adrienne Lyle, to Wellington, Florida farrier Tim Cable, who is probably better known for his work on superstar Standardbred racehorses. Cable has diversified his business with sport horses. He now travels to Colorado to shoe for Adrienne Lyle, who splits her time, and her horses, between there and Florida. 

"I am very appreciative of being involved with such a professional," Tim said, after hearing that Salvino had helped the US team win a silver team medal in Tokyo. 

Adrienne Lyle and Salvino at Tokyo Olympics 2020
Team USA's Adrienne Lyle and the Hanoverian stallion Salvino competing in the Grand Prix Special at Tokyo. Salvino was shod in front with plastic "Flex" shoes. (FEI photo by Shannon Brinkman)

Should the team horses require attention to their plastic or steel shoes during travel or in Tokyo, US dressage team farrier Ken Bark is familiar with the Flex shoes.

Members of Team USA were probably introduced to the shoe by rider Steffen Peters, whose barefoot-advocate dressage-trainer wife Shannon was an early user of the Flex shoe. She worked with Garrett Ford on the shoe's research and development. 

In pre-pandemic 2020, both horses Shannon competed in California wore the Flex shoes.

Today Shannon confirmed that Steffen's horse, the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Suppenkassen, was prepared for Tokyo by California farrier Chuck Mundo; they opted for "normal" steel shoes, with pads, for Tokyo.

Adrienne Lyle has gone on record endorsing plastic shoes. On the Polyflex horseshoes website, she is quoted as saying, "Every one of my top horses is now wearing them and I couldn’t be happier with the results."

Sabine Schut-Kery of Team USA rode Sanceo at Tokyo Olympics 2020 dressage events.
Team USA's Sabine Schut-Kery rode Sanceo to the highest score for the USA in the team medal Grand Prix Special and then pulled another personal best finishing fifth in the individual medal standings after the freestyle. Sanceo wore steel-cored plastic "Flex" horseshoes in front.

Sanceo, the top-scoring US horse, has been shod by Curtis Burns with Flex shoes on a consulting basis for the last six months. Salvino and Sanceo both do well in the heart bar style of the shoe, which is available in open-heel styles, as well.

Both configurations are marketed as helping prevent performance and sport horses from sinking into the arena footing; the goal is to keep the horses on the surface, rather than in it, and potentially help lateral movement.

Feet first: Great Britain's Charlotte Dujardin rode her young horse Gio in Tokyo, helping Britain win bronze in the team medals, as well as an individual bronze for her freestyle. (Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images)

Congratulations to Team USA and to all the support professionals and owners, both in Tokyo and at home, who played key roles in their nations' horses' participation in Tokyo.

UPDATE: Early on Wednesday (USA time), Team USA dressage rider Adrienne Lyle made the decision to withdraw her horse, Salvino, from the individual freestyle competition before the horse inspection began. In a statement, the US Equestrian Federation said, "This morning, Salvino did not feel quite like his usual self." No additional information has been released; best wishes and congratulations to Adrienne and Salvino for their silver medal achievement on Tuesday.

Coming next: Can you tell what nation an Olympic event horse is from by looking at its shoes? The shoes on some nations' horses might surprise you at this Games. The British vs Euro shoeing systems explained! ALSO: Fran has been up late, late into the night all week doing interviews with farriers and veterinarians hard at work in Tokyo. And we didn't forget the professionals at home who worked hard to prepare horses for their trips to Tokyo. Sign up for Hoofcare email alerts (no ads, no spam, just the links) to be the first readers notified when new stories go live.

Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog
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