Tuesday, August 03, 2021

The Olympic (Gold Medal) Hoof: Farrier Jim Blurton's Concave-Maybe Shoeing for British Team Eventer Ballaghmor Class

Farriers love to argue about the ideal shoe -- concave or flat?-- for a three-day event horse, but when it comes time to shoe a horse for the Olympics, what do they actually do? UK farrier Jim Blurton, AWCF, just watched a horse he shoes win the Olympic Team Gold Medal in Eventing. He kindly offered some thoughts about how he shoes Ballaghmor Class for client Oliver Townend and why he does it that way.

Welsh farrier, horseshoe designer, and former World Champion Jim Blurton was head farrier for the Olympic Games forge at both London 2012 and Rio 2016. That job, and the victories of his personal shoeing clients, offer a unique perspective. Jim has seen sport horse hooves from all over the world succeed and fail at the Olympics and at home.

This year, Jim may have stayed in Wales while his protege, Ben Benson, took over the forge in Tokyo, but Jim still had a presence there: those were his shoes on Ballaghmor Class, the Irish Sport Horse that led Great Britain to the 2020 team gold medal in eventing under his World #1-ranked rider, Oliver Townend of Shropshire, England.

Jim Blurton may have passed the mantle of the Olympic Forge on to another Welsh-born farrier, Ben Benson, this year, but he still managed to have an impact by shoeing one of Britain's Team Gold Medal eventing horses. (Shown here at the Rio Olympics, Hoofcare file photo)

To add to his long list of career accomplishments, Jim is a frequent judge for the Worshipful Company of Farriers’ long-running “Farriers Prize” (or, “best-shod foot”) at the five-star Badminton Horse Trials in England. The judge’s job at Badminton requires evaluating the shoes of more than 60 top international event horses on the morning of the first horse inspection.

Oliver Townend and Ballagmor Class on the cross-country course in Tokyo.

“Concave is brilliant for cross-country,” Jim began when we spoke on July 10, 2021. “But it wouldn’t be my first choice for the other disciplines--dressage and showjumping.”

During the foot judging at Badminton, Jim had a chance to see which nations tended to be in the concave camp, and which were not. For the most part, concave is a British tradition, going back to the mandatory shoeing of all Army ridden horses with the unique steel profile, back in the 1880s.

Jim’s unofficial tally of the types of shoes worn at the international five-star level may surprise you. “Actually, at Badminton less than half are shod with concave,” Jim commented. “And those are the horses that do the best.”

Freshly shod and ready for Tokyo, Oliver Townend's Olympic mount Ballaghmor Class left
England with his hooves polished and his side clips shining. (Jim Blurton photo, used with permission)

When I asked if a horse not shod with concave had ever won the Farriers Prize at Badminton, Jim just chuckled. Before he became a best-shod judge for the Worshipful Company of Farriers, he won the prize himself three times. No one has won it more times.

Jim takes his work seriously. About shoeing for a client like World #1 eventer (and now Olympic team gold medalist) Oliver Townend, Jim said, “I’m there for the rider. If I have to put an extra-wide shoe on for the rider, and lose (the best-shod award), I will do it.”

For the front feet of Ballaghmor Class to compete at the Olympics, farrier Jim Blurton just continued with the shoeing plan that had been working. The horse was sound; he wasn't looking for things to change.  This shoe is an adapted concave shoe manufactured by Kerckhaert.  The "Sport Quarter" concave is wider at the ground surface. (Jim Blurton photo, used with permission)

Jim’s plan was to re-shoe Ballaghmor Class before the horse left for Japan the following week. “I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “He will be in good form.” The horse wears a Kerckhaert Classic Sport Quarter concave (⅞ x ⅜”), size 3, in front; Jim described it as a wider “nor traditional” concave shoe. 

Behind, Ballaghmor Class wears a shoe of Jim’s own design from his company’s collection: the Blurton lateral extension side-clipped hind shoe.

“He needs the length behind, especially for dressage,” Jim said.

The right hind foot of Oliver Townend's Olympic mount, the Irish Sport Horse Ballaghmor Class. The hind feet were shod with Jim's own design of hind extension shoes. Lateral extensions have many potential benefits, including improved support and widening hind end movement. (Jim Blurton photo, used with permission)

“This horse is sound,” Jim said. “I won’t experiment when there’s nothing wrong. I have had to nurture (him). He is getting toward the end of his career, so the shoeing is simple, giving support where needed.

“I shoe him (myself) every four weeks myself--not the team,” he mentioned, referring to his Forden Forge shoeing business’s staff of employee farriers and apprentices.

“Shoeing at this level is all about risk assessment,” Jim continued. “There’s also the x factor of the studs for cross-country. The size of the stud is important, and can be different for the fronts from the hinds.”

The Rio 2016 Olympics' three farrier leaders. Left to right, Ben Benson, AWCF, Lead Farrier for the 2016 Olympics and  National Technical Official for 2016 Paralympics (and now head farrier in Tokyo); Jim Blurton, AWCF, Head Farrier and National Technical Official for 2016 Olympics; and Brazilian veterinarian and farrier Luis Gustavo Tenorio, Farrier Coordinator for Olympics and Paralympics Rio 2016.

For Jim Blurton, it all comes down to the most basic fact about the sport of eventing:

“The important thing to remember is that it is three disciplines. Not one. For dressage, you want them on the surface, to float, not going into the ground. You have to cover all three.

“Come up with something that suits all three.”

Thanks to Jim Blurton, Carl Bettison, and Luis Tenorio for help and images used in this article. Congratulations to Jim!
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