Friday, June 16, 2023

Shire horses inspected for controversial “couping” horseshoe practice at British horse shows in 2023

Shire horse couping shoe inspection by Grant Moon
At England’s Staffordshire County Show earlier this month, British farrier Grant Moon, FWCF represented the Worshipful Company of Farriers in an inspection of Shire Horses entered to show. This is one of the hind feet he inspected. (Photo courtesy of Grant Moon)

The feathery hooves of Britain’s magnificent Shire horses are receiving close scrutiny in 2023, as the breed society addresses possible welfare impacts of shoeing practices on the feet of show horses exhibited for conformation.

At England's recent Staffordshire County Show, held May 31-June 1,  the Shires’ hooves were inspected by British farrier Grant Moon, FWCF,  acting as a representative of the Worshipful Company of Farriers. 

Moon rejected several horses entered in the show as being in violation of the regulations stated – and clearly illustrated – in the breed’s shoeing standards. In 2017, the Company worked with the Shire Horse Society to update and illustrate shoeing rules for British Shire horse shows.

Grant Moon FWCF inspected Shire horses' hooves

“I was there to assess, not to judge,” Moon told Hoofcare. Shows often have a farrier judge for the “best shod horse” class, but this inspection was for rule compliance.

“Seven exhibitors were shown the door,” he said.  “The definition of hoof balance is the same whether you are looking at a pony or a draft horse. Some people believe this distortion of shoeing was a tradition in the breed. But it is just an abuse and an example of poor horsemanship manipulating the horse." 

What is couping?

All the horses rejected by Moon were deemed in violation of updated standards for shoeing Shire horses in the UK. According to him, some of the rejected exhibitors chose to use an asymmetric and exaggerated hind shoe with an outside calk, and encouraged ongoing hoof imbalance by allowing a flared outside hoof wall. Within the heavy horse world, these types of shoeing practices are known as “couping”.

Why would someone deliberately shoe a horse this way? A show judge will look at a horse from behind to evaluate how far apart its hocks are, compared to his or her preferred set for the breed. Some owners may employ couping to intentionally skew the hind limbs closer together; seen from behind, they may appear as one column; the feathers on the lower leg are skillfully dressed to exaggerate this optical illusion. 

Different reasons are given for this tradition, with the most common being the need for heavy horses to navigate narrow rows between crops. A base-narrow hind conformation is desirable under the assumption that fewer plants are damaged by errant heavy hooves if they are close together. 

Traditional beliefs also hold that close hocks undergo less twisting during pulling and are capable of more power than a base-wide horse.

Illustrations clipped from an article on couping of Clydesdales in Scotland from Hoofcare + Lameness 74 in the early 2000s. The subject was covered during a three-day heavy horse symposium, part of the "Hoof Care for a New Millennium" conference series hosted by Tufts University's vet school in 2004. Among the speakers were British veterinarian and heavy horse breeder Phillip Ryder-Davies and the late British heavy-horse specialist farrier Roger Clark, FWCF(Hons).

Adding an outside calk, creative off-center placement of the shoe, and denying coverage of the inside heel are other methods employed in couping. The shoe's toe clip is not in line with the point of the frog.

An exhibitor might want a horse shod this way if the judge at a particular show is known to prefer this type of hind limb conformation or is an advocate for this type of shoeing.

From approximately 2001 to 2004, the Clydesdale Horse Society in Scotland dealt with charges that some of its show horses were “couped”, resulting in negative publicity. While the Clydesdale breed shoeing rules were slightly reworded as a result, the word "couping" was not used, and other breeds were not affected. 

During the Scottish proceedings in 2002, the Farriers Registration Council declined to ban its members from the practice, since they stated, in a letter to the Scottish Parliament, that its members were already prohibited from performing harmful practices and that couping itself had not been proven to directly cause suffering.

The Council did offer to investigate any case of couping where it could be proven that the farrier's action had caused pain or suffering, but that complaints against couping did not adequately differentiate it from general poor shoeing practice. A joint statement from the Council and the Worshipful Company of Farriers suggested that the most effective remedy would be for show judges to encourage balanced shoeing practices.

The Clydesdale Horse Society said that it would not require judges to exclude couped horses from events, but rather that they had the right to "police shoeing" and issue verbal warnings to horse owners. 

A sad footnote to the Clydesdale chapter is that Kenneth Mitchell, DipWCF, the Scottish farrier who initiated the petition to introduce legislation to end the practice, died during the year of letters back and forth between the Scottish Parliament, the Clydesdale Horse Society, and the Farriers Registration Council.

Shire Horse Society prohibited shoeing example
An example of shoeing as shown in the 2017 Shire Horse Society shoeing standards, which explain: “Note that the inside heel is not covered and a single caulkin is present. The clip is significantly misaligned with the frog and the foot is asymmetrical in shape.”

Fast-forward almost 15 years; the Shire Horse Society introduced new shoeing rules in 2017 that did prohibit such couping-like practices.  The breed’s concerns did not result in action until the fall of 2022, when the Society issued a warning to exhibitors that they were expected to follow the shoeing rules. 

The Society also specified that owners would need to submit the name of a horse’s farrier on their entry forms for the National Show. “Failure to do so will result in entries being rejected,” the statement said.

Shire Horse Society horseshoe rules hind foot
A second example of shoeing shown in the 2017 update of Shire Horse Society shoeing standards: "The foot is overgrown and asymmetrical in shape. A single caulkin is present and the inside heel is not covered by the shoe."

Even though couping has been raised as an issue in both Clydesdales and Shires in Great Britain in the last 20 years, the two breeds are governed by separate shoeing rules and requirements. There is no national shoeing rule for heavy horses. Clydesdale rules state that the shoe “should be fitted to the trimmed foot with an outside heel of no more than the thickness of the material. Inside of shoe to support the last bearing point of the foot.”

The Shire Horse Society rules are similar but not quite the same: “Hind shoes should be fitted to the correctly trimmed foot with an outside heel which could be thickened to no more than half of the material of the original shoe. The inside branch of the shoe should support the full heel and cover the whole ground bearing surface.”

Who shod the horses this way?

What isn’t clear is who is shoeing the horses that are shod extremely enough to concern the Society officials and/or result in expulsion from a show following a hoof inspection. There are three possibilities. One is that the horses are being shod in this extreme way by registered farriers, diploma-holding graduates of the Worshipful Company of Farriers’ training program, who are tightly governed by rules of ethics and who are perceived by the public to be working in the best interest of a horse’s welfare. 

The late Scottish farrier Edward Martin commented on couping during the controversy over Clydesdale shoeing involving welfare groups, farriers, the breed society, and the Scottish Parliament beginning in 2000.

Every graduating farrier in the UK takes this solemn oath to the Company:

"I solemnly and sincerely declare that I will pursue the work of my craft with diligence and integrity, maintain the established standards of the farriery profession, and accept the professional responsibilities now entrusted to me, and that my constant endeavour will be to ensure the welfare of horses committed to my care." 

The second possibility is that the horses are being shod in this illegal way by their owners, who would be outrightly violating the Society’s rules. More importantly, it is illegal for a horse owner to shoe his or her own horse in the United Kingdom; only registered farriers are legally allowed to shoe horses there.

The third possibility is that the horses are being shod this way by one or more unregistered farriers, who might be willing and able to shoe a horse without regard for its welfare. They would run a double risk of prosecution for violating equine welfare and illegally engaging in farriery.

From the statement, signed by Society Board Chair Helen Thomas: “The Society worked with the Worshipful Company of Farriers and the Farriers Registration Council in 2017/2018 to produce a shoeing document, which was fully endorsed by Council. The majority of members continue with correct practices, however, a minority remain, who do not fall within the scope of the regulations.”

Timeline of 2023 Shire horse shoeing rule actions

The 2023 National Shire Horse Show was held in March at Newark in Nottinghamshire. The horses were inspected by farrier Stephen Gowing, AWCF, who is the Shire Horse Society’s Honorary Farrier.
The Worshipful Company of Farriers participated in the show by providing a shoeing judge, who awarded the "best shod horse" prize to Scottish farrier Wayne Balfour, AWCF, and by mounting an exhibit in the commercial area of the show.

Both Gowing and the Society’s Honorary Veterinarian, Ben Ryder-Davies, participated in the compilation of the 2017 revised shoeing standards for the breed, with additional consultancy from The Worshipful Company of Farriers, The Farriers Registration Council, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

The Shire Horse Society decided to hold a second inspection for Shires entered in the Staffordshire County Show at the end of May. As described in this article, Grant Moon, FWCF, who lives in Staffordshire, served as the horseshoeing inspector for that show. He disqualified several exhibitors based on the way the horses were shod.

On June 13, two weeks after Grant Moon’s rejection of horses in Staffordshire, the Shire Horse Society posted a second statement about horseshoeing on its Facebook page, warning that unannounced inspections will be done at further Shire shows in 2023. 

In this release, the Society referred to such “incorrect” shoeing practices as welfare issues and stated that any horse rejected by the inspecting farrier will not be allowed to show, even if the shoes are removed. 

“The horse will be turned away,” the June 2023 release stated. “The welfare of the animal is not negotiable.”

Regardless of the breed, show exhibitors are expected to conform to their breed societies’ policies that outline ideals for conformation, action, and temperament in the horses they show. While almost all breed societies state and publish ideals for their horses, the breed standards may or may not be tightly enforced, descriptions of unacceptable practices may be vaguely worded, and prizes are still awarded by judges who either follow the breed standards to the letter or possibly ignore some and give more weight to others on a subjective basis, often without regard for the potential impact of their decisions on horses’ welfare.

Editor's note: The lack of action in the Clydesdale scenario described above, and probably any future scenarios, was limited by the lack of any scientific evidence that couping, or any other deliberate out-of-balance shoeing technique, causes direct harm to the horse. This is yet another example of the consequences of the lack of peer-reviewed research into the effects of farriery, for either the benefit or detriment of the horse. 

Hoofcare Publishing issues a monthly linked list to all new peer-reviewed research on farriery, as well as all of equine lameness and biomechanics, but relevant studies are few and far between, in spite of calls for evidence, especially in matters of equine welfare. Subscribe to the HoofSearch index report at this link.

Problems Encountered When Shoeing Shire Horses For Showing Worshipful Company of Farriers fellowship thesis for British farrier Howard Davison, FWCF (1996)

Note: On Monday June 19, 2023, Chief Executive Roly Owers of the international charity World Horse Welfare participated in a free online seminar coordinated with the British Farriers and Blacksmiths Association under the provocative title, "Social license and farriery - friend or foe?". Click here to find out more about the webinar.

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