Ask any horseman or woman and he or she will tell you that along with an exceptional vet a first- rate farrier is an important part of a well managed stable, a place where a team of people who love horses and, more importantly, care for all aspects of their well- being, keep the horses entrusted to them both happy and healthy.
The terms exceptional and first -rate don’t simply relate to technical expertise. They include an understanding that the people who work with horses must have compassion and integrity, that they are professionals who will put the well -being of a horse ahead of any other consideration.
A vet with integrity won’t inject an ouchy horse simply because the owner wants to go to a horse show and doesn’t have time to allow full healing to take place; a farrier with integrity won’t shoe a horse inappropriately to produce extra lift for no other reason than to keep a client in his book and to satisfy the demands of a rider with more than a simple urge to win.
Integrity further requires that professionals speak out when they know the tenets of their professions are being violated by other practitioners, even if speaking out has a price.
Standing up and speaking out is exactly what professional farrier Eric Gray did in a piece that he wrote in 2014, explaining why he stopped shoeing Tennessee Walking Horses headed for the show ring.
His personal testimony did not get the widespread attention that it deserved. It is reprinted here in its entirety. Gray speaks with firsthand knowledge and this read will be well worth your time.
“The condition of big lick walking horses used in the show ring is now a national story; even Priscilla Presley is on record saying that the big lick must come to an end. The main focus has been on soring and on the stacked shoes and chains unique to this particular kind of show horse. Another issue is pressure shoeing but that hidden abuse is not as easy to understand as the soring and stacks and chains part of the performance horse business. To understand shoeing abuse is to understand the rest of the story.
As a farrier with years of experience working around the walking horse industry I first talked publically about pressure shoeing in 2010. I did a presentation at a Sound Horse Conference and I told the attendees that 15 years ago finding a pressure-shod horse was easier than it is today. That’s because digital thermography units and fluoroscopes were routinely used in both pre and post show inspections and the methods used to pressure shoe horses were less sophisticated.
First a little history: when you pulled shoes back in the mid 90s, back before the machines, it wasn’t uncommon to find a half of a halter ring sitting behind the white line and in front of the frog of a horse that had been trimmed with a shaved down, flat sole. I’ve personally found all sorts of things on big lick horses between the top of the nail pad and the bottom of the hoof, things like strings of quarters glued together, heel springs with bouncy balls melted on to the area of the frog, nail pads that were ground down at the edges but domed at the center and hammer shims of metal including steel.
Flat shod horses weren’t immune to the problem, either. Tall beads of weld around the inside toe area of the surface of the foot caused painful sole pressure and there were other tricks as well.
When the fluoroscope came into use there was change, but it wasn’t a decrease in pressure shoeing as you might expect, but an increase in new ways to beat the machine. Then, the machines themselves went into disuse.
I find myself shaking my head in agreement with a letter released in January 2014 by former industry veterinarian Dr. John C. Haffner who wrote, “The fact is the big lick can only be accomplished by soring. When one soring technique becomes detectable, another one is developed. The big lick is a learned response to pain and if horses have not been sored, they do not learn it. “
Today’s pressure shoeing has developed in sophistication and is very hard to distinguish from improper trimming or improper use of what should be therapeutic hoof packings. Farriers involved in these practices make a real effort to hide their true intentions in case anyone gets a chance to look too closely at their handiwork and ask embarrassing questions.
A complicit farrier can leave the foot of the performance horse at about 4 inches long and then pare the sole down until it is quite soft and gives easily to thumb pressure in the toe area. (Think of it as bending back your thumbnail) Then that same farrier knowingly will fill the hoof with an impression material such as EDSS firm and allow it to remain domed in the desired area. After allowing the “cushion” to set up and harden, he then applies the nail pad to the hoof. The horse is now pressure shod.
Although at shows inspectors do have the right to ask that shoes be pulled from horses that they suspect are pressure shod, once the clinches are tightened and the horse has been ridden for a few minutes that packing material changes shape sufficiently to look legitimate to vets and farriers who don’t know the rest of the story. Even when an inspector does recognize the problem how does he prove that this hardened dome at the toe was intentional pressure shoeing rather than an honest mistake?
Trying to put a big lick look on a flat shod horse has meant the development of pressure shoeing methods that are even harder to detect. As an example, thin steel plates can be cut to fit across the top of the shoe, just long enough to sit inside the hoof wall below the sole so that they can be easily removed before shoe time. The plate is drilled and tapped in the center and a bolt, between 3/8s and 5/8s inches in length is inserted and cut to length.
After welding a nut to the bolt so that it can easily be tightened with a wrench the bolt is then placed back into the horse’s hoof. Bolts are left in place for a few hours up to a few days. In the worst cases nerves in the hoof begin to die off as a result of mechanical laminitis caused by pressure from the bolts. The pain is horrendous, the action prize winning.
I have seen horses left standing in cross-ties overnight, days before a show, to keep them from lying down while trying to escape the pressure in their feet. How bad is it?
I once arrived at a barn in the early morning to find a horse dead, still hanging from the cross-ties. The autopsy revealed stress colic due to unexplainable circumstances.
I’ve seen horses where the bolts have detached and become lodged in the digital cushion. I worked on a horse that had abscessed so severely after being bolted that the entire sole had detached. The trainer, who also did his own farrier work and didn’t want to miss a horse show, built a fake sole out of Equilox and replaced the shoe over it.
I know this because the owner took the horse away from the trainer after a subpar performance at the show and brought the horse to me two weeks later. The false sole was still in place. The horse, however, had made it through a show inspection with no one the wiser. By the time I saw the horse the digital cushion was so infected that almost half of it had been eaten away and the coffin bone itself was exposed.
To show you how tough this incredible breed was and how willingly the walking horse allows itself to be victimized, three months after this horror in its feet, the owner was back exercising the horse, even though there were holes in the toes of its feet the sizes of a half dollar. On the day I was scheduled to go back to work on the horse again, I got a call from the owner who told me that he had returned his horse to the same training barn where the problem was intentionally caused.
I had to get over my anger before I understood that many of the people involved in this cruelty don’t think that there is anything wrong with doing such things to horses. One of the cruelest trainers I ever met could preach well enough to hold a revival and was truly compassionate when it came to helping his fellow men; it was just that the spot in his heart where compassion should have resided for God’s creatures had a hole in it.
I asked him once when I saw him at his barn, putting a set of bolts in a horse’s feet getting ready to go to a weekend horse show, how he could do this and still give witness on a Sunday. His answer remains with me to this day.
The horse, he explained, was a beast of burden and the horse’s God-given talent was probably to be supper for a family, not to be a show horse. Being a show horse, with all that entailed was what this animal had to endure to earn his keep. This trainer honestly believed that whatever he did to the horse to give pleasure to a client and to make a living was all right.
After much soul searching and a thorough examination of my own ethics I decided there wasn’t anything I could do but leave the walking horse show world and I did. Like doctors, farriers have an obligation to do no harm to their patients, the horses. But what about the people who can’t see a way out or don’t see why they need to stop doing what they have been doing to show walking horses for generations?
The question is how do you get people to change practices that put clothes on their children and food on their tables when this is all they know how to do and the people that they associate with them think that being hurt in “training” is part of being a beast of burden?
I don’t have an answer to that but I do know that is why legislation like the PAST (Prevent All Soring Tactics) Act must be passed. After 8 years in the industry I learned that you couldn’t save people from themselves when they truly believe that bearing the infliction of intentional cruelty is part of the job of being a horse.
You can, however, save horses from the people who believe this way by removing the tools of their trade from their hands, taking them off the horses’ feet, and by removing the legitimacy of this type of training from the show ring. "
With thanks to Eric Gray, the sort of farrier that truly is a horse’s best friend.