If you shoe dressage horses, Dave Farley has some pointers that might interest you. If you don't shoe dressage horses and think you probably never will, you might want to pay attention, anyway.
Farley, a prominent farrier from Coshocton, Ohio, who shoes in West Palm Beach, Fla., during the winter, says dressage shoeing now stretches far beyond its usual boundaries.
"A lot of people think that dressage is used just for dressage horses, but it has spread to all other disciplines in some way or another," he says. "Almost everything that is done in dressage is now done with other breeds and in other disciplines.
"We see it now in Western riding and all the other disciplines. And we see a lot of Andalusians, Arabians, some Quarter Horses, a lot of Thoroughbreds and many different horses in dressage events," Farley says.
Dressage is a French term meaning "training," and in the horse world it is a method for teaching horses to be obedient, willing, supple and responsive to their riders, he notes. "The object of dressage is the harmonious development of the horse in both mind and body, and every horse, regardless of its type or use, can benefit from this training," he says.
"The training is very in-depth, and it'll work on every horse. When these horses are working right and are in sync with the rider, they're amazing animals," he adds. "As farriers, we don't see this enough and don't know the end result of our work. Too often, we just get under these horses and shoe them and don't appreciate what they do. I encourage everyone interested in dressage shoeing of any type to go watch these horses work."
Proper shoeing must assist the performance of the horse and rider, he says. "The horses should freely submit to the riders' lightest signals while remaining balanced and energetic," he adds. "They need to be disciplined, but they need to have that energetic look."
Dressage hoof-care techniques can vary with different levels of training, he says. "The young horses, especially European horses, are started at 3, 4 or 5 years old, after they've developed. The heavier-boned horses require more time to mature, so a lot of these horses are started without any shoes."
That's a good thing, he says. "I like it when a horse has been ridden and trained and doesn't have a lot of foot. I can tell exactly where he's breaking over, what he's doing and where he's compensating for his conformation faults. In dressage shoeing, as in any shoeing, you need to know what conformation faults a horse has so you can compensate for that. You have to help and encourage that horse to make the best of his ability with your trimming and your shoeing."
Upper-level dressage horses often train 6 days a week, Farley says, "and they go to a lot of functions where they are bathed every day. Many of the horses are in a Southern climate and they're getting a very good balance of nutrients, so their feet grow quickly. Anyone who spends time shoeing with us is just amazed at how fast these horses' feet grow. These horses require regular footcare, and the owners and trainers at that level expect regular hoof care."
Experienced dressage riders can detect the difference in their horses as the hooves grow, according to Farley, "and when they get to that fourth or fifth week, they'll call you to shoe that horse."
In providing hoof care for dressage horses, "Ninety percent of what you're doing is in the trim," he says. "You have to develop your eye to know what's balanced for that horse; you can't do it all with just muscle. You're going to get fewer horses done in a day, and you're going to get tired and sore."
With experience and understanding of dressage, a farrier finds himself spending more time evaluating the horse and thus doing a better job trimming the feet, he says.
There are very few conformationally correct horses, he warns. "You must get under many horses with different conformation faults before you can evaluate with confidence. It took me about 10 years. I had to get under about 10,000 horses before my eye finally understood what normal is — then you understand what abnormal is."
Being flexible enough to adapt to each horse's needs is important, Farley says.
"There's more than one way to trim a horse," he says. "I go to as many seminars as everyone else, and I have not found just one way to trim every horse that I shoe. It takes several different ways. I trim to achieve normal balance for the particular horse standing in front of me, and it's probably not going to be just like the one I did earlier that day or the day before."
He also tries to trim each horse as close to a normal hoof-pastern axis as he can. "You can't always get it to look like that," he says. "But you want to know what you're going to shoot for on every horse before it walks up, then you start dissecting that particular horse and its problems and how you can fix them."
He cautions farriers to pay extra attention to the hind feet. "If there's a problem with the horse, it's going to show up on the front end, but about 80 percent of the problems that I've seen on the front end are secondary to the hind end," he says.
Check to see if each hind foot is centered, he says, "Because if it's too far one way or the other, it's going to affect the diagonal front first, and that starts a chain reaction. So I put a lot of emphasis on looking at these horses laterally. I'll get down on my knees, 10 feet behind the horse, to see if the heels are level. Once you start doing that, you'll realize that most of the time we're just perimeter fitting the feet."
The horses often grow a long lateral toe and there isn't enough medial heel support after a shoe is put on, he says.
Another common problem with dressage horses at all levels, he adds, is taking off too much sole.
"I can't put enough emphasis on leaving some of the sole," he says. "Once you get down to a clean sole, leave it there. Some dressage horses weigh 1,500 or 1,600 pounds. If you take a horse like that down to only 1/4 inch of sole, you're in trouble.
"These horses need that sole as a base. It's the only way to get them off of bad walls and get the wall to grow, and to keep the bony column from moving inside the foot," Farley warns. "The harder the surface and the more cupped the sole when the foot is bearing weight during lateral moves, the more the bone moves inside the foot, causing bruising."
If hot fitting is used, the farrier should leave an additional 1/8 inch of foot, says Farley, who takes pride in routinely leaving more sole and hot fitting for dressage clients.
He believes there is no magic shoe that will elevate a dressage horse to the next level of competition. "But in my experience, no matter where you're shoeing, dressage horses need a steel shoe that's wide enough to carry that horse's weight."
He typically uses a wide-web steel shoe, "symmetrically fit on the front, with no bells or whistles," he says. "Because Grand Prix arenas usually have computerized, underground watering systems, the consistency of arenas stays the same now, so I don't have to worry about going to a concave shoe, creasing a toe or putting in the right type of a calks. The grooms change the calks, I just provide a wide steel shoe with a crease in it so that I can pull my nails with a crease nail puller."
He says that in some regions of the country, there is a trend toward using concave shoes on every horse. This causes the foot to stay on the ground longer, causing a longer, lower stride. But, he says, "The trainers are telling me that they can't always go with that shoe. They have to constantly push the horse up to get the horse to break over that toe."
Any necessary shoe modifications are usually simple, he says. "They're mostly clips and lateral support from trailers; all one-heat modifications," he says. "Most experienced farriers can make a modification in about 3 minutes. That makes the difference between a winning horse and a horse that can't do the job. That's the bottom line."
Farley often uses lateral support on the hind feet. "I like the lateral support versus the trailers because it doesn't add length to that lateral heel," he says. "I see so many horses with big trailers that when you go to get underneath them, you can't get the hock out behind you and you can't get it up on a foot stand. They constantly pull you forward, and it takes effort to just stay under them to trim them."
And, he says, "Their hocks are being overworked. As the foot hits the ground while moving forward, the trailer hits first. This alters the flight of that foot as it hits the ground. That's not always a good thing. I would rather have a horse hit square and have the width of the shoe keep the heel from sinking as much."
Pads are another simple modification Farley uses in dressage shoeing. "A pad is just something to replace sole that you shouldn't have taken out to begin with," he says. "There are horses who have weak soles and need pads, but if you give me enough time and I can hot fit these horses and trim them and balance them right, I can get them out of the pad."
For the upper-level horses showing on grass, pads are a hindrance, he says, because even if they are wearing calks, the horses can hit rough spots, slip and get out of cadence. Still, pads are often a necessity for dressage shoers, Farley says, though he admits, "Most of the time I used a pad because I had taken out too much sole."
He says the big debate in dressage shoeing during the past few years has been about clips. "Are clips necessary for a dressage horse to perform? No. Are pads? No. Is any modification? No. But, these modifications will help some horses," he says.
Training-level horses might not need clips, and they might not need shoes, either, he says. "But once they start doing lateral work, you'll find that you need to start using clips. My upper-level horses usually require clips. I couldn't take the clips off some horses if I wanted to unless I want the client to quit me. So a good clip with a stout base is as strong as two nails."
The feet of upper-level dressage horses will not hold up to being ridden 6 days a week and doing a lot of lateral work without clips, he says.
The debate then turns to whether toe clips or quarter clips are better for dressage.
"Toe clips are a pretty hot item now because horses in the United States were getting beat by a lot of good European horses that had toe clips," he says, so American riders believed the clips must help.
"I like toe clips. For horses that are moving straight and don't have many conformation faults, I'd rather put a toe clip on every one of them," Farley says. "When there's a leg deviation of any kind, a quarter clip might be best for that horse. If you find a horse that has extreme toe growth and no heel growth, or is wearing his heel, then quarter clips might be good."
Farriers should understand that both toe clips and quarter clips are beneficial if they are applied right, he says. "A problem in our industry is that people are too judgmental and too negative about one style of clip because they don't know how to properly apply it. It's your responsibility as a professional farrier to educate yourself about the positive effect of clips, both toe and quarter."
"Years ago, I did not like quarter clips because I though they were more difficult to fit. Some shoers think that one clip is easier to fit," he says. "Actually, a toe clip is much more difficult to fit then quarter clips. Quarter clips are kind of cheating; you can get a broad radius to the toe, and burn it right back to the clips."
Farley likes to use quarter clips on feet with long-toes and underrun heels. "You can't back up the toe clip far enough without the clip getting into sensitive structures. If you use quarter clips on this type of foot, it allows you to back up the shoe and give the foot more heel support. This allows for better heel coverage, as well as establishing a better balanced foot. This means better posterior heel growth. It will come back," he says.
He adds, "I look down the back of that foot at the bulbs and place the shoe where I think it needs to be. If I was going to use a toe clip instead of quarter clips, I would have to use a shoe that was one or two sizes bigger. This may increase the lever arm and the toe could be more distal, making it harder for the foot to break over. It also would be a little bit more weight on the horse."
While weight helps some horses, it might hinder others, he says, and a farrier should know each horse before changing the weight of a shoe.
Farley does manipulate the weight of the front and hind shoes to aid dressage performance.
"I do a lot of things with the shoes that are an advantage to the horse," he says. "For example, some of the older horses don't lift in the shoulder as much, and if you add about 3 ounces of heel weight to the foot, they'll lift their shoulder in the front and use their back end better, also."
Weight plays a big role in the difference between front and hind, left and right feet, he says, "but I think on the bigger horses it takes more weight — bigger, wider shoes — then we believe it does. I know several horses that have a pour-in pad under a heavy plastic pad. The rider is convinced they go better. They go better because they're staying on top of the ground and the pad is just enough weight to make him lift his shoulder higher."
But, he notes, "I have a couple of good horses that cannot take any weight on the feet. They have good feet and they're animated, but if you put a shoe on them, it really messes up their rhythm. They go very well barefoot."
To maintain such a horse and prevent excessive wear, Farley applies a bead of Vettec Super Fast on the bottom of the hoof about every 2 weeks. "I may put it on a little heavier on the side where they're breaking over," he says. "If they were to wear too much, they could get too quick in the breakover and possibly get sore."
Another common problem with dressage horses, according to Farley, is that after the hooves have been balanced and shod, some riders will say, "For some reason, the first week or so after our farrier shod him, he's just not as quick as he should be and I have to push him harder. If I'm going to the right, I have to force him to go to that way. But after a week or so, he's OK."
The problem is that some horses need help with their breakover point, Farley says. "You might be shocked at what 1/8 to 1/4 inch of breakover will do. The horse will be laboring and can't get over that outside toe or medial toe.
"This is something that's simple to fix. Look at the shoe that you take off and see where he's breaking over. Then get out your grinder and take an extra minute to take some metal off the new shoe," he advises. "The horse tells you where it needs to break over, so start paying attention to that. Too often we jerk that shoe off, throw it to the side and never look at it."
Expansion is another problem. "We fit these shoes too tight. The coronary band actually senses where the shoe is placed and will grow toward that area. In normal movement, the heels don't really move out, they move in and forward. We don't put enough support under the coronary band to establish a proper base of support," he says.
"The right amount of support will encourage normal weight bearing expansion to the widest part of the foot. Fitting shoes tight on some horses might eventually cause the coronary band to recede and/or move up," he says. "The coronary needs dynamic support!"
He adds, "You need to fit shoes underneath the coronary band. Just 1/8 of an inch of support can balance some horses that break over too fast or quick, medially or laterally. The little things on these horses can make a big difference."
Farley drills and taps the shoes for all of his upper-level dressage horses. If the shoe is modified and fit properly, the calks usually are placed about 1/4 inch behind the crease, which is about an inch in front of the heel of the foot.
"Any farther forward could cause a much harder breakover," he says. "You can see that on the foot when the horse is walking on pavement. As the foot hits the ground with the calks, it rocks back and the toe comes off the ground. It's doing the same thing in the dirt, you just can't see it. So I don't like calks any farther forward than that."
He applies calks to the hind feet of dressage horses just as he does on jumpers. "Probably 60 percent of them use three calks, two on the outside, one on the medial side," he says. "But most upper-level horses are now getting four; the two front ones are placed between the first and second nail holes."
He says that when placing calks, "I'm trimming the foot and fitting the shoe so that the heels are the same length. I'm applying the shoe so that it's dropping down from the bulb. I'm looking at the feet from the back more than most people, so my calks are pretty much even.
"If you have a horse that has a sheared heel and you can't get that heel down, it's going to look like your calk holes are canted. If the foot isn't balanced, the calk holes aren't going to line up and that may make a difference on a horse," he says.
Farley says the use of calks has changed in dressage. "A few years ago, we were tapping the shoes of only the upper-level horses going on grass. But now, each week may mean a different kind of surface. Maybe it's on grass this weekend, on a crushed limestone base the next weekend and in a Grand Prix ring with a computer-controlled water system the week after that.
"That arena footing is the best in the world; it's always consistent and it fills the sole of the foot. Riders don't like aggressive calks on that surface. If the feet can't slide a bit, the concussion goes right to the joints. I have some horses that use a medium calk only on the outside of the feet."
He says the height of the calk is usually directly proportional to how much heel could be sacrificed. "I won't recommend anything taller than a 1/4 -inch calk. I hate to see them taller because you might be sacrificing quality heel with calks," he says.
"The horses are in the arena maybe 20 minutes, but they'll stand in the cross ties on concrete or blacktop for an hour, and that compromises the heel. You have to tell the clients to get those calks out of the shoes as soon as the horse is done showing at any level. That's a big problem, because if those calks stay in, the heels crush."
Many horse owners ask for a higher heel, Farley says, including dressage riders. He tries to educate his customers.
"If you explain to the owner that every 1/4 inch of length of shoe is possibly raising the hoof angle 2 degrees, it helps them understand immensely," he says. "If you give them a bit of knowledge, they'll appreciate it . And if you keep their horse sound, they'll trust you."
Farley stresses that communication is needed between farriers, riders and trainers. "Dressage people are different. They sense things, they feel things, they have a communication with their horses. They know lameness weeks before the farrier can see it. They may not know what's wrong with a horse, but they can tell you where the problem is, and you can go from there."