Jack Miller is recognized as one of the premier farriers in the hunter and jumper show world. This highly sought after jet-set shoer shared some of his successful shoeing ideas while working at last fall’s Madison Square Garden Horse Show in New York City.
Miller has been shoeing for 42 years and has worked with show horses for 28 years. He’s worked leading shows from coast to coast and border to border along with events in Europe, Canada and Mexico.
Q: Since some horseshoers may confuse a hunter with a jumper, can you explain the difference and what trainers, owners and judges want to see when it comes to movement of a good hunter?
A: There’s a lot of difference between hunters and jumpers, but many people confuse them because horse shows refer to them as hunter/jumpers. The differences in their movement are huge and that’s what sets one apart from the other.
If you produced a graph for a hunter, it would be a very smooth graph indicating a certain number of strides between fences. For jumpers, the graph would be sporadic with one to 15 fifteen strides between the fences, depending on the quality of the horse. The shoeing is different as you wouldn’t want to shoe a jumper like a hunter or vice versa.
There are many hunter divisions at a horse show. You can jump a fence anywhere from a height of 2 to 4 feet with a class often offered for every 3-inch increase in height. A lot of people don’t understand the distances. The hunters are smoother and more rounded than jumpers.
A trainer wants a hunter to move with a good, consistent movement, because there are many steps in the hunter ring. If you count the strides in the 3’-6” fence class, there are approximately 168 strides in a fairly good-sized arena. It may vary in arenas that are indoors or outdoors, but generally the strides are set at 13 or 14 feet outdoors and for 12 1/2 feet indoors. So if you have a horse with an 11-foot stride, you’re in trouble.
When measured at a canter, a stride represents the distance from when the first front foot hits the ground to when the other front foot hits the ground. It should be 12 to 14 feet, depending on the size of the fence.
In a conversation with one of the world’s premier course designers, he told me that most hunter courses are set for a 12- to 14-foot stride, depending on the size of the fence.
Q: How do you shoe a hunter that’s working at a canter?
A: You want a smooth movement with a cantering hunter, which is the main movement used over most competition fences. You want a low movement to the ground and a sweeping, striding, flat movement that helps the horse cover the ground. You can always slow one up, but it’s hard to make them go faster. Trainers want longer strides, want the horse to move slower and want them to move with a very fluid motion.
When it comes to jumping, they want the stride to be rounded over a fence and the horse to land and take off with a steady pace rather than at a burst of speed. They cover the ground low and pop their back when they go over the fences.
Q: Can you describe how you approach shoeing a typical hunter when it comes to balance and some of the common problems you see?
A: The main concern is high-low syndrome. A lot of these horses are warmbloods that came over from Europe, broken down Thoroughbreds from the racetrack or other varieties of hunters. Balance is often hard to achieve because they’re shown so much and their feet are beaten up.
Everybody thinks the front end is where the balance is, but I haven’t found a front-wheel-drive horse yet. Since everything comes from the back end, you can help the horse by balancing the back end. You’ll get his motion going and lengthen his stride through the back end.
The biggest problem with these horses is that they will brush their ankles behind, but not hard enough to knock any hair off or get bloody. When they brush, they become slightly sore and their stride is often shortened by 6 inches or more.
You may think a drop of 6 inches in a stride isn’t much, but it is when a horse takes 170 strides on a course. If most horses are taking a 13-foot stride and your horse is making a 12 1/2-foot stride, he needs to take seven extra strides to complete the course.
Q: What about shoeing the front end of the horse?
A: Balancing the front end is simple. You have the high-low syndrome where the horse is hitting on the outside and the foot is slapping to the inside. To straighten that, you’ll find a lot of inside jams in the heels.
When I talk about a jam on a heel, it’s like an ingrown toenail. If you’ve ever had one, you can keep working and keep walking, but it aggravates you enough that you won’t want to run a marathon. Yet it doesn’t stop you from walking or working and that’s the same with these hunters.
There are a lot of inside heels where horses are sore and it shuts them down, especially in the wide turns that hunters have to make. If they’re a jumper, they make real tight turns and sometimes come up lame. But in the wide turns, wide circles and figure eights used in the hunter ring, it doesn’t show up that much.
Where it really shows up is in the stride, how the horse lands and how he takes off. That’s where you can see a potential balance problem. Yet most of the time, it’s just a mechanical thing as to how the horse lands.
We were taught that the ideal landing horse is heel first in the front end and toe first in the back end. That’s fine with an ideal horse, but you’re dealing with an extreme horse that’s doing more than it’s supposed to do.
You want a horse to reach out and land flat — not heel first or toe first. The horse needs to reach out, grab the ground and set its foot down flat. With the hind foot, you want them to come in slightly toe first to drive into the ground so that you can get a cup in there to help push off for the next stride.
Since you want a hunter to move smooth, graceful and steady all around the course, the horseshoer helps a lot. The trainer and rider are also important as you’ve got to have somebody on his back who can control the horse. A shoer can’t control the effect between the saddle and the bridle, as it’s really a team effect.
Q: Why are aluminum shoes often preferred when it comes to movement with hunters?
A: A few aluminum shoes are actually heavier than steel shoes. Due to the way they are made, the aluminum shoe is designed to help the horse move well. Some aluminum shoes are thick and narrow while others are wide and flat on the foot. They all work well depending on the type of foot that you are shoeing.
An aluminum shoe really works well on hunters because it keeps them moving close to the ground. With aluminum shoes, we’re talking about open heels and not bar shoes.
There are a few cases where a hunter will move better with steel than aluminum, but most trainers want aluminum shoes because they’re lighter. Race plates aren’t used since they are made for running around the race track.
Q: What do you look for when choosing the right shoe for a hunter?
A: There are probably a dozen brands of shoes in the United States and Europe that are used with hunters. You can put aluminum shoes on a hunter for 4 or 5 weeks at the most. I don’t reset or reuse them because they are wearing the shoes out if the horse is working. They wear out on both the ground and foot surfaces. A lot of people don’t look at the foot surface, but that’s where the shoe wears the most.
I’ll give you some ideas on the shoes that I use with hunters, but remember that these are my personal opinions.
The Elites are a rim shoe, much like a full swedge. The biggest problem I see is that they don’t fit a lot of feet and can be difficult to shape. If you’ve got a little boxy foot, they go on pretty good.
The Light Champion fits a lot of the horses, but only comes in four or five sizes and the hunter that I typically see never wears a triple 0 or double 0.
The Grand Champion is OK, but can difficult to fit and is often too bulky for many hunters.
St. Croix has many good shoes, but they don’t all help a hunter move well. If you’ve ever shod an Arabian, a Morgan or a Saddlebred, you use a rolled toe to get knee action, but you don’t want knee action on a hunter. Even though the crease fills with dirt and gives them more traction that may be good for eventing, it’s not what you want in the hunter ring with figure eights and going over little fences.
The new Four-Star shoe has the best shape and I like the long break on the toe. It wears the best and doesn’t give you a sharp breakover, holds its shape and is made for a fine nail such as a 4 1/2 or 5 race nail. I like the long break on the toe of the Four-Star shoe. The nails fit in the shoe, lock in the crease and cause less hoof wall damage. The shoe has excellent concavity for flat-footed horses.
Q: What is an aluminum shoe used for besides weight with hunters?
A: It’s used for its thickness, wide web and other reasons since most hunters are flat-footed Thoroughbreds or clubby warmbloods. Its used to get the horse up off the ground if he’s slightly sore. You need a wide web to support and protect the sole. I may use some Four-Star, Light Champion shoes, Elites, St. Croix and even Quarter Horse shoes from G.E. to do this.
Q: These competition hunters show extensively and their feet get beat up pretty bad. What can farriers do to keep the feet healthy and sound?
A: We use aluminum shoes on these horses for 7 or 8 months, then wonder why their feet get bad. The hoof walls are breaking up, chipping and you can end up with really bad feet. Some hunters on the show circuit are bathed four times a day and worked as much as 15 times a day in all kinds of conditions and surfaces.
The hunter has a tough, demanding career, but there are things that you can do. There are times when you need a pad, but in my opinion, pads are one of the the worst things you can put on a hunter’s feet.
You take the shoe off, cut 1/4-, 3/8- or 1/16-inch off the hoof depending on how long it’s been since you shod him and you get his foot back to a natural balance. Now you use a pad, add that 1/4 inch back and end up with basically what you had when you started.
When the feet on a hunter are really bad, I’ll grab a steel shoe, heat it up and hot fit the foot. I don’t trim the burn marks out and also leave a little sole pressure on them.
I know that approach is considered wrong and I’m going to get a lot of flack for saying this, but if it’s a bad foot then you can’t take any foot off and can only roll up the edges. If you hot-fit a foot, you can leave more sole pressure.
When you cut a hoof down to the nub, hot fit them and put sole pressure on them, you’re in trouble! To overcome this problem, I may use a light hot-fit and a shoe with good concavity to get them off the sole with the finest nail possible.
Just remember that a 12-foot stride doesn’t make a 14-foot horse. Have a great day!