New Swedish research on the difference between shod horse hooves and barefoot hooves has finally concluded: Barefoot hooves can move 50% more than hooves that are shod with traditional horseshoes. That, and other findings from the study, helps to explain why horses can improve their performance by going barefoot.
By Helle Maigaard Erhardsen - for Scoot Boot
Friday February 24, 2023, at the Gothenburg Horse Show in Sweden, the final results of the much-anticipated barefoot study "Unshod Sports Horses - for Durability and Performance" were finally presented by leading scientist Lars Roepstorff from the Swedish Agricultural University (SLU) and Peder Fredricson, one of the best showjumpers in the world.
Preliminary results from the study have already indicated a significant difference in the ability of the horses’ hooves to contract and expand if they are restricted by a horseshoe or not. The final results presented this Friday revealed that the difference in movement of the barefoot hoof and the shod hoof was as much as up to 50%, said Lars Roepstorff at the media presentation.
Furthermore, the study shows that the contraction of the barefoot hoof that happens just before the horse sets foot on the ground, is non-existent in the shod hoof. The contraction that happens in the roll-over phase of the barefoot hoof, is hardly even traceable in the shod hoof either.
Whereas the lead scientist professor Lars Roepstorff wants more analysis done to draw conclusions on the consequences of these findings, Olympic gold medallist in showjumping Peder Fredricson offered his thoughts on the findings:
“As I see it, it shows that the barefoot hoof is able to do what it’s been built to do, and that the horse’s shock absorption works better when the hoof can move as it should,” Peder said at the media presentation.
In the following, we will look at some of the other significant findings of this brand new pilot study, which are all largely related to a performance advantage of the barefoot horse as compared to when the same horse is shod with traditional iron horseshoes.
Over-all Greater Range of Motion in the Barefoot Hoof
The study was initiated in 2021 based on extraordinary achievements from letting previously shod horses perform barefoot without horseshoes. Achievements that up till now have lacked scientific evidence but could have game changing potentials for reducing lameness and injuries in top sports horses as well as pleasure horses.
Swedish showjumping champion Peder Fredricson has experienced far less injuries in his horses since taking them barefoot and as he said during the media presentation, his vet bills have decreased dramatically. Peder has been a key part of the study not only as an initiator, but also by facilitating the practical ridden tests for the study.
These are the 5 key findings of the pilot study on barefoot hoof performance:
- When the horse is barefoot as compared to shod, you’ll find expansion across the quarters of the hoof, an increased widening and thus a greater range of motion, the inner and outer quarters have greater mobility in the vertical direction in relation to each other, an increased contraction of the hoof during roll-over and an increased contraction is also seen just before impact.
- The rotation of the hoof around the transverse axis as seen from the side of the horse, is different if the horse is barefoot or shod. The total range of motion decreases when the horse is barefoot and the rotational acceleration increases as compared to when the same horse is shod.
- The movement pattern in terms of how long the hoof is on the ground versus in the air changes when the horse is barefoot as compared to shod. The barefoot hoof has an increased so-called duty factor, which is how high a percentage of the entire stride the hoof is on the ground/in stance, and has an increased stride frequency at given speed.
- When landing, the barefoot hoof slides slightly further than the shod horse hoof.
- In summary of the in-depth interviews, the riders at the 5* level who today train and compete without shoes, firstly speak about the positive health effects of the horse being barefoot as compared to shod. Everyone primarily talked about and wanted to emphasize health benefits. All riders felt that they had fewer orthopedic injuries that required veterinary treatment. In second place came performance benefits such as the horses becoming more "light-footed" and nimble in their movement pattern. There was also agreement that the barefoot horses at times needed protection on their feet depending on the surface conditions.
Now, let’s take a look at what some of these findings actually mean for your horse and his performance if you’re riding him barefoot or traditionally shod.
Olympic gold medallist in showjumping Peder Fredricson said his vet bills have decreased dramatically since taking his horses barefoot.
Unshod Horses Prepare their Hooves for Landing
The goal of the study was to scientifically measure and explain the differences Peder clearly feels is happening in his horses when training and competing barefoot. As such, the study was carefully designed to use quantitative methods to investigate how movement patterns can change when a horse moves with or without shoes, with particular focus on the lower part of the limb and hoof.
One discovery from the study, which came to much surprise of the researchers and Peder, was the fact that the unshod hoof was found to contract its quarters in the moment just before landing. This is a finding that has never been described in literature before and Professor Lars Roepstorff discusses its possible implications in the research report:
“One can speculate whether it is due to the horse preparing the hoof for landing and weight bearing by starting to tense the deep flexor tendon at the same time as the hoof is slowed up in both rotation and position, and thus creates inertial forces, which mean that the tension in the deep tendon, so to speak, receives a counterweight similar to what you see during rollover.”
This contraction was only found when the horses were barefoot and non-existent when they were shod. It is yet to be investigated what it means for the shod horse and in particular his deep flexor tendons, that this presumed preparation for impact throughout the lower limb could be restrained by the nailed-on horseshoe.
Lars Roepstorff and Peder Fredricson in front of a chart displaying a 50% greater movement in the unshod hoof and the contraction before impact, that only happens in the barefoot hoof.
Shod Horses Move Slower than Barefoot Horses
It has been known for decades that adding weight and height under the horse’s feet will force them to lift their legs higher, which in turn has been used to exaggerate the leg lift in some gaited horse breeds. However, this Swedish study has now been able to measure in great detail just how much only a traditional 8mm horseshoe can change the movement and speed in a horse.
Key finding number 2 of the new study is that the unshod horses rotate their hooves less than the shod horses and the rotation of the hooves happens quicker. With less weight on the hoof, the horse does not have to lift the leg as high during the hovering phase and the faster accelerations allow the horse to switch more quickly between support phase and swing phase.
Figuratively speaking, according to the report discussion, we can say that the horse becomes more light-footed, which in turn could be an explanation for the fact that the horses could be faster both over and between obstacles. When Peder Fredricson was asked at the media presentation if he felt his barefoot horses were quicker over the jump, he said:
“Not so much in that particular phase, it’s more like driving a car with power steering – all goes a little easier and smoother. (…) You get the feeling that the horse has better control over his body and his feet, because he can feel the surface and there’s no extra weight.”
The high speed cameras used in the study are the same type of camera that are used for motion capture when creating film animations. The markers resemble little balls and it takes many of these to create an accurate 3D reconstruction.
Barefoot Horses Transforms Muscle Power more Efficiently than Shod Horses
The 3rd key finding of the study builds on from the 2nd key finding and relates to the difference in how long the shod and the unshod horse has its hooves on the ground in between strides. The Swedish researchers found that with less high leg lift and a faster change between support and hover phase, the barefoot horse can keep the hoof on the ground relatively longer than the shod horse during each stride cycle.
What does this mean in real life? To answer this at the media presentation, Lars Roepsorff forwarded the question to the audience and asked; Well, who wins the second round against time in showjumping? The horse who can take more steps per second!
As explained in the research report, all the work of movement whether it is straight forward movement, acceleration or deceleration, quick turns or jumps, is done during the time that the hoof is in contact with the ground.
The more time, relatively speaking, during each stride, muscles get to work, the more efficiently the work can be done. Increased step frequency simply means taking more steps per second. The effect of this is that for a given distance between two fences, let's say 4 canter strides (approx. 17.5-18m), you can ride faster.
The graphs illustrate the difference in how long the barefoot horse has his feet on the ground in between strides as compared to the shod horse.
Health Benefits of Transitioning your Horse from Shod to Barefoot
The in-depth interview part of the study concluded that all participants emphasized the health benefits they had experienced with their horses since transitioning them out of horseshoes. However, the pilot study didn’t include the epidemiological and orthopedic health analysis it would require to scientifically prove the connection between barefoot horses and the less injuries and better health that the interviewees are experiencing.
Nonetheless, Professor Lars Roepstorff and Peder Fredricson are hopeful the research will be continued. As the research report suggests, there is potential to find a connection between the increased internal mobility in the barefoot hoof and an increased blood circulation, which is important for supplying nutrients and oxygen to tissues and removing waste products.
“The other potentially important effect of increased mobility could be that you get a better shock absorbing mechanism in the lower part of the limb which could reduce maximum loads in joints, tendons and ligaments. The latter we have so far not been able to quantify in this trial, but there are still some analyzes that can be done,” the Professor writes in the research report.
The media presentation of the final results of the barefoot study at the Gothenburg Horse Show in Sweden.
Read more about How to Transition your Horse from Iron Shoes to Barefoot
Read more about Using Hoof Boots as an Alternative to Horseshoes
Read more about Hoof Boots for Competitive Performance Riding
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About the author
Helle Maigaard Erhardsen is an investigative journalist specialising in environmental issues. Her devotion to the outdoors includes a life long passion for horses of which she has three: An off-the-track Thoroughbred, a paint horse and a Shetland pony, who are all bitless and barefoot. Helle is born in Denmark, where she graduated from the Danish School of Media and Journalism in 2015. Her work is characterised by comprehensive research and she was nominated for the special media award Bording Prisen for her investigative reporting with the newspaper Ing.dk. She later obtained a Master’s degree in Journalism, Media and Communication from UTAS, when she relocated to Tasmania. Helle for Scoot Boot.