It's hard to imagine losing a horse or rider to an accident. I think everyone realises the risks of cross country eventing and it's why it's a sport that is not as popular compared to other disciplines and I think for good reason.
Cross-country is known to be the most dangerous portion of the three-day eventing, a triathlon for horse and rider teams, composed of three types of competition that require endurance, and test the bond between the horse and rider team.
Dressage, which is sometimes known as horse ballet, tests a rider’s discipline as they guide their horse around a set course of movements as gracefully as possible. Each move in a dressage test is scored between a 0 and a 10, with a 10 being the highest mark a rider can achieve for a move. At the end of the round, the marks for each move are added together to come up with a final score.
Cross-country follows the next day, and is an endurance test that sends horse and rider over a course of 30 to 40 jumps long, set over a large green area. Obstacles are usually built from solid objects such as trees, boulders and sometimes even vehicles. If the horse refuses the jump, there is a penalty of 20 points. There are additional penalties for subsequent refusals, with the third causing elimination. Finishing the course over the time allowed will also cost the rider one penalty per second. If the horse or rider falls on course, they are eliminated.
Finally, on the third day, horse and rider must have enough strength left to compete in show jumping, where they must get around a set of jumps in an arena. The jumps are built of poles instead of solid objects, and will fall over if the horse even brushes them slightly. The team must complete the course as fast as possible without knocking any of the fences down. Penalties in show jumping are similar to those in cross-country, with four faults given for each jump knocked down, or refusal to jump a fence, with a third refusal resulting in elimination. Completing the course over the time allowed costs the rider one penalty per second, and a fall results in elimination.
It’s believed that since 1997, nearly 40 people around the world have died in various levels of competition in the cross-country portion of eventing competitions. In at least 25 of these cases, the rider died after the horse tripped and somersaulted.
Cross-country is not only deadly for riders, but for their mounts too. While information about horse fatalities is harder to come by, at least 19 top level eventing horses died in 2007 and 2008 while competing in the cross-country portion of the event.
Despite the danger, the sport has a long history, and is even popular among British royalty. Queen Elizabeth’s granddaughter Zara Phillips is competing in the 2012 Olympics as a member of the British team.
From a distance, Kelsy Smith’s horse looks like most Preliminary-level event horses: he’s fit, he’s bay, and he’s over 16 hands. But if you look closely, you’ll notice one major difference between Huxley Heights and the other equines in his classes: Huxley does not wear horseshoes.
Eventing barefoot is not the norm in the Pacific Northwest, but that didn’t stop Smith and her Dutch WB x QH, Huxley, from taking on their debut season at Prelim without shoes. In 2013 they competed in five USEA horse trials, accumulating scores to earn them the title of Open Prelim Year-End Champion in USEA Area VII. And this season they plan to compete in their first CCI*… barefoot.
Smith has kept Huxley barefoot for his entire riding career. “Every horse is an individual,” she says, “for Hux I think barefoot offers more advantages [than shoes]: easier on his joints, better circulation in the hoof/leg, good traction, etc. Also, I never have to worry about if my horse pulls a shoe on course or what type of stud to use.”
Smith is quick to point out though that she “spends a fair amount of time conditioning his feet for the workload. Making sure he’s turned out as much as possible in a large space, graveling his paddock, and working him on different terrains: gravel logging roads, paved roads, hard and soft pasture/grass, etc.” She cites lifestyle management and a thoughtful hoof conditioning program as key to Hux’s soundness.
Smith is not the only eventer keeping her horse steel free; there seems to be a small but dedicated number of eventers competing barefoot in the U.S., especially at the lower levels. Amrita Eldine Ibold competes at Training level on a home-bred, self-trained Akhal-Teke gelding, Turkmen Air. Ibold challenges the status quo that a barefoot horse is at a disadvantage or lacks quality care; she points out, “According to the barefoot movement, a horse that needs shoes is a lame horse.”
Amrita Ibold and Turkmen Air schooling XC barefoot. Photo by Jenny Rice.
Bridget Brewer has been taking her horses barefoot for seven years, including two OTTBs. She currently competes barefoot on her Novice-level mare, Moonshine, a 9 year old Irish Draught. Her reasons for keeping her horses barefoot boil down to health: “From a physics perspective, a bare hoof absorbs the shock better [than a shod hoof] as it expands on contact, which reduces the shock that gets transmitted up the leg into the joints and soft tissue. This same mechanism also provides increased blood pumping action.”
Undoubtedly, in three-day eventing barefoot eventers are a minority group. Shoes and studs are widely considered necessary tools of the trade, and it goes against the grain to keep a show horse unshod. Responses to barefoot competitors can range from genuine curiosity to grave concern. Some riders report push back from trainers or fellow competitors when they choose to compete without horseshoes. Amrita sums it up: “In eventing, most people think you are crazy for going without shoes and studs.”
But the reality is that barefoot does work for some event horses. Smith says, “I think more horses could go barefoot than people think or allow,” and she encourages folks who have horses with quality hooves to consider barefoot hoofcare. After all, to shoe or not to shoe is a conscious decision riders get to make when it comes to their horse’s welfare; it appears the USEA, USEF, or FEI do not have rules regarding shoeing.
There are pros and cons with any hoofcare decisions. To riders who want to venture into barefoot territory, Smith cautions: “Don’t expect to pull your horse’s shoes and be competing at the same level the next weekend. It takes time, conditioning, and work to ‘fit up’ the hoof to be able to handle the workload. If you try to push too hard, too fast you’ll set yourself back a long way, just like with anything else.”
Bridget Brewer competing unshod. Photo by Kevin Michael Brewer.
Brewer elaborates on this, “Barefoot is not an easy road as today’s urban, mostly stalled horse lifestyles make it hard for the barefoot hoof to become robust and strong… Successful barefoot requires lots of movement, a low sugar diet, and frequent trims from someone who specializes in the barefoot trim. The hoof will adapt and change over time and the walls will thicken and the sole will develop a callous. Some horses are easier than others, and some may always be a tender on rocks and rough surfaces.”
Many recreational riders have embraced barefoot hoofcare for their horses, and if you look, you can find barefoot horses competing in mainstream sporthorse disciplines outside eventing. For example, some racehorse trainers are running unshod Thoroughbreds, and barefoot dressage horses are starting to make the headlines, with well-known riders like Shannon and Steffen Peters giving it a try. Brewer explains, “I am excited about some of the momentum barefoot is gaining as better information on how to be successful becomes available and the advantages to the horse is better known.”
When it comes to preserving equine health in our sport, honest discussions about what works and what doesn’t work for our horses is key. As a long-time “barefoot eventer,” I find that many of us are asked why when we don’t shoe, but few ask why when we DO shoe. At the end of the day, any conversation about what is best for our horses is a good one to have. What hoofcare practices work well for your eventing partner?