Once regarded as pretty radical, bar shoes now are experiencing something of a renaissance. In particular, egg bar shoes are being fitted to more feet now more than ever before-even those belonging to horses in high-intensity athletic careers, such as racing or showjumping. The reason? Simple--they work!
The term "bar shoe" encompasses any type of shoe with a closed heel rather than an open heel, including the straight bar shoe, which is a regular shoe with a bar of steel or aluminum welded across its heels. The straight bar shoe has fallen out of favor these days, in deference to the egg bar, which provides better support of the horse's weight with less direct compression on the heels. An egg-bar shoe, so called because of its oval shape, can be made by forging two shoes together so they form a continuous ring. It's nailed on the foot in the normal way, but the posterior portion of the oval projects beyond the horse's heels.
There are an infinite number of types and variations on bar shoes used for therapeutic applications. Most notably is the heart-bar shoe, which features a central triangular projection that covers the frog. Although bar shoes were once a custom-forged item, they now come ready-made, in materials ranging from aluminum to steel to titanium, in a kaleidoscope of sizes, shapes, and designs-a testament to their ever-increasing popularity.
Veteran farrier Chris Zizian, of Milton, Ontario, increasingly finds that egg-bar shoes are a good solution for many horses with problem feet. "The more research I do, the more I like them," he says. "They're useful for a lot of problems. Some horses need them for a few months on a therapeutic basis, but others just stay in them."
Zizian notes that "hardly anyone who's 'up' on the literature uses straight bar shoes anymore; there's too much potential for crushing the bulbs of the heels if they're not applied properly." In his practice, egg bars are the much preferred way to go, he says. "It just turns out (the egg bar) is a better shoe."
What sorts of problems can an egg bar help solve?
"Egg bars support the posterior portion of the hoof. A horse with long-pastern, low-heel syndrome-a lot of Thoroughbreds fit that description-can really benefit from such a shoe," Zizian says.
"With a foot that has a low, under-run heel," he explains, "the hoof capsule is being pushed toward the toe. An egg bar shifts the weight back toward the heel and supports that weight, so it encourages the hoof to grow more correctly."
Zizian said he also finds egg bar shoes helpful for horses with sheared heels.
"An egg bar is really good for relieving the pressure on the side of the heels that's sheared (the higher of the two heels). You can trim the capsule on the sheared side so that it isn't touching the shoe, and it will settle down on its own over time and even out at the coronet band."
He said horses with heel area lameness or bruising get relief from an egg bar shoe, and it allows them to stay in work.
A correctly sized egg bar shoe can add about 25% more ground-bearing surface to the foot, which can be a significant help for horses with disproportionately small feet. Heavily muscled stock horse breeds which tend to suffer from contracted heels often can improve the shape of their feet over time with the application of egg bar shoes, and they're increasingly popular with dressage competitors riding 18-hand, 1,600-pound warmbloods.
Horses with weakness in the fetlock area can benefit from the extra support of an egg bar shoe as well. In essence, an egg bar shoe gives the horse a larger surface area to stand over, which can help support a leg with suspensory problems. (For instance, they are used if a horse is suffering from degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis, or DSLD, a condition in which the suspensories lose their elasticity, and the fetlock begins to drop toward the ground.) An egg bar shoe can even act as a preventative against lameness for a horse with an identified suspensory problem, Zizian says.
"The back of the shoe should extend as far back as the line of the back of the cannon bone and fetlock. That will help keep the fetlock from dropping too far-and if the fetlock doesn't drop as far, the breakover is improved."
In some cases, the flight path of the feet actually becomes enhanced, despite the slightly heavier weight of an egg bar shoe.
Although egg bars traditionally have been recommended for navicular syndrome, Zizian remarks that as veterinary and farrier research continues to evolve, "navicular" is becoming a pretty nebulous concept. Essentially, it describes a collection of symptoms, rather than an actual diseaseprocess-and the symptoms could be caused by anything from actual deterioration of the navicular bone to a relatively simple case of sheared heels. Regardless of the cause, there's a good chance that egg bars might improve the soundness of a horse with navicular-like symptoms.
However, if a horse becomes sound in egg bar shoes, was he really a true "navicular" case to begin with?
As for heart bar shoes, Zizian says they have a few, specific applications.
"They're useful for supporting the coffin bone area in laminitic horses, and also for horses who are sore in the 'seat of corn' area (the spot where the white line and the bars meet, near the heels). They put pressure on the frog and take it off the hoof wall, so the corn can heal; it's a temporary fix," he says.
This quality of "unweighting" the wall also can help if, for example, a horse has a quarter crack. The heart bar shoe often prevents the wall from breaking away or the crack from widening.
Horses with fractures of a "wing" of the coffin bone can benefit from heart bar shoes as well. "We used to make up custom bar shoes, with a bar that ran diagonally across the foot to support the break," he notes, "but it's rare to use that sort of thing today. The heart bar is usually a better solution."
In most cases, a horse will wear bar shoes on his front feet only. But Zizian says if there's a specific hind-end problem to treat, then a horse can successfully wear them on all four feet.
With all of these applications, it's no wonder bar shoes are exploding in popularity. But it's not as simple as just slapping a pair on the front feet and heading off to the races (or the show ring).
"A bar shoe is a therapeutic shoe, and should be treated as such," says Zizian. "When your horse is wearing them, you'll have to change your routine a bit."
Turnout, for instance, can become an issue when your horse is wearing shoes that project out behind his heels. Running and playing at liberty probably provide the bes0t chance for him to grab the projection with a toe and yank the shoe off. Imagine the carnage if your horse were to snag an egg bar-shod foot in a wire fence! The best approach with a horse sporting egg bar shoes is to limit turnout to a small field or arena with wooden or pipe fencing, put him there by himself (to limit the amount of galloping around he'll do), and outfit him with big, sloppy bell boots of gum rubber, which hang over the actual shoe, not just the heels. It's far better, reasons Zizian, to sacrifice a bell boot than an expensive egg bar shoe that might remove half the foot when it goes.
That said, Zizian notes that there are many horses which have no more trouble keeping egg bar shoes on than regular, open-heeled shoes. He's seen them in use not only on dressage horses, but also on showjumpers and even eventers, who are galloping and jumping over uneven terrain.
"There are a lot of top-level horses wearing egg-bar shoes with no problems," he says. "If they're correctly applied, they should be no more likely to come off than a regular shoe."
Two types of terrain that will heighten the risk of lost shoes are deep mud and going downhill at speed; these should be avoided if possible.
Horses which manage repeatedly to pull off their egg bar shoes probably do so not because of the design of the shoe, but because of the symptoms that made them egg bar candidates in the first place: poor quality horn, long toes, and under-run heels. Chronic stall-walkers, pawers, or weavers also are prone to ripping off bar shoes. If a horse really is determined to remove his egg bar shoes, some farriers might resort to a straight-bar shoe until such time as a better foot starts to grow.
Zizian emphasizes that applying an egg bar shoe on any horse requires a certain amount of expertise.
"You really need a competent and experienced farrier to correctly install a bar shoe. There's a little more skill required-and a better understanding of anatomy and locomotion-than with a simpler shoe. So, it's probably not the kind of thing you want to ask your apprentice farrier to try on his first day."
Essential to the correct application of an egg bar shoe is making sure the rear portion of the shoe isn't pressing on the heel bulbs, which could crush the soft tissue and cause lasting damage. Zizian notes, "It's very easy to choose a bar shoe that's too small in a misguided effort to keep the rear projection from sticking out too far. But if the shoe is too small, it will place pressure on the heels. What people don't understand is that by applying the right size of egg bar shoe correctly, you can improve the breakover of the foot-and that will mean the front foot gets out of the way of the hind more easily. So you end up with less risk of yanking the shoe off than you would if you put on a too-small shoe that doesn't help the breakover."
One essential with bar shoes is some sort of traction device, Zizian says. "An egg bar represents just that much more steel a horse is standing on, so it can be very slippery. I think it's crucial to put caulks on any kind of bar shoe; they're just placed at the heels where any ordinary caulk would be."
Because bar shoes also require expert and accurate fitting, they are almost always applied hot. And since long toes defeat the purpose of an egg bar shoe, Zizian says he finds that a square or rolled toe, which can ease breakover on the front feet, is a very good idea. Occasionally he sets the shoes back from the toe instead, which has a similar effect.
From a farrier's point of view, the wide availability of good-quality, ready-made bar shoes might have something to do with their increasing popularity. It's far less time consuming now for a farrier to outfit a horse with egg bar shoes. Also, because the ready-made shoes are stamped from a single piece of metal, they're less likely to break than the hand-made, welded kind.
Fairly advanced farriery skills still are required when egg bar shoes are involved, and that will cost the owner more than an ordinary set of shoes. More frequent re-setting is required; expect to have yourfarrier out every three to four weeks if you want to minimize the chance of lost shoes.
Don't expect instant grace when your horse is shod with egg bar shoes for the first time; many need a few days to get used to them. There also is likely to be a transition period if and when your farrier and veterinarian agree that it's time to return to an open-heeled shoe. If any lameness recurs once your horse is outfitted with a plain, wide-webbed shoe, he's telling you he needs the extra heel support and load-bearing assistance of an egg bar. While it's not the most inexpensive or low-maintenance approach, there's nothing wrong with maintaining your horse in bar shoes throughout his career, if that's what he requires to perform.
About the Author
Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.
POLL: University Equine Hospitals