Big Feet, Big Shoes

Whether you're a heavy horse fancier or not, a big hitch of fancy draft horses is an arresting sight. But what's the connection between all this flash and the ideal function of a heavy horse? Show ring insiders say you're seeing an animal displaying its full range of motion, while skeptics argue that the horse's anatomy is dangerously compromised by the hardware and the reshaping of the feet. The exaggerated movement of draft horses in the ring is often achieved by changing the foot shape, with emphasis on flaring the hoof walls. Of course, there's also some help from anatomical features that are considered desirable in show-quality draft horses. In the following article, farriers comment on "dress draft" shoeing as it's practiced today.

Action in Motion

First of all, what do we make of the famous Scotch Bottom shoe, the item synonymous with high action in heavy horses? Draft horses, including Clydesdales, wear them. The hind shoes are frequently made so there's no iron at all covering the inside rear quarter of the horse's foot (which seems to be a reference to Scottish thrift, but that's not where their name comes from). A Scotch Bottom shoe is simply one that's been "scotched," or beveled outward beyond the edge of the horse's hoof, increasing the surface area of the hoofprint. That's the official definition, as stated by the dictionary of the Farrier and Hoofcare Resource Center and the Draft Horse Journal's roundtable on shoeing drafts. Independent farriers contacted for this article agreed.

The Scotch Bottom shoe originated overseas, where horses were worked on soft, boggy ground. Nowadays in this country, they're only used for showing. Scotch bottom shoes come in graduated sizes, just like any other shoes, although the shapes for hind and fore shoes are more markedly different from one another than are shoes for light horses. The fronts are wide and often are nearly square; the hind shoes are sometimes missing that rear quarter. They're designed to exaggerate action, and no draft horse makes it in the show ring without them. They look to the unpracticed eye like the horses are wearing Frisbees on their feet.

How does that shoe work to exaggerate movement?

"It's simple physics," says Will Lent in the Draft Horse Journal. Lent, of Shelby, Mich., is the third-largest manufacturer of shoes for draft horses in the world, and possibly the one that offers the widest variety.

"In principle, the heavier the weight on the end of the pendulum, the farther it will swing," he explains.

Draft horses are also bred to carry their hocks as close together as possible, as breeders say this is the most advantageous anatomy for a horse whose job it is to squat and pull. A calk added to the outside of a hind shoe will tend to make the horse carry its hocks even closer together.

Says Sally Bauder of Hillcroft Stables in Westerlo, N.Y., a training barn specializing in Shire horses, "A good draft horse in a cart is what you call a stomper, and they have a lot of action."

It's widely held that the heavier the shoe, the more exaggerated the horse's action, but the equation doesn't always work well. Some horses labor with a heavy shoe. Tim Kriz of the celebrated Kriz family of farriers in Bethany, Conn., says you don't want your horses winging or paddling (swinging the foot outward or inward during travel), which can result from the use of a shoe that's too heavy.

Lauren Waite, who shoes draft horses over a huge territory ranging across most of New York State and parts of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, explains further. Most hitch horses, he says, are shod with a flat plate, while horses shown in halter--often mares slated for breeding--will have a heel calk on the outside of each hind shoe that stands them up about a quarter of an inch. The heels tend to shorten a flat stride and encourage a horse to lift.

"If they're raised up behind," Bauder cautions, "the big deal is that it shortens the horse's tendons. It also has the tendency to contract the heels a bit. Most people pull the shoes to let that tendon lengthen during the winter, but not everybody does. The high action comes from breeding, too."

Draft horses hit the show ring in halter when they're quite young. But putting Scotch Bottoms on a horse under the age of three is asking for trouble, Lent warns. "It just puts too much stress on the works in the legs, making injury an even greater possibility. Young horses have a hard enough time getting their feet to go where they should be going, so why add to the problem?"

Waite, who has shod draft horses as young as one year old for the ring, stipulates that if you do a respectable--not overly exaggerated--job, the problems it causes depends on how long the shoes stay on. A week on average, he believes, is fine.

The thicker the shoe at the bottom of the foot, the more room there is to bevel; thus, pads are often used in Scotch Bottom shoeing. Many farriers say leather pads are better when feasible; the nail holes in the foot last longer, and the foot can breathe. Waite uses plastic pads for horses shown in-hand since they have to show more action than horses that are hitched, and it's easier to build up plastic. Thrush in hitch horses is often caused by dirt and moisture accumulating under plastic pads, although improved formulas of packing go a long way toward alleviating the problem.

So why don't working drafts wear Scotch Bottom shoes? First, most working drafts need shoes with heel and toe calks for traction, and the natural inverted dish shape of the horse's sole creates a much better gripping surface than a flat pad surface does. Also, Waite explains, working horses with Scotch Bottom shoes would be constantly stepping on themselves and each other, especially in the close proximity demanded by plowing. Circumstantially, working drafts spend a much greater percentage of their time on pasture than show horses do, and more shoes get lost that way than by horses who spend most of their time indoors. There are hitch horses that wear their Scotch shoes year-round, Waite adds. That's not his individual preference, "but they don't seem to be having problems because of it."

Natural--or Assisted--Flare

Given enough time, a foot can be induced to flare out to meet a wide shoe, but it doesn't happen overnight. Figuring a show season beginning in July, for instance, a farrier might start to grow the foot a minimum of two shoeings ahead of time--12-16 weeks or longer. Few horses can produce a big, symmetrical, flat foot in that short time frame, however, and that's where the putty comes in. Technologically advanced putty/epoxy products enable the farrier to make up the difference in a foot that doesn't grow out consistently or one that cracks.

Puttying isn't a formula for cheating; this helpful compound has many humane applications. Some new formulations have been shown to be effective on everything from foal hoof extensions (to address conformation problems) to giraffe foot repair. It's possible to grow out a flared foot without it, but it takes careful monitoring and planning. A farrier who wants to develop a hitch horse's feet without putty would begin the process as much as six months in advance.

Given the dearth of draft horse shoers, it's comforting that farrier schools have been springing up around the country. U.S. residents don't have anything that corresponds to the standardized approach that holds sway in Britain, where fancy draft shoeing originated. The Worshipful Company of Farriers (WCF) was founded more than six hundred years ago and is exclusive; the membership is limited to 375 people worldwide. Chris Gregory, who runs the Heartland Shoeing School in Lamar, Mo., is one of only two Americans who have been accepted by the WCF. He discusses the logic and practicality of show draft shoeing from an anatomical point of view.

The hoof is composed of tubules, Gregory reminds us, and there is no stronger position for the hoof wall than to have straight tubular horn. "If the horn tubules are allowed to bend, flare, flex, etc., they weaken the overall foot," he remarks. "Flare becomes worse with time as the foot grows from above."

Gregory asserts that the hoof shape is closely related to the shape of the coffin bone. Since bone is dynamic and will change from the stresses put upon it, "Over time, the coffin bone will remodel to resemble the shape of the hoof wall that has been improperly shaped," he says.

One of the current WCF members in Britain recommends having hitch horses barefoot until it's necessary to show them. This is obviously the preferred scenario in terms of hoof health, as long as a moist-enough pasture is available to avoid drying out feet too much.


A current hitch horse shoeing issue drawing fire in Britain is a practice called "couping." A "couped" horse is shod to create the illusion that the hind legs are so close together as to almost look like a single unit, with a horse's extravagant feathers contributing to the effect. Of course, good draft breeding, especially in Clydesdales, is borne out in closely carried hocks. The Scotch shoeing needed to help create this effect is more extreme--and this is where you find the single-calked three-quarter shoe with a bigger lateral calk and an exaggerated quarter. With the inner rear quarter missing altogether, the "couped" horse is much less likely to wrench the shoe off. It should be noted that these shoes are in use here in America, and that there are no regulations regarding them. There are, in fact, no complaints on record as to their being inhumane. Yet in Scotland, welfare advocates and even Parliament have been moving toward banning them.

The close-hocked look might be strange to most of us, but in the Clydesdale's native country, walking in a field's furrows would have been close to impossible for these big-footed horses if their hind limbs weren't carried abnormally close together. There are also hazards in the horse carrying his hocks too far apart, which can result from improper shoeing. The result is sometimes "rope walking," meaning the horse's feet tend to land inward, close to his centerline, rather than straight forward. This can change the musculature of the horse's gaskins and make him look as though his hips have rotated.

Historically and Today

While Britain has a much more regulated horseshoeing community than we do here, the majority of heavy horses in use in the UK are engaged in promotion, breeding, and in-hand showing. Where heavy horses are concentrated in urban areas, as they once were in London, the need to regulate methods is much more obvious. The economic vitality of the horse industry, and of industry in general, was heavily dependent on the quality of horse care in pre-industrial London. Although this is obviously no longer the case, cultural differences between that country and the United States still account for a difference in approach to horse welfare.

We do know that American draft horse owners tend to live too far apart to come under the jurisdiction of any overseeing body of farriers. By and large, American draft owners do the work themselves because they have to. This goes not only for owners of working draft horses, but sometimes show drafts as well.

Computers and Drafts

One thing that will contribute a great deal to our knowledge of the effects of show-ring draft shoeing is motion analysis software. With these programs (which can be quite expensive), an observer can evaluate a number of factors such as joint (especially hock and knee) action, stride length, and straightness, while playing video clips side-by-side and even frame-by-frame. Obviously, it will be (and has been) just as useful in evaluating other breeds as well. A study of the "couped" Clydesdale in Britain was promised in late 2004, but the results have yet to be published. While draft owners wait for scientific evidence, they have several facts to keep in mind. Styles might come and go, and the revival of interest in showing draft horses in the United States is a good thing. But the hoof tubules should stay straight: the more a horse's foot flares, the more trouble can result. As with many things equine and otherwise, balance and moderation are the key.

About the Author

Sally Eckhoff

Sally Eckhoff is a horse trainer/literary critic in upstate New York, and she has authored a book on working horses, mules, and oxen in the 21st Century.

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