Friday, 6 July 2012

Logical conclusions

Steve Leigh sent me a great article yesterday. It highlights new research that has been done by Northumbria University (if you click on the photo you can enlarge it for easier reading or there is an e-version thanks to Matt Thompson here) comparing biomechanics for runners in shoes and  barefoot. The prof behind the research himself ran the Great North Run barefoot - you have to love a man who is speaking from experience :-)
There are lots of interesting aspects but the study found that - barefoot - runners used less energy and had better biomechanics. There was less impact on joints, shorter stride lengths and less time spent in contact with the ground than when in shoes.

Interestingly, the same day as Steve sent me this, I was also sent by M's owner a piece published by a veterinary hospital entitled "Barefoot trimming [!] vs conventional farriery". It wasn't research but a report of a meeting where a leading farrier stated that shoes were necessary "to provide protection, to provide grip and for remedial purposes".

Now, you and I are well aware that shoes aren't a pre-requisite for any of these functions. But what also struck me about the report was that although there was a call for research into barefoot, there was no similar call for research into shoeing.

I am not aware of any studies in horses which measure biomechanics in the way this human study did, but since the Northumbria research indicates that shoes hinder, rather than enhance, human biomechanics let's jump to our first logical conclusion.

Let's assume just for moment that shoes affect horses in a similar way as humans (personally my suspicion is that horseshoes have a worse impact because they are generally made of inflexible materials and are kept on for extended periods, but that's just my hunch).

Let's therefore assume that barefoot horses benefit from performing without shoes in the same way that human runners do - fewer injuries, less concussion on joints, more efficient locomotion. 

Now let's look at some of the published research into horses with the types of injuries that we rehab here - primarily navicular bone, DDFT, impar and collateral ligament damage within the hoof.

Previously research indicated that horses with these injuries have a poor prognosis for returning to work. In 2009 Jane Boswell of Liphook Equine Hospital reported to the BEVA congress (10th September 2009) that in a follow up study of horses shown on MRI to have DDFT lesions only 10% had returned to their previous level of work; 40% had suffered persistent lameness and 50% were sound but only in light work.  In an earlier study [Dyson, S., Murray, R. and Schramme, M. (2005) Lameness associated with foot pain: results of magnetic resonance imaging in 199 horses (January 2001-December 2003) and response to treatment. Equine vet. J. 37, 113-121], less than 30% of horses with DDFT/collateral ligament damage returned to the same level of work; where the damage extended to the navicular bone only 5% of horses returned to work.

Its because of figures like this that there is a common assumption that these conditions are degenerative and usually get worse over time.

Our research is showing a more encouraging picture; in the abstract submitted to this year's BEVA congress (which was the last time our results were updated) 85% of rehab horses had returned to the same level of work, despite many of them having arrived with damage to the navicular bone and DDFT/collateral ligaments. Of course, for most of our horses, conventional treatments had already been tried unsuccessfully.

In view of the Northumbria research into human runners, as well as our own rehab results, and in the absence of research showing that shoeing horses has a rehabilitative effect, perhaps there is another logical conclusion we should be researching: not that these conditions are inevitably degenerative, but that shoes could be exacerbating rather than improving these conditions?

ETA: I'm apparently not the only one who is wondering this...This conversation was reported to me a few weeks ago:

My new farrier told me recently that X had great feet and asked if I wondered whether I should have taken his shoes off earlier.
"Why do you ask that?" I said.
"Well, horses are better off without shoes" he replied.
"Eh?" I said (thinking he was taking the proverbial).
"Well" he said "Of course, driving six to eight nails into their feet every six weeks is going to ruin them at some point".
"Erm, I am confused" I said "Why would you be telling me this when its your business to shoe horses".
"I am a barefoot runner myself, only using thinly soled running shoes when doing marathons so I know that barefoot is more natural and better for humans and the horse" he declared."And if its the money you think I would be worried about - well, I am not as I make as much profit by doing a quick rasp or minor trim as I do shoeing a horse when you consider the time involved and the cost of the shoes."
"So, why do so many people shoe their horses?" I asked "Is it a bit of 'follow the crowd'?"
"Absolutely" he said.


amandap said...

Horse shoes are also nailed on and the hoof 'shaped' to take the shoe.
This obviously is not the case with human shoes. I am in agreement with you that that horse shoes have a worse impact than human shoes.

The evidence of altering the (normal) human foot and gait with shoes is that it leads to deformity. Binding in China and high heels, tight, pointy shoes all have very negative effects on the human foot.

amandap said...

Forgot to say, ...they also have a negative effect on human stance and gait and therefore the whole body.

It is so clear to me how altering a horses hooves from the 'norm'for that horse is going to impact on their whole bodies.

Amy Hughes said...

I haven't quite gone barefoot with my running shoes yet - but I have swapped my cushioned running shoes and custom made orthotics for lightweight running shoes and ditched the orthotics. For the first time in many years I have stayed consistantly injury free.

I wonder how much take up you would get if you arranged a Rockley open day for vets (and perhaps specifically invited vets from the pracises which have consented to treatment of rehab horses?). I think seeing the set up, and being able to look at horses at different stages of rehab as well as your own established barefoot horses could be very interesting for them!

Nic Barker said...

Great comments, guys :-) Amy, there was a resounding lack of interest last time I offered it but maybe its time to offer it again. The problem really is time and distance as it would cost then £££ to get here for the day...

Unknown said...

There is a link to that article online here:

My OH is a marathon runner and has been looking into barefoot too.....

Anonymous said...

My farrier says the same thing - shoeing damages the foot, with some benefits to some horses (he thinks). But he's perfectly willing to do a good barefoot trim - as long as I keep after him to be conservative, and all three of my horses are sound barefoot in heavy work on a variety of surfaces, including my TB mare who had been in shoes continuously for 14 years before we took them off last year.

Nic Barker said...

Thanks Helen - I found it via Matt at the same time!

Kate - sounds like a good farrier :-) I think the main benefit of shoes is that they can enable weak feet to perform on terrain where the horse would otherwise be lame, but its at the cost of developing a stronger hoof. Personally I'd rather let the hoof develop to be as strong as possible rather than take shortcuts but its down to choice and practicality, in the end.

Clare said...

You know your problem? You make logical assumptions, it's never going to catch on you know!!! ;-)

Nic Barker said...