by Linda Chamberlain
Sports horses – are they really locked up for their own safety? Are fields such dangerous places that a talented thoroughbred is not allowed near one without a rider? And horseshoes? Surely, these horses work on grass and have no need of them.
Does it have to be like this?
Meet Simon Earle, a racehorse trainer, who asked himself those questions ten years ago and came up with answers that set him on a different path to the rest in the industry. His horses are predominantly barefoot and, surprisingly, live for much of the time in a herd. In a field! If you’re not a horse person, you might not realise the significance of this. Believe me, it’s a rare sight and the common regime for talented equines is training followed by stable confinement. It’s rarely questioned and yet the lifestyle causes such stress that ulcers can be found in most race horses. Tendon injuries are regarded as a hazard of racing but Simon has found that taking their shoes off minimises the risk. It sounds as if I’m tempting fate but, since finding a specialist barefoot trimmer eight years ago, not one of his animals has suffered a tendon injury and yet ninety per cent of conventionally-kept racehorses are thought to suffer such a break down, or similar, at some point in their predominantly short careers.
It’s September and Simon’s horses have finished work. At four o’clock they’ve been fed (high fibre, low sugar, vegetable oil and a magnesium supplement) in the American-style barn that will shelter them at night in winter. Now it’s empty and echoes with our footsteps as we walk to the fields where the horses are grazing and socialising. These equines are a friendly crowd. They come to meet us; some check out my bag or the back of my head. One thinks the bag might be worth chewing but is easily dissuaded. There’s the usual herd dynamics to watch out for – that’s my mare, mate. Get lost. A newcomer is chased away and dominance is achieved without violence. Simon picks up their feet for us to examine even though we don’t have a head collar. The horses are so calm and amenable that for ten seconds I kid myself that even I might manage to ride one should it fall into my bag without him noticing. As I mentally choose a favourite, he apologises because I’m seeing their feet at their worst because they’re due for their four-week trim from farrier and barefoot trimmer, Chris Keable. These hooves are healthy and a credit to both men – no thrush, no white-line separation, both are warnings that things are wrong – but some of the horses haven’t been here long and he’s looking for improvement.
They have the usual high price tags that make your eyes water – up to £85,000. That’s enough reason for most owners and trainers to resort to convention and stabling but Simon has seen results from giving his animals a more natural lifestyle. He views the field as a place of health and safety unlike most of his peers explaining that more accidents happen in the stable. He’s undoubtedly thinking of the recent loss of a promising horse nicknamed, Derek, who was put to sleep after an accident in the stable where he had been recovering from an operation.
‘Our horses are trained from the field,’ he says. ‘And they are out together. It’s better for the horse like that. So many come here from other racing yards and their brains are buzzing. To be a racehorse is very stressful. They are pushed to their limit every day.’
Simon runs a professional yard and there’s no doubt that his horses are also pushed to extremes – he wants winners like any trainer. But their more-natural lifestyle should give his horses an advantage.
He’s already shown that tendon injuries are reduced. He says conventional shoeing plays its part in causing the damage. The farrier endeavours to reduce the number of front shoes pulled off by a hind foot by placing the shoe forward. Eventually the toe becomes long, the heels under run until eventually the foot has migrated changing the break over point and putting strain on the tendon.
‘It’s common sense that if you are weight bearing further forward then the back of the leg takes the strain,’ he says.
I read on the internet how Simon would examine the track after a race to see his horse’s hoof marks and guess what? The barefoot horse doesn’t sink into the ground as much as his shod cousins – less strain on the tendon. He’s also observed that a horse’s stride lengthens without shoes and of course this will help the animal’s heart and his speed.
Simon’s barefoot journey accelerated ten years ago with a retired racehorse called Saucy Night. Frankly, he sounded like pet food and the word retired should have been replaced with finished. He had ulcers, he’d injured his tendons and his feet were a mess. Oh, and he was thin. His career wasn’t successful – not only had he never been placed, he had never passed another horse in his life. A former business partner acquired him and they started repairing him. The shoes were taken off. He was turned out. Slowly he began to recover. Saucy got used to life without shoes. He was put in the horse walker and then ridden. Fast forward to 2005 and a racecourse in Folkestone. Saucy Night made history by becoming the first barefoot winner beating the rest by six lengths. There’s even a You Tube film about him.
Impressed? Saucy continued to make a success of his career before retiring (proper use of the word) a few years later. Simon runs a small yard; he has about a dozen horses, but his most successful horse was Red Not Blue who notched up numerous wins. He had come to him on the verge of retirement at the age of six – he had only one shoe on and after two-weeks of precautionary quarantine was turned out in the field to recover and transition his feet.
I like Simon’s method – so many of us labour for months, sometimes years over this! But I suppose the pleasure horse has stony tracks to contend with and that’s my excuse. A racehorse trainer doesn’t have the luxury of time and he can’t devote himself to one horse and of course he only needs the animal to compete on grass. So, a newcomer is turned out with the others for six weeks preferably in Spring when the feet are growing strongly. He is trimmed every four weeks and not ridden. Then he’s put in the horse walker to see how those feet are faring. The summer gives the horses a lull from racing so the newly barefoot horse has time to show whether he will cope without shoes. Simon is dismissive of hoof boots because he ‘hasn’t found a good one’ and his attitude to metal shoes is pragmatic. He’ll use them if he has to, he’ll even put them on for a month to give horses a chance to grow some foot but he finds them a pain. They fall off and sometimes they wrench half a foot with them.
Racing, he says, is as conventional as the rest of the horse world. So, I was curious to hear how he was regarded by his peers. Apart from one surprised comment at his first appearance with a barefoot horse he doesn’t get any ribbing and no one has questioned his sanity!
He achieves this enviable situation with a personality that is unchallenging. He does his own thing, in his own quiet way. His horses compete, sometimes they win, and he goes home. What? Not even a little bit of curiosity? I ask.
‘There’s been press coverage. People know what I do,’ he says.
Every trainer has a different approach but Simon’s methods are interesting. He favours staff who come from an eventing rather than racing background because, he says, they ride properly. He hastens to qualify the statement, explaining that he wants his horses schooled more than is usual. He wants them working their whole bodies, building up the muscles on their top line and able to sort out their own legs. So if a horse is approaching the final bend in a race, leading with the wrong leg, Simon wants the horse to swap over and not wait for a jockey’s instructions. He also wants the horse to be able to place himself correctly for a jump and so he does a lot of what is known as grid work with them, teaching them to gauge obstacles themselves, minimising the chances of a fall.
Racing, particularly over jumps, has its detractors. It’s hard on the horses. Many are raced at the age of two when they are not fully grown. There are losses and careers can be extremely short. I’m not going to paint a rosy picture of speed and elegance. Hundreds can be lost in a year, still more don’t make the grade or retire without the rebirth made by Saucy Night. What happens to those animals? I don’t ask Simon Earle to defend the sport but what of his own horses?
‘I rehome them and I track them for life,’ he says.
There was a sweet, five-year-old mare in the field who wasn’t up to scratch but I keep myself in check and don’t stick up a hand. Red Not Blue has just gone to a well-known barefoot home.
And two year olds? He doesn’t race them but it’s in character for him not to say much other than it’s not my thing. He favours racing them from the age of five and retiring them at about twelve.
As we leave the fields, we are followed to the gate by a four-year-old bay, one Simon owns himself. He hasn’t raced yet and he has the calm look of a horse who likes humans. ‘He half thinks I’m his mum,’ Simon mutters, rubbing the horse’s face.
Then I remember he’d mentioned Monty Roberts – the innovative trainer from the US who has changed the way many horses are started, not broken, using a method called join up. Simon uses some of Monty’s techniques – of course he does.
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ABOUT ME – I’m a writer and a journalist who has a passion for horses especially if they are barefoot. A Barefoot Journey, is my honest and light-hearted account of going barefoot – including the mistakes, the falls, the triumphs and the nightmares. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p. Horsemanship Magazine said – ‘The writing is charming, warm, and (gently) brutally honest about a subject which is so obviously dear to her heart and central to her life. The big issues of hoof trim, equine lifestyle and human understanding are all covered. From the agony of self-doubt to the ecstasy of equine partnership, it is all laid out here, clearly and thoughtfully. It really ought to be required reading for anyone thinking of taking their horse’s shoes off.’
A Barefoot Journey is a small but perfectly formed field companion for my novel, The First Vet, inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago! Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book has 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical NovelSociety. Here’s one of the latest reviews – ‘I work nights & this book made me miss sleep (which is sacred to me) – I could not put it down! I loved the combination of historical fact & romance novel & it is so well written. I’m going to buy the hard copy now – it deserves a place on my bookshelf & will be read again. 10 gold stars Ms Chamberlain!’