Against the odds

by Linda Chamberlain

zak-1By the age of 10 most race horses will have retired or met with a sticky end.

And yet Zakatal is at the peak of his form; he’s winning races and he’s looking good.

It’s very rare for race goers to notice there is something different about him.  His jockey is reportedly not bothered and a punter once shouted out – ‘Does it work?’ while Zak was parading in the paddock before a race.

You see, this handsome grey is barefoot and according to his co-owner David Furman (below) that gives him a fantastic edge.

‘Sometimes I think about all the other horses and I say, go on, keep shoeing them; it gives us an advantage. But from a welfare point of view it doesn’t sit comfortably with me,’ he said.

‘Zak is 10 now and he’s never been better. Most race horses are broken down by that age and I think shoes have a massive part to play in that. Once they are barefoot they track up so much better; they are so much sounder.’

The grey must have a bit of feline in his equine blood because he’s probably used up a few lives in his short one. He was bought from a large racing yard by David and his cousin John Sugarman about five years ago.

‘He was in a proper state and his feet were unbelievable,’ said David.

Horses have long been a passion for David and his wife, Gill, who live in East Yorkshire and transitioned a couple of other horses to barefoot before Zak. They were convinced of the benefits and so were in no doubt that he would improve without shoes.

zak-2Zak’s body was also in need of some TLC and after about a year’s recovery the owners thought he could return to flat racing. But his trainer at the time insisted on shoes. David and John acquiesced and were rewarded when the horse showed promise by coming second in four races.

The sport has a high injury toll though and Zak was injured training on the gallops. He came home. He became barefoot again and recovered. He went to another trainer, remained barefoot but didn’t live up to his earlier promise.  David thought to retire him but John didn’t want to give up.

So they tried Zak with a newly established trainer, Rebecca Menzies, and he’s proving better than ever. In 10 races he’s won three times and been placed five.

He’s going to stay barefoot even though the rules bar him from some race tracks. As a barefooter he is only allowed on all-weather surfaces. The restriction doesn’t apply to jump racing.

Officials of the racing authorities fear barefoot horses are more liable to slip and flat racing is high speed.

Perhaps they will reconsider such nonsense when there are more horses like Zak delighting the crowds and winning at such a ‘ripe old age’.

rebecca-menziesBut interviewing Zak’s owner made me especially curious about his trainer, Rebecca Menzies (right), who has had a licence for three years and works from a yard in Co. Durham.

I wanted to know if she had been skeptical taking on a barefoot horse.

She said: ‘I had very little knowledge about the management techniques to ensure that it was successful. I was very lucky to be able to spend the day with Mike De Kock in Newmarket (who trains top class flat horses barefoot) and he showed me a number of examples of hooves at different stages of transitioning and I learned the importance of very regular trimming & management. He had a pea gravel horse walker and several gravel turnout paddocks, his horses feet were like iron and his system worked brilliantly. MDK is a very clever guy and a massively successful trainer, he researches everything meticulously and in his opinion it is much better for horses to be trained without shoes. He showed me that with a bit of time to transition and some simple changes to our routine , it would be possible to train a barefoot horse (even without a treadmill, rubber walkways and a pea gravel walker!).

‘In terms of racing a barefoot horse, the British Horse Racing Authority are clamping down on the running of horses without shoes. In their opinion (and the opinion of the Professional Jockeys’ Association) horses are more likely to slip when raced without shoes. We now have to apply for clearance to run on turf without shoes & there must be a veterinary reason why the horse cannot be conventionally shod – this is why Zakatal has only been allowed to run on the all weather (sand) this year. The fact that the horse may be sounder, can cope better with training barefoot etc. are not deemed valid enough reasons by the BHA to race un-shod.’

And could more horses race without shoes? I asked.

Rebecca has no doubt…’providing the trainers and carers of the horse are trained properly in barefoot management. We are lucky that David keeps on top of his feet & he is seen regularly by his trimmer, Fiona Varian.

‘Zak has won three races for us without shoes and has stayed very sound throughout a hard season. He’s obviously a very happy horse and you couldn’t find a better advert for training / racing a horse barefoot. I am more than happy to run a horse without shoes on the all weather, however, I would be nervous about running a barefoot horse on turf. This is not because I think they are more likely to slip, Zakatal has amazing grip on all surfaces (you could argue better than a shod horse) but I would be very worried about the consequences should anything happen. The BHA have made it quite clear that they don’t want horses running without shoes and I wouldn’t be in a position to fight my case should anything happen.’

107Zak is treated like all the other horses at the racing yard. He has plenty of turnout and lots of hay. There are a few stoney paths which he copes with well, but he mainly trains on an all weather fibres and surface. He gets physio treatments and has a trim every week.

Rebecca said: ‘I couldn’t be happier with him now he has returned from his summer holiday! He’s a very enthusiastic horse and quite obviously loves what he does, I love watching him run and quite often he is competing against horses who have a lot less miles on the clock.

‘We have plenty of veteran horses (older than ten) and they prove that if look after them well , they can continue to enjoy the racing life for many years (and have a lovely life when they retire too !)’


holistic-hound-and-horse-expoMake a date in your diary for the Holistic Hound and Horse Show next Saturday, November 5th, near Guildford. No fireworks but plenty to see and do! I will be selling and signing copies of my books A Barefoot Journey and The First Vet. Sue Gardner will be demonstrating horse agility and Penny Thorpe will be giving a talk on the horse’s hoof. Plus look out for the demos of horses at liberty, saddle fitting, rider biomechanics and dog agility. There’s lot more and the show will be its biggest ever. Here’s a link…I will give a full report here next time and will also be writing an article on it for a magazine.

lianne-rhodesI want to pay tribute to a special horse who was the guiding force behind the Barefoot Horse Owners Group on Facebook. Farrah passed away this week after a brilliant life. Years ago she suffered from laminitis and that led her owners Liane Rhodes and Andy Spooner to investigate barefoot rehabilitation. As you can see from the photo Farrah recovered and the rest, as they say, is history. The group was formed to help others and now boasts nearly 16,000 members. That’s an awful lot of hooves…thank you Farrah, Liane and Andy.

U.S. trimmer Jaime Jackson, who has inspired so many of us with his book on setting up track systems, has just published a new work on laminitis. It’s sub titled an equine plague of unconscionable proportions. I hope to report further on this!

My own books are available on Amazon – just click on the link…

The First Vet – ‘I don’t read that often but this book was definitely a “can’t put down”, so sad when I got to the BookCover5_25x8_Color_350_NEW from Amberend. Can’t wait to read the other books by this fabulous writer.’ Amazon reader.

A Barefoot Journey – ‘I LOVED this. It was sat waiting for me when I got home from work, and I Cover_Barefoot_3 (1)finished reading it that night! I couldn’t put it down.’ Amazon reader.

Trainer with a difference…

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?

bored - isolated

bored – isolated

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.’


Free to play

Free to play…

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.


Red Not Blue - barefoot and winning

                                  Red Not Blue – barefoot and winning

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.

Simon Earle

Simon Earle

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.


Some of the racing herd

                         Some of the racing herd


IMG_3822ABOUT 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 Cover_Barefoot_3 (1)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 NovelCoverSociety. 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!’


Horsing Around With Usain Bolt

A spoof, by Linda Chamberlain

World-class sprinter Usain Bolt is to learn the secrets of the horse world in a bid to stay at the top of his game.


Usain's new shoes

Usain’s new shoes


The fastest man in the world was so impressed by the speed and performance of equine Olympians that he has decided to follow in their hoof steps. On the advice of medical experts, he is having a specially-made, metal attachment, much like a horse shoe, fixed to his trainers. The design of the attachment is a closely guarded secret but I can reveal that Bolt plans to wear them 24/7.

His trainers argue that the Jamaican athlete will get used to the metal shoes more quickly if he wears them all the time. They hope they will guard against slipping during competitions and minimise the risk of exasperating a troublesome tendon injury that has setback his training in the past. They also hope he will be able to sprint faster than a horse.

In an exclusive interview, Bolt said: ‘The shoes felt heavy at first and it took a while to get used to them. They’re coming off next week, so that will be a bit of a break.’

‘Oh, for good?’ I asked the 6 foot 5 inch star of the track.

‘No, only while I have my toe nails trimmed.’

Doubters have speculated that running on metal might be harmful for the athlete but Bolt is confident that medical advice is correct. He’s been told that running without them might have a detrimental effect on the physiology of his foot.

‘The doctors know what they’re doing,’ he said. ‘They must be right and those running tracks can be hard, you know.’

Supporters of the shoe say it can relieve many problems of the foot, including arthritic pain – as well as give support to painful heels and protect weak toe nails.

‘It’s true,’ Bolt said. ‘I don’t break my toe nails half as much as I used to.’

The Olympic authorities have given approval and other athletes are expected to copy the innovation. Bolt predicts that very soon there won’t be an athlete in the world without metal shoes.

In another daring move inspired by the horse world, Bolt is dramatically changing his lifestyle. Apart from the many hours spent in training and competition, he is to be confined to what his trainers describe as a focus room. There will be no TV, no space for friends and therefore no distractions. There’s enough room for his bed and he’ll be given an innovative ball to play with which lets out small amounts of food if he rolls it around the floor.

confiend horse

‘We never stop learning,’ said the runner who has been nicknamed Lightning Bolt. ‘You should have seen those horses at the Olympics. They were awesome and they were focused. If it works for them; it should work for me.’

He’s been confined to his focus room for two weeks and his trainers are pleased it is having the desired effect.

‘He can’t wait to get out on the track in the morning,’ said one of his training team. ‘Before the focus room he was much more laid back. Now he just wants to run; he doesn’t want to stop. It’s brilliant. He loves that room. At the end of the training session we put some of his favourite food in there and you should see him rush back in there.’

* * * * *

Apply the ideology to a human and suddenly it makes you question the treatment of horses, doesn’t it?

Apologies to Usain Bolt for the above article. He seemed such a nice guy that I thought he wouldn’t mind his name being used to support a campaign to free equine athletes.



Cover_Barefoot_3 (1)I’m a writer and journalist who loves horses. My own horses’ shoes were removed about 17 years ago as soon as I realised the harm they were causing. My non-fiction book – A Barefoot Journey – tells the story of riding without shoes in a hostile equine world. Mistakes, falls and triumphs are recorded against the background of a divided equine world which was defending the tradition of shoeing…with prosecutions. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p.

‘The author wrote from the heart and with great conviction. It read as a fiction type book, but was also being informative without you realizing it! It gives me hope with my own ‘Carrie’. I totally recommend this book to anyone….my only complaint is that it wasn’t long enough!! – Amazon reader.

‘ Required reading for anyone thinking of taking their horse’s shoes off’ – Horsemanship Magazine.

‘I loved reading this intelligently written book. It’s so good I think every hoof trimmer should hand this book out to clients who are going barefoot for the first time’ – Natural Horse Management magazine.

My historical novel, The First Vet, is inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago but was mocked by the veterinary establishment. His battle motivated me to stretch my writing skills from journalism to novel writing and took me to the British Library and the Royal Veterinary College for years of research. Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UKAmazon US. This book has more than 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical NovelCover Society. 

‘Fantastic read, well researched, authentic voice, and a recognition of the correlation of our best slaves- horses- with the role of women throughout history. If you are into history, barefoot horses, and the feminine coming of age story, then this book is a must read’ – Amazon US reader.

If you want to keep in touch, click the follow button on this campaigning blog or find me on Facebook…Another historical, horsey novel has been completed, ready for editing. I am being inspired by a famous equestrian campaigner from the past who quietly made such a difference to horses. So many people have asked me to write a sequel to The First Vet but I think I should feature one of Bracy Clark’s colleagues. And have I told you about the Very Bad Princess? The one who rode horses, swore a lot and tried to keep a London park all to herself…not a current-day princess…more soon…I’m enjoying the research on this lady! She used to take snuff…xxx