Composite Shoes…

… a year later

About a year ago Khaleesi went from barefoot to Easycare Flex composite shoes. The initial blog covering the switch can be found here: Flex Shoe blog. After a year of keeping her in these shoes I have learned a few things to share.

Note: I have had a pattern of summer lameness to varying degrees for years that has baffled both me and the vets. This year I began doing forage testing to balance my minerals and nutrition. I found the iron content in my grass pasture is very high. I believe low grade iron toxicity has been a cumulative contributing factor in my lameness and I have begun working on solutions. It is too early to know or share the effect of the changes. Dietary changes – especially cumulative issues of excess iron – can take months to work out. I will update here when I can write with more confidence of the problems and solutions.

For the last year I have been pleased with the performance mod the composites. Through the winter and into spring she was moving at her best and they give excellent concussion relief for long miles of trotting. With a few exceptions over the year I have been able to keep them on with nails and they are pretty trouble free.

Flex with side clips and heart bar is the shoe I prefer. These are becoming harder to obtain sadly I’ve been told due to covid issues in China. Easycare is pushing the versa style and I do not believe they will offer the same success.

They are fantastic on trails, great on hard pack gravel, pavement and all kinds of rocky surfaces. I have not experienced any instances of slipping or falling in them. They are known (similar to boots) to be less secure than a metal shoe is wet grass. As a rule I avoid trotting and cantering on slick, wet or muddy grass. The trade off of concussion relief and much better grip on gravel, dirt and pavement is well worth it for me.

I began going all the way to Virginia Tech to find someone with a positive opinion and experienced with composite shoes. It was particularly expensive and 4 hours of driving per visit. I was thrilled when a vet recommended a closer farrier who was a friend of the tech farrier (who by the way I really liked) and open minded willing to learn the techniques necessary to be successful with this ‘new’ technology. In our initial phone conversation we found a connection to a mutual friend who is an endurance rider and vet who has been experimenting successfully with composites for over a year and she was willing to help us get started with her expertise.

Khaleesi had great results with the composite shoes. The inside of her hoof began to open up and expand. Her movement was free and strong and obviously more comfortable. My vet friend had also been seeing great results in a handful of test horses. I think, however it was Molly that really sold him.

My friend’s mare joined us this spring in the composite shoe program. I’ve written about Molly from time to time but she came to us front heavy and pigeon toed. Last summer she was also lame and a vet crew diagnosed that the horse had low ringbone in a front hoof and would never stay reliably sound. She might make a kids trail horse if we were lucky. No injection or treatment was workable because the damage was too low in the foot.

So far the vets have been wrong. Last Fall she came around to be sound at the trot, stayed sound through winter and in spring my friend decided to add composite shoes to the many pronged approach we had been working out. Along with neurological dentistry, more dialed in nutrition (she would also be impacted by the high iron last summer), a saddle to encourage the back muscles to return alive from atrophy, riding in a way that stopped throwing the horse on the forehand, and regular barefoot trimming at home, the composite shoes added protection.

Our farrier has been amazed each visit at the continued changes in her hoof. Molly’s hoof increased a size in the first cycle and her compressed frog slowly is beginning to decompress. She rarely stands pigeon toed. The ‘confirmation’ issues the horse had been saddled [pun intended] with apparently were not the whole story. In fact she had been ridden into much that confirmation- and with great patience and care I’m watching my friend ride her out of them.

Now Molly is in stronger shape for riding than Khaleesi is!

Khaleesi trot out to see how she’s moving after her last shoe change and trim

Initially we assumed some of the benefits beyond the very foundational issue of concussion damage (this is a significant reason for our horses in heavy work to wear down faster than they now might!). My vet friend shared she had horses who needed special wear patterns for unique movements due to balance, old injuries or affects of rider imbalances… that composite shoes actually wore into a shape that supported the horse better as they rode in them. It seems this unique ability for the composite to wear more that metal as the horse moves has appeared to help some horses heal and recover or move more soundly in their unique needs.

Another benefit is the shoe can be on the foot longer than a metal shoe. After about 4 weeks I take my rasp to both the shoe and the toe. I love that I can trim the toe from growing long without removing the shoe. I can go 7-8 weeks on a set of these shoes in normal riding. This saves me on trips but also less nail holes in the foot over time.

My new farrier shared with me that he began to suggest composite shoes to some of his clients with special needs. The next visit he would tell me: hey I have 6 horses in these shoes now… then it would be hey I have 12 horses in these shoes now… last weekend he told me now he currently has 20 horses thriving in composite shoes.

Khaleesi is soft and calm during the shoeing process. Here she is ground tied and stands quietly helping by adjusting herself as asked and holding up her feet. She was not always agreeable to the farrier visits. I believe horses have preferences and understand to some extent their care. She accepts these shoes, the one who is installing them, and this process.

As he is using them more widely he has made some observations.

  • One is that without exception all horses have expanded in the hoof when he transitioned them to composite shoes. All horses. What surprised him is that this was also true of horses (like Khaleesi) who went from barefoot (ridden in boots) to composite shoes though not nearly as dramatic as the changes of horses who transitioned from a metal shoe. Many of the horses have gone up an entire hoof size in a cycle or two.
  • Second he observed his instances of a nail that created pressure on the soft tissue increased. This was unusual for him. It was rarely a ‘hot nail’ that actually went into the soft tissue, but a nail was too close and put pressure that overnight would develop to varying degree of lameness as the inflammation increased. (This happened to Khaleesi a cycle previous). Because it is unusual for him to have so many occurrences of nail issues he began to question what was happening. This is an early hypothesis he shared… not proven, but observations from one who has worked with horse shoes and hooves for many years.

The hoof wall doesn’t change much after it comes out of the band. It isn’t live soft tissue after it is formed, it’s a wall of protection for what lies underneath. The living soft tissue underneath with the composite shoes is getting significantly more blood. The soft tissue is growing (likely to match what it should have been like had the blood not been starved from the area for various reasons over time). The frog and soft tissue of the hoof are becoming more healthy and protected and begin to return to the shape and size they should be.

The process begins inside and the hoof wall will adjust as the new growth comes in. This takes time. Meanwhile the soft tissue is pushing toward the hoof wall making the space between the soft tissue and the hoof wall more narrow to nail into. There is now less room for error as the transition occurs than usual. Thus the space available thar years of experience have shown true for nails in a hoof is different after a composite shoe goes into place.

It stunned me to hear a farrier share as his own personal thoughts:

We know there is nothing as good at shock absorption for a horse’s movement than the natural God given hoof. Not all horses can thrive barefoot, but that is ideal. Or so we thought. What blows me away is it appears to me that this composite shoe just might finally have come up with something actually better than the hoof itself. We’ve tried a lot of things over time, but none of them come close.

The composite shoe protects the hoof, allows for expansion and breathing so the blood can pump through the foot which increases blood in the legs and hoof which is great for joints and ligaments and muscle as well as the hoof. Frogs are opening up. Compressed heels are uncompressing. Inner hoof sole is expanding. Feet are growing. In some cases lameness is being reversed.

The problems I see are that they cost more. The shoes are about $20 a hoof. Any rider in normal trail or light work could most likely reset them at least one additional cycles (I have reset them even twice in winter) They are very durable. More valuable is the long term vision though. I believe these shoes will be a game changer of long range vet bills on joint and tendon damage. This is the ounce of prevention to most riders in heavy work to lengthen a career and keep a horse from having so much damage and degeneration.

The second problem is they take some understanding and the willingness to try. I drive hours round trip to my farrier. The drive is worth the investment for me hands down. My horse is worth getting this right. People are gradually finding out about this ‘new’ technology and beginning to investigate it. The amount of riders I believe could really benefit (meaning they have issues they are managing in other ways that composites seem likely to help) that have shared with me that they asked their farrier whom they’ve trusted for X years and the response was one or more of:

  • those shoes are all hype and they won’t help you and your particular horse.
  • those shoes don’t stay on reliably.
  • those shoes are expensive.

The first is a lame excuse. The second is true if the farrier doesn’t learn how to work in this ‘new’ technology. There are tricks of the trade. And the last was covered above.

If you have been considering composite shoes I cannot say strongly enough that it is worth a real try. The biggest challenge will be finding someone who is not only willing to humor you, but is positive in their opinion and ideally has some experience with them. It is worth some extra cost and a drive to find that person at least to begin.

The next challenge at least for a time may be finding good shoes. My farrier has not been impressed with the versas but I’ve heard those are the shoes easycare is pushing at the moment. Finding flex with heart bar are ideal, the heart bar give great heel support and added concussion protection. I’ve used the open heel version and I can tell a difference in my mare’s movement. I haven’t tried some of the other brands and they may be great. Having metal inside the composite shoe seems to give good support. Shoes without metal inside have not performed as well.

From what I have seen so far I believe there will come a day when metal shoes are the odd special need and most horses are thriving in a composite shoe.

If I were a horse shoer… I would be looking ahead and become an early adopter.