The Emperor’s New Shoes

I happened across an article entitled Polymers replace metal in horseshoes for added benefit in one of my many engineering trade magazines the other day (Design fax, Volume 7, Issue 26). I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked by its contents, but I continually hold out hope for more legitimate science in this field, and am always disappointed when it comes up short.

I’m not going to quote the entire article here, but I want to give you a few highlights. Here’s the second paragraph –

Former horse trainer and entrepreneur John Filipelli came to the realization early in his career that horses run better without shoes. But allowing them to be ridden, much less race, without shoes wasn’t the solution, either from a practical or a humane perspective. Hooves are comprised of hair and need to be protected, and that’s why man has been shoeing horses for centuries with metal shoes.

And the fourth –

Many years ago, Filipelli was challenged by an owner to cure a horse that would go off stride. He had to do this within 30 days or forfeit his fees. But no matter what he tried, nothing worked, until he removed the horseshoes. Then the horse quickly went back on stride.

Late in this rather brief article are the following paragraphs and table –

In steps to both verify product claims and industry skepticism, the company conducts ongoing research to verify that polymer horseshoes are viable alternatives. Among the results are lameness prevention, increased circulation, improved traction, increased comfort, an improved gait, and faster running speeds.

The firm has developed the following chart to make other comparisons and show other benefits.

Blood circulation between hoof and knee 80% 20%
Hoof lameness Prevents over 80% Causes over 80%
Other horse lameness Prevents over 40% Causes over 40%
Loosens Much less Much more
Resetting horseshoes Yes Yes
Flexibility 100% 0%
Breaking yearlings Absolute must! Absolute sin!
Hoof wall weakness Much less Much more
Quarter cracks Helps prevent Helps cause
Race times Improves Hinders
Jump heights Approx. 2 in. higher Approx. 2 in. lower
Farrier time Approx. 25 minutes Approx. 45 minutes
Weight 2 oz. 4 to 16 oz.
Stride interference Less More
Horse comfort Yes No
Contracted heels Prevents Causes
Abrasion Very good Excellent
Traction (footing) Excellent Good
Gait Improves Hinders
Vet bills Much lower Much higher


I’m not going to attempt to point out all of the problems with this article, but I would like to give you a few things to consider, starting with Mr. Filipelli’s statement that “Hooves are comprised of hair and need to be protected, and that’s why man has been shoeing horses for centuries with metal shoes.”

That statement absolutely fascinates me, because without it, the entire article actually supports the fact that horses are best served by being barefoot. The rationale behind his comparing hooves with hair is, from a marketing perspective, quite smart, because once you accept the comparison, the “need to be protected” follows quite logically. Unfortunately, the statement is also extremely misleading. Comparing the hardness and durability of horse hooves to hair is akin to pointing out that diamonds are made of the same material (carbon) as charcoal and pencil “lead;” chemically, they may be the same, but their physical properties are radically different. The only reason “man has been shoeing horses for centuries with metal shoes” is because man has been trying to use technology to solve the problem he created when he started keeping horses in radically unnatural environments. Fix the management issues, and you’ll solve the problem! How many sound horses of every breed and used in every discipline and environment (yes, including racing) does it take to convince Mr. Filipelli that his early career observations were right on target?

I also want to mention the misleading nature of the chart comparing his polymer shoes (which, by the way, are by no means a new idea) to metal shoes. First of all, I’d love to see the research that supports the definitive figures stated, like “80% blood circulation between hoof and knee.” But perhaps more importantly, I want to point out that all of the “improvements” mentioned are improvements only when compared to a metal shoe and not improvements over an unshod hoof. That’s a crucial distinction. Although the table implies otherwise, his shoe cannot actually prevent lamenesses – it can only not cause most lamenesses that occur because of shoes and shoeing. And I guarantee that if his shoes are used in combination with so-called “corrective” shoeing, it’ll have nearly the same disastrous consequences as any other shoe.

Is what Mr. Filipelli offers really a better alternative? Without question, a flexible plastic shoe glued onto a properly-trimmed hoof is far better than a metal shoe nailed onto a hoof. But it’s still not good. In fact, the situation reminds me of a cartoon I once saw, where, in the first panel, the lawyer tells the prisoner, “Plead guilty, and I’ll get you off on a lesser charge.” And in the second panel, as the prisoner is being led away, he exclaims, “Big deal! Twenty thousand volts instead of forty thousand.”

It’s kinda like that.