Marc-Andre Blouin didn’t necessarily start out with the intention of racing all his horses barefoot. But since the horseman started, it’s been an ideal fit.

An equine specialist with Purina, Blouin, who grew up in the standardbred side of the industry, purchased his first thoroughbred in 2001, together with his wife, Belinda, who grew up riding and training in eventing in England.

Today, the couple has 17 thoroughbred horses at the Brantford-area farm where they base their breeding and training operation. Not one of their horses sports shoes.

“When we started out, one of the things for us was, they had to be horses first,” says Blouin. “Which meant that they got turned out. But I couldn’t keep shoes on them when they were out and racing fit – they’d keep pulling them. And we wanted to be able to turn them out in groups, too. We’d always pulled their shoes in the winter anyway, so we thought, let’s try this and see how it works.”

Over time, the difference that Blouin has seen in his horses’ hooves led him to become a strong advocate for the benefits of going barefoot. “The way I describe it is that the hoof is probably one of the organs with the best capacity to adapt. It will adapt to the level of stress that it is being exposed to. But for it to adapt it has to be stimulated. It’s the same way your hands get calluses. You’ve got to go out and use them, and yes, the first few times, when you’re not used to it, you’ll get blisters. But what does the body do? It adapts and builds something stronger. Which is what the horse’s hoof will do, too. But if it’s got a shoe on, it’s not going to get that stimulation.”

When Blouin began racing horses barefoot in 2007, there was no provision in the rulebook to allow it. “For years, I had to ask permission before every single race. And if the track was off, they wouldn’t let me. And they said I couldn’t run on the turf either,” he recounts. “Well, one day we were in to run at Fort Erie, and there was mud galore. I thought they were going to ask me to put shoes on. But, it didn’t happen. And my mare (Devilishly Bold) ended up winning.”

With renewed determination, Blouin decided to enter a horse on the turf at Woodbine two weeks later. “I got called in that morning and they told me that I either had to put shoes on or scratch her. I said, “I’m doing neither.” I told them I wasn’t going to scratch her. If they wanted to, they were in a legal position to do it, if they deemed it unsafe. But I told them that I do not in any way find it unsafe.

“To me, when I ride my horses, they actually feel more sure-footed,” continues Blouin. “And that’s the thing, nobody’s ever been able to give me any scientific documentation that they get better traction with flat shoes on the turf.”

The science of shod vs. shoeless

Since the introduction of synthetic track surfaces, a fair amount of research has been done to study hoof-track interactions, particularly with respect to the properties of different surfaces – but differences between barefoot and shod horses have yet to come under the same degree of scientific scrutiny. “To date, there have been no studies to measure a group of horses racing with shoes compared to a group without,” notes Jeff Thomason, PhD, a hoof biomechanics researcher at the University of Guelph.

Outside of racing, studies are limited as well. One 2006 study, which looked at Warmblood horses trotting on an asphalt surface, found differences in hoof impact forces between synthetic plastic shoes, steel shoes and the unshod foot. The vibrational forces after impact were reduced fastest in the unshod foot, while steel shoes increased both the maximal amplitude and the frequency of the vibrations caused by impact.

Racetrack surfaces, however, are much more compliant than asphalt and have a significant dampening effect on impact forces. The extent to which the absence of shoes affects hoof impact on those surfaces, including the effect on traction, is not yet known, though Thomason has collected some preliminary data with Blouin.

Further complicating matters is the fact that different horses will respond differently to changes in shoeing and track surfaces. “It’s well known that even with shoes on, individual horses behave differently in response to track conditions,” says Thomason. “One horse may be able to get traction in mud, by altering its’ own timing of the footfall and when it puts the power on, while another might struggle. Each animal has a different capacity for adjustment.”

To what extent horses are able to sense more underfoot without shoes is also another area of consideration. Certainly, it is known that horses have a number of sensory receptors in their hooves, much like humans do in their hands and feet. Where shoes limit this sensation, the consequences have not been studied such that any cause-and-effect conclusions can be made, says Thomason.

Searching for answers

“When it comes to the question of going barefoot, I think it’s important to avoid a dogmatic approach,” he emphasizes. “Should horses be run barefoot? I see absolutely no reason why not, so long as they have the traction and the hoof isn’t worn away by the surface. But is it right for every horse? Probably not. At the moment, we really do not know enough to answer all the questions and we certainly don’t know enough to generate the perfect way to address a shod foot or an unshod foot.”

For Blouin and his farrier, Terry Gerber, it’s been largely a process of trial and error. Though Blouin had read up on different techniques and spoken with people such as Pete Ramey, a prominent barefoot trimmer, he found it hard to track down any straightforward answers. “There were a lot of laminitic horses doing well barefoot and a lot of riding horses doing well barefoot, but there was nobody out there running 60 kilometres an hour.”

“Terry’s been great because she’s always kept an open mind about it,” notes Blouin. ‘She didn’t come in here and say, “This is the way it has to be done.”

For her part, Gerber doesn’t consider herself a “barefoot trimmer,” per se, and has clients both with and without shoes. “I think barefoot is great if you can do it, but it’s not necessarily going to work or be practical for everybody’s situation,” she says.

Nor does Gerber necessarily subscribe to one particular school or type of barefoot trimming. “I think it’s important to consider the whole body and watch how the horse moves.”

Ground level

Another part of the equation in barefoot horse maintenance is the condition of the ground, adds Gerber. The types of surfaces that a horse spends their time on, at work, rest or play, can affect the quality of the hoof that will grow.

Research from feral horse populations supports this observation. In an extensive study of different Australian feral horse herds, researchers found that hoof form and structure were affected by a combination of the type of footing and the distance that the horses travelled.

Blouin believes that having his horses turned out for the day, along with speed work on their sand track, is important in maintaining the integrity of their hooves. His horses’ hooves have notably tough soles and bars, and though the hoof appears flatter and more spread out from the outside, they tend towards a raised, ‘cupped-up’ shape underneath.

“I do find the shape of the hoof starts changing when I actually start doing miles at two minutes – that’s when that “cupping-up” action really starts happening.”

According to Thomason, the dome-like shape of the sole acts much like a big concertina. “If the dome is really flat, the sidewalls of the hoof can’t expand, because you’ve got this tight drum skin across the bottom. But if you’ve got a raised dome, then it allows the hoof to expand. And, it gives you traction.”

Shoeless success

Today, Blouin doesn’t encounter any issues for his horses racing barefoot at Woodbine. The day he entered his mare Pheisty Phoebe for the first time on the turf, she wasn’t scratched and was allowed to run.

“At the half, she was 20 lengths last,” recalls Blouin. “I was going, “Oh no, I’ve just dug myself the biggest hole.” But they were going very, very fast, and she looked comfortable. By the turn, she’d caught up to the last horse and came eight-wide around. It was a photo finish, and we were one of four horses in it. If she’d slipped and couldn’t hold onto that track, there’s no way a horse could have made that move. And she finished fourth, less than three lengths from winning it.”

Under current Ontario Racing Commission regulations, racing without shoes need only be declared, and is denoted by the letter “y” in the program. Blouin says some bettors are frustrated by it.

“They are the ones that scream obscenities. And there are some trainers that like to give comments,” he laughs. “But I think it’s becoming more accepted. On the standardbred side, there are more guys doing it, though they just do it on race-day. The Hambletonian has been won (by Alf Palema) barefoot.”

Blouin himself has secured a win on each of the three track surfaces to date – Polytrack, dirt and turf. But he admits that for him, going barefoot amounts to a lot more than simply pulling a horse’s shoes. “I don’t think I would have the quality of feet that I’ve got if I had my horses at Woodbine in stalls for 23 hours a day. You have to be able to give the hoof the right environment and the stimulation it needs. And the right nutrition, too.”

For Blouin, it comes down to being able to manage his horses in the way he sees best. His horses spend the better part of their day outdoors, in groups where possible, and he won’t race a horse on Lasix either. “Dehydration is rampant in racehorses because of Lasix. And it’s a problem because they won’t eat.”

“To me, it’s about doing right by the horse, and that’s a rule I’ve always lived by,” says Blouin. “Winning doesn’t make me right. It makes me lucky on that day. The right part is your horse coming out of the race enjoying it, seeing their performance improve, and keeping them sound.”

“I’ve always said that if I come across a horse that needs to have shoes on, because they are showing me they need them, then I will do it,” he continues. “But I haven’t met that horse yet.”