By Christina Bossinakis
The saying of 'No hoof, No horse' is a phrase often used in the horse world and based on the reasoning that, farriers, as the custodian of the foot, quite literally hold the success, or the lack thereof, of the performance horse in their hands. Often dubbed the 'second oldest profession' in the world, farriery has come a long way since its humble beginnings and over time, the techniques and materials used have evolved from rudimentary to highly sophisticated. In an effort to advance farriery, the Royal Veterinary College (University of London) in England created the Graduate Diploma in Applied Equine Locomotor Research (Grad Dip ELR). First offered to UK-based students in 2017, the program was extended to U.S.-based farriers for the first time in 2018. Devised to offer professional farriers the chance to develop the skill-set necessary to produce original research and increase an evidence base behind farriery, the program is led by its architect Dr. Renate Weller, Professor in Comparative Imaging and Biomechanics, and Dr. Weller's husband, Dr. Thilo Pfau, Senior Lecturer in Bioengineering. With the majority of funding for the RVC's equine-based research originating from the Horseracing Betting Levy Board and being used toward the study of movement and safety in performance horses, the road was paved for the creation of a first-of-its-kind program specializing in equine locomotion.
“Shoeing is something that has come onto the horizon a lot more over the last few years,” Pfau explained. “It was a bit of a concurrent development: our research shifted a little more towards farriery and shoeing-related studies, and we came to deal a lot more with farriers. From that came the arrival of the graduate diploma in equine locomotor research.”
With a minimum of two and a maximum of five years to complete, the program is divided into two principal sections: contemporary study skills and applied equine locomotion. Using a variety of delivery methods, including webinars, podcasts and face-to-face learning weekend sessions, the course was structured to facilitate the participation of the working practitioner.
“Farriery is such an important tool and a lot of the work farriers are doing is fantastic,” said Pfau. “However, they lack some of the evidence: what are the things that are working well and those that are not working. Of course, farriers already know what works and what doesn't, but in order to give other people the chance to make use of this knowledge, it is absolutely critical to create evidence-based results. The goal is to help create that data base that's out there and help vets and farriers dealing with horses that have problems with their feet and by extension, with performance. That is the basis of this program.”
Pfau continued, “From doing research projects, [we found] there was a need for these professionals to do more than they actually do. At least here in the UK, the veterinary profession originated from farriers and we aimed to bring the two professions back together. The goal was to reunite the vets and the farriers and give them a common language in addition to giving farriers the ability to answer their own evidence-based questions.
“Also, we have a team of academics on staff [at the RVC], and the idea is for the farriers to come here with their own ideas, and for us to tell them how feasible those ideas might be,” said Pfau. “We advise them in the best way of investigating a question or a part of their question. Our role is to channel those ideas into the right direction. And that is the most exciting part of the whole course. It brings together the experience of the farriers with the academic side of it. It is to make the most out of their experience and investigating new things. That's the fantastic thing about it.”
Making Strides with the Inaugural U.S. Cohort
The inaugural American-based program, which was custom crafted to the stateside farrier, is facilitated by the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, which serves as a base where students from all over the country converge for the program's residential weekends.
Among the 12 farriers currently enlisted among the initial American cohort, New Jersey-based Jude Florio, who has parlayed 20 years of experience into serving numerous top-end operations armed the high-caliber performers in showjumping and dressage, enrolled in the program to take his craft to the next level.
“From a personal standpoint, it's given me a great deal of specialized knowledge in equine biomechanics and anatomy,” said Florio, who apprenticed under former U.S. Equestrian team farrier and International Horseshoeing Hall of Famer Seamus Brady. “In the states, those interested in pursuing a career in farriery are not required to go to school, so many opt to apprentice. Many do go to schools that offer some instruction, however, the hands-on experience and knowledge one can hope to gain is often limited.”
Through the network and resources afforded by the RVC through the equine locomotor program, Florio, who shifts his operation to the epicenter of the equestrian world in Wellington, Florida, during the winter months, has used the opportunity to explore the oft-debated issue of 'backing' of the shoe to serve as the basis of his course-concluding research project.
“Oftentimes, we encounter horses that have a low-heel, high-heel scenario,” he explained. “Some of the veterinarians that are really podiatry-centric in their practice look at these feet and prescribe certain ways of placing the shoe. Some of those ways can be very drastic. Currently, there is no existing science behind what, if anything, happens to the unrollment [commonly known as breakover] of the foot as we apply the shoe in proximity to [at varying degrees from] the apex of the frog. So in regard to this backing the question is: what does in fact happen? To help answer that question, I've developed a proto-type shoe which allows the user to 'back' the toe of the shoe without adding more variables to the equation [changes to the hoof]. That's the area I'm specifically looking at with my research project.”
With the initial group U.S. farriers set for graduation in June of 2020, Florio acknowledges that the course of study has provided him with an important edge in a highly competitive industry.
“I've been very fortunate in my career having had the chance to apprentice under two top-class horsemen: Seamus Brady and [New Jersey-based farrier] Jim Cahill. Their professionalism, compassion and dedication to the horse are the cornerstone to my business. So when the opportunity came up to add some of the science to the skill I have spent the better part of two decades developing, I jumped at the chance. As the industry has changed and the business has advanced, it has created the need for farriers to advance as well. Not only has the program expanded my scientific and clinical knowledge and given me the ability to perform evidence-based farriery, it has also given me another tool in my arsenal to tackle any situation on a day-to-day basis.”
When asked about the more far-reaching effects of the program, Florio added, “Since we're dealing with sport horses, we want them to perform at the highest level, but we also want them to remain sound in the process. When it comes to farriery, we have come a long way but we still have a long way to go. A horse's health and safety is paramount, and bringing farriers into the conversation, scientifically speaking, has opened the door to progress in the field. It definitely has for me.”