Just as with people, each Standardbred horse is a unique individual, coming in different sizes, shapes and colors. And, like people, most all go about their daily functions, either training or racing, wearing some type of footwear.
In Standardbred racing, the shoeing of a racehorse, in many trainers' eyes, is the key to a sound animal. In years past, many trainers shod their horses themselves, and a few still do today. Many trainers rely on the blacksmiths that have shops on the backstretches of raceways throughout North America.
A trainer will consider two factors when having his horse shod: the length of the toe, and the angle of the hoof. The angle is determined by the length of the toe and the height of the heel, measured on a foot which is level on the ground. A blacksmith will use a tool known as a foot (hoof) level to determine a horse's angle. The natural angle of a horse's foot is mainly dependent upon the confirmation of the animal. A trainer will then have the blacksmith either raise or lower this angle to accomplish a specific purpose in regards to balance and gait.
Let's begin with a trotter. An ideal trotter wears a 3 and 1/2-inch toe and a 48 degree angle in front, and a 3 and 1/4 inch toe and 54 degree angle in his hind feet. Typically, this is the exception, not the rule, as it is very difficult to find a "near-perfect" trotter, or one that doesn't interfere somewhere. So there will probably be variance on those numbers, but for our purposes, we will use these as an example. Some trotters will wear a much longer toe, but most trainers prefer their trotters to go with as short a toe as possible in front since a longer toe puts more strain on muscles, ligaments and bones, thus leading to a possible unsoundness. Also, the shorter the toe, the less likelihood of interference with the hind leg.
Why is the length of the toe important here? Because it affects the balance of a horse, and determines whether the horse might interfere or not. A longer toe will tend to help steady a trotter in some cases, and oftentimes, by increasing the length of the toe as little as an eight of an inch, a trainer can sometimes overcome a problem and helped the horse establish better balance.
Obviously, you can change the length of a horse's toe simply by either rasping it away, or by cutting if off with a pair of nippers (Blacksmith tools). You also will affect the angle at this time. A blacksmith will use a tool known as a caliper to measure the length of the toe, and will adjust the foot according to the trainer's instructions by using a rasp and nippers. If the trainer wants to raise the angle of a hoof, he will have the blacksmith cut down the toe, and leave the heel alone. Conversely, by cutting the heel and leaving the toe alone, you would lower the angle.
Let's examine a pacer now. The ideal pacer would wear a 3 and 1/4-inch toe and 50 degree angle in front, with a 3 and 1/8-inch toe and 54 degree angle behind. Let's say he's a horse that goes very high in front, in other words, he picks up his feet very high with a kind of up and down motion. So high, in fact, that he hits the underside of his hobbles. In this case, a trainer might lower his heels in front, which would cause him to stride out longer, thus missing tapping his hobbles.
There are so many variances on shoeing and balancing and there are countless volumes on the subject. What I have tried to do here is give a small overview of the basics of shoeing for the average fan of harness racing. Now let's take a look at some of the shoes that trotters and pacers can wear.
Horses can wear either steel or aluminum shoes, and there are always new shoes on the market, such as plastic or glue-on types which are used in certain cases. As with lengths of toes and angles, there is exception to every rule, but we will try to examine the most common of shoes in this column.
There are three basic type of shoes that are worn by trotters and pacers: half-round, swedge and flat shoes. These vary in thickness, width and weight. The half-round shoe is flat on the side that adheres to the hoof, and the part which strikes the racetrack is rounded. A swedge shoe has a crease in it, which can either extend half-way around the shoe or all the way around it, on the surface which strikes the track. A flat shoe is just what it says, a flat surface, although it usually has a "calk" or "grab" attached to it, to help the horse grab the racing surface.
The weight of the shoe is determined by the width and thickness, and by the size of the horse's foot. In most cases a shoe for a pacer usually weighs an ounce or two less than the same shoe on a trotter because the pacer generally goes with a shorter toe and thus it takes less to shoe to go around his hoof. As stated before, aluminum shoes are used, but generally not as much as steel shoes. They too, can be half-round or swedged. Their big advantage is that they are much lighter than steel shoes.
"Bar" shoes are used often as well, and especially on horses with "quarter cracks" or other hoof problems. There are numerous variations on all types of shoes, and combinations are created by blacksmiths and trainers to help either correct an interference or confirmation defect.
The main purpose of shoeing a Standardbred race horse is to insure that all four hooves are level when they make contact with he ground, to help a horse race to his optimum speed. A horse whose foot is not hitting the racetrack surface absolutely level is a prime candidate for lameness. If he hits on the outside or the inside of his foot, all his weight is being jammed into that one area instead of being distributed evenly over the entire surface of the foot. This constant pounding of training and racing miles is hard enough on a level foot, but is especially harsh on one that is hitting on one side or another.
By checking the horse's shoes on a daily basis, the trainer can decipher whether or not his equine athlete is traveling on level-shod hooves, and make any changes accordingly to help the horse travel more naturally.