HISA's Changing Regs Around Hind Toes Caused Big Headaches For Farriers This Summer - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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HISA’s Changing Regs Around Hind Toes Caused Big Headaches For Farriers This Summer

How did the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority come to write a rule calling for a hind horseshoe that didn't exist?

That was the question farriers, horseshoe manufacturers, trainers, and stakeholders have spent much of this summer asking each other. The answer is a complicated one, and gives insight into the rule-making process for the nascent organization.

The first task for the Authority after its creation was to create a set of rules addressing track safety, which was a broad category that ultimately covered everything from concussion screening to whip use to veterinary exams for horses. Part of the 2000 rule series (which you can view here) also dealt with shoeing requirements.

For several years now, horseshoes have been part of the puzzle researchers have looked at in sweeping academic studies on fatality risk. Dr. Sue Stover, professor of surgical and radiological science at the University of California-Davis, has long been one of the foremost researchers into catastrophic injuries in racing, bolstered by years of data gathered by the California Horse Racing Board. She's also the chair of the Authority's racetrack safety standing committee.

As the committee considered rules for horseshoes, Stover drew upon her experience and that of others.

“The research that's been performed and information in the literature [suggests] that toe grabs have been associated with increased risk for, predominantly, fetlock injuries, suspensory apparatus breakdown, and lateral condylar fractures, and those are the major causes for fatality in our jurisdiction,” said Stover. “It seemed appropriate to limit the use of toe grabs on horse shoes with the goal of reducing fatalities.

“We also recognize that toe grabs are not allowed in several international racing jurisdictions that have much lower fatality rates than the United States, jurisdictions that have less than a third or a half of the fatalities we have in the United States.”

Toe grabs are small, rectangular plates protruding downward from the toe of a shoe and are designed to help a horse dig into a soft surface better. They come in all different heights, with the conventional toe being about 5.5 millimeters from shoe surface to the end that touches the ground. Veterinarians and farriers believe that the reason toe grabs are associated with higher rates of injury is that they're changing the angle of the horse's foot. When the foot is placed on the ground, especially paved or packed surfaces that are common on many backstretches, the toe grab rocks the foot back at an uneven height from front to back. This could place extra stress on the soft tissues on the back of the leg.

A farrier shows a pair of shoes with a standard, 5.5-millimeter toe grab

Dr. Shawn Morrell, podiatrist at Rood and Riddle Saratoga, said the grabs may exacerbate other hoof problems.

“There's a lot of factors that go into a potential injury,” he said. “It's not just toe grabs, but there's a good possibility they can cause injury if they're applied to a horse who has a certain type of conformation whether that's very low or crushed heels.”

The long toe/low heel combination is particularly common on the racetrack, sometimes due to intentional trimming but often due to crushed heels and hoof capsule distortion.

(Read more about the long toe/low heel issue in our previous reporting here.)

A horse with long toe and low heel is already putting more strain on the backs of its legs than one with a properly conformed foot. Add a toe grab to that, and the issue can be compounded.

The problem, Morrell and others said, is that almost all of the academic research about the association between toe grabs and racing injury focused on toe grabs on the front feet, not the hinds, and much of it looked at multiple factors, not just toe grabs.

Still, drawing upon the research that was available, the committee penned Rule 2276, which originally stated that “traction devices” (like toe grabs) were prohibited on front and hind limbs, with the exception of full rims measuring 2 millimeters. (Rims are similar in shape to toe grabs but go all the way around the outer edge of the shoe, meaning the horse has some traction but the foot is not being elevated in just one spot.)

Farriers said they didn't have much issue with letting go of toe grabs on front feet. Some told the Paulick Report many of their clients had stopped using them through the years, as more and more studies identified them as potential risk factors for injury. But the hind feet were a different matter. Shoe manufacturers make different shoes for front versus hind feet, since they tend to be slightly different shapes. When HISA's rules became official and the July 1 implementation deadline ticked nearer, farriers say there was no hind aluminum shoe with a 2-millimeter rim being manufactured for use in racing across the four primary race plate manufacturers.

Pat Broaddus is a Kentucky-based farrier who also works for Victory Racing Plate Company, one of the two domestic manufacturers of racing shoes. He says the company invested six figures into making a new shoe that would comply with the regulation.

“I switched most of my practice to a 2-millimeter wear plate in the last five years,” said Broaddus. “I counted up one time this winter I had probably over 600 head of horses on the books and I probably had three with toe grabs on.”

[Farriers refer to very small toe grabs as 'wear plates' since at the 2-millimeter size, they're too small to function as meaningful traction devices, but they do reduce the amount of wear on the toe of the shoe, which tends to get shoved forward with each step and takes more friction.]

With the new rule though, a 2-millimeter toe grab would no longer be allowed; only a 2-millimeter full rim. So, Victory and others got to work creating hind shoes with 2-millimeter rims. Initially, there was a delay in implementation of the shoe rule, which the Authority attributed to a lack of preparedness among shoe manufacturers.

Broaddus says this isn't accurate, that Victory and Thoroughbred Race Plates, the two domestic shoe makers, were prepared to go forward with their new 2-millimeter rimmed hind shoes on July 1. Still, a grace period is a grace period. Broaddus began talking to people who were using the 2-millimeter rims and some of them didn't think it was going well.

Some farriers who were using the new shoe were finding the aluminum sides of the 2-millimeter rim were wearing down faster than the steel toe. This meant that toward the end of a trimming cycle, when the shoe had suffered most of its wear, the sides of the rim were gone but the toe still remained – creating a soon-to-be-illegal toe grab.

Then, Broaddus said, everyone was blindsided.

On July 29, the Authority released the following statement, printed here in part:

“In the last week, the Racetrack Safety Committee (“the Committee”) was made aware through communications from elected officials on Capitol Hill and from horsepersons of widespread concerns that the traction provided by full outer rim shoes and toe grabs for the hindlimbs is essential for the safety of horses in certain circumstances. These circumstances include breaking from the gate and track conditions that are impacted by ambient temperature or precipitation (including maintenance procedures such as watering the track). The concerns are that reduced traction will result in horses either slipping, falling, or otherwise being unable to firmly grip the track surface, with resulting injury to horses and their riders.

“After full consideration of the matter, the Committee strongly recommended the use of full outer rim shoes for hindlimb traction because these shoes provide traction while enabling the hoof to land flatly on the track surface, whereas toe grabs accentuate stressors on bone and soft tissues, such as tendons and ligaments, which contributes to injury. Moreover, the only study investigating the association of hindlimb toe grabs with injury revealed that injuries to the suspensory apparatus were more likely to occur to horses shod with hindlimb toe grabs. In contrast, there is no evidence indicating that toe grabs protect horses or riders. However, given the concerns expressed, the Committee recommended to HISA that Rule 2276 shall not be enforced for horses racing on dirt surfaces that are shod on the hindlimbs with traction devices in the form of either a full outer rim shoe (up to 4 mm in height) or a toe grab (up to 4 mm in height).”

So what happened?

“The racetrack safety committee came out with this rule quite some time ago, and during the public comment period there was actually very little feedback specifically on the rule,” said Lisa Lazarus, CEO of the Authority. “There were some who didn't like it, there were some who were saying, 'finally, the U.S. is going to come up to international standard,' and there were some questions about enforcement, but there was not a groundswell of public engagement during those two comment periods.

“In June and then post-July 1, we started to hear some concerns and pushback from horsemen, and also from senators, particularly Sen. Grassley … trying to be the intermediary between the committee in our stakeholder groups, I kept asking, come back to me with what's wrong with the rule and some sort of rationale of what you think would make it better. If you do that, if anybody does that, I will present it to the racetrack safety committee.

“The THA group, led by Alan Foreman, came to us with a proposal. I thought their proposal was reasonable and the committee needed to hear it. The majority of people who care about equine welfare seem to agree that front toe grabs are off the table. And most of the research Sue has alluded to is focused on the front.

“The proposal from the THA was limited to the hind and it was to increase the allowance to four millimeters. The four-millimeter suggestion on the hind was not something that came organically from the committee. It was a proposal from horsemen that the committee considered. The group was formed of a farrier, a couple of well-known trainers and owners, a group that had a good reputation generally.”

The problem many farriers see with that language is that many racetrackers are going to want the maximum of whatever tool they're being allowed. If they can have a 4-millimeter rim or a 4-millimeter toe grab on a hind foot, they're going to want that.

The trouble is, shoe makers don't manufacture a 4-millimeter hind toe grab, either. They do make a conventional toe grab, which is about 5.5 millimeters.

“What we found subsequently is the four millimeters is a very standard shoe on the front, and I think that's where horsemen came up with that,” said Lazarus. “We didn't learn until after that discussion that there wasn't currently a 4-millimeter shoe on the hind available. Just to be frank, we took this group at their word; we probably should have gone back and checked that, but the proposal had been quite heavily vetted and discussed. That didn't occur to us.”

Farriers are modifying the conventional 5.5-millimeter hind toe grabs they have in an attempt to comply with the rule.

“We get home from work and are grinding literally a couple hundred shoes trying to make them legal,” said farrier Todd Boston.

Meanwhile, farriers like Broaddus who stocked up on the 2-millimeters are out of luck.

“I have a lot of horses on the books,” he said. “I buy tons of bulk. I've put out $41,000 of my own money on shoes that were legal up until two days before they were not. I mean, they're still legal, it's just no one's going to want to use them if you can use a toe grab. So now I have this huge inventory here.”

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For farriers who have, on average, an 18 to 25% profit margin, buying in bulk is a primary part of the business plan

Boston said he feels lucky, because he only bought 40 pairs of the new shoes, preferring to stick to the flat Queen's Plate shoe on hind feet as he waited to see how things would shake out.

The opinion of farriers seems to vary on whether hind feet actually need traction. The group of horsemen who presented to the committee believed this was crucial to avoid horses slipping. Broaddus is less sure.

“Everybody talks about how it's a new rule. It's a new rule in the U.S.,” he said. “Most of the world does not use toe grabs. I talk to farriers all over the world all the time and they see no concern with it. Seeing as I'd already switched for the last four or five years, I saw no concerns either.

“How many grass races have you seen where a horse just falls down? Because toe grabs haven't been allowed on the grass in years, and grass is slicker than dirt.”

Boston said he's always used toe grabs on hind feet. He shod several Derby runners this year. Two of them – Summer Is Tomorrow and Crown Pride – shipped from overseas, where toe grabs are prohibited altogether, and ran with flat hind shoes. They set some of the fastest early fractions in Derby history.

“I'm not even sure what to think,” he said. “Everybody acts like you've got to have toe grabs.

“I don't know how much data there is for rear end toe grabs. I understand the front end; I don't really have that much problem with the front end [toe grabs being eliminated]. But in the back, people like having a little bit of something.”

Now, shoe manufacturers are in a tight spot. Do they change course and forge a new shoe again? During the Saratoga meet this year, several farriers were hearing rumors the rule may change yet again to allow standard-sized grabs on hinds. Lazarus says this is not true, and the committee does not plan to make further changes unless they see data indicating there's a safety problem. If they don't, their competitors may outpace them. If they do, they're going to have to pass that cost along somewhere.

Farriers will, too. The nice part about the original rule, Broaddus said, is it would have allowed horses to stay in the same shoes between dirt and turf racing, reducing the number of changes for horses and charges to owners and trainers.

Lazarus also said enforcement of the rule is going to be tricky.

“When it comes down to a half-millimeter, a millimeter, I imagine that's very difficult to enforce,” she said. “I don't think the committee has an issue with that because we recognize there's a transition period, especially if the majority of the grabs are 5.5 and they're grinding down, we recognize it's not going to be perfect during this period of time while we're waiting for the new four-millimeter grabs to become available.”

Ultimately, from Lazarus' perspective, the evolution of the rule is a victory. It showed that the Authority is willing to listen and respond to the industry – a message she has been trying to convey since the group began its work.

“We're learned a lot at the Authority and the committee through this process and trying to get it right,” said Lazarus. “We have strategies and procedures now for engaging more with all of the stakeholders, including farriers and manufacturers. I think that's definitely something we want to do better at going forward.”

Trainer Mark Casse, when asked about the back and forth, preferred to look at the big picture.

“It's a work in progress and any time you make big changes there's a lot of things that can happen,” he said last month. “I look at it as a positive. They're not set in their rules. They're trying to do what's best.

“Did we need to make changes to the shoeing? Yes. There was too much going on. It wasn't fair. It's all about the safety of the horse and a level playing field.

“I'm sorry to the blacksmiths, but they're just trying to figure it out.”

Boston agrees that once there is some stability in the rule, most people will probably adapt.

“After 90, 100 days, people will get used to this,” he said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misattributed quotes to Gary Gullo. Those have been properly credited to Todd Boston. 

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