2013-09-13 / Columnists

HORSE TAILS

As the Saying Goes, ‘If the Shoe Fits, Wear It’

Over the years I’ve joked that our horses have had nicer fitting shoes than many a Dunnigan has worn. While shoes may not make a horse, all kinds of them have enabled horses to do their jobs better. This holds true with our Mackinac Island horse population. More than 95% of all of the horses who spend a season here wear horseshoes.

Recently at a cottagers’ gathering, I was handed an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal, published July 17. It had to do with racehorses and their footwear. Coincidentally, horses and horseshoes have been current topics this September on Mackinac Island. As the exodus of our equine workers is in full force this month, our blacksmiths have been busy pulling, not setting, shoes. The reasons for this include: that an un-shod horse has better traction on the freight boat when he has to stand on the metal deck in the bottom of it (usually Arnold Transit Company’s ferry Huron). Secondly, most of the horses leaving the Island in the fall will be heading to pasture and grazing lands, where they will spend time until they return in the spring. And, it is much better for most horses to be in a natural state, in a natural place.


This damaged composite horseshoe of a Mackinac Island Carriage Tours draft horse reveals its layers. This damaged composite horseshoe of a Mackinac Island Carriage Tours draft horse reveals its layers. The Wall Street Journal piece explored the pros and cons of steel and aluminum horseshoes. The world in which both of these two types exist is a competitive one. The actual discipline and art of shoeing horses goes back to the Romans, and horseshoes were called “hippo-sandals.” These items were made of leather and iron. Iron continued to be used through the Middle Ages and it, along with steel, was the standard into the 20th century.

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the 1890s, there was a factory called the Pittsburgh Reduction Company. It was the predecessor to Alcoa Aluminum, and it was they who first massproduced aluminum, including horseshoes. Aluminum horseshoes began to have many converts to the new camp.

Possibly the most famous racehorse, Seabiscuit, helped to generate the new popularity in the 1930s by wearing aluminum horseshoes. In Baltimore, Maryland, the Victory Racing Plate Company pioneered a lightweight aluminum shoe that could be shaped cold (instead of hotforged) and glued on. By 1935 racehorses all over American tracks were sporting these light shoes. Horseshoes have a similarity to car tires, in that like tires, different kinds are used for different purposes.

The aluminum-versus-steel camps of thought still exist in racing today, and proponents of steel plates argue that it is correct and good riding, which are the factors to keep a fast horse light on his feet. Aluminum shoes are costly to use, and they do wear out quicker and can be hard to fit. These days, when speed is an issue, the lightweight shoe can mean more speed. They work best when the surface is even, and not wet. Steel shoes tend to work best in more rugged terrain or tracks composed of crushed limestone. In sloppy conditions, a steel shoe on the track tends to have more grab. Many eventers use aluminum shoes on the crosscountry course, with toe grabs drilled in for traction. Others prefer steel, with an amount of drilltech that has been heated and then molded to adhere to the point of the shoe, to help in stability.

Some private Island horses wear what looks like a rubber bootie. The bootie is secured above the hooves, near the ankles. These types of shoes are often called “easy boots.” Horses sport this type of covering mainly while being shipped or on the trails. “Easy boots” have nothing to do with speed; they’re all about safety of the foot. For horses whose feet have had medical problems such as foundering, shoes with a center bar, or heartshaped frame, have helped the animal still be of use and in comfort.

Mackinac Island is made of limestone, and while the major roads have a surface of blacktopping, bare limestone rock is quite visible everywhere, including on some trails. Most of the private horses, as well as the livery saddle horses, are shod with steel shoes. Often these shoes have metal grips on them. Steel shoes have been a mainstay on Mackinac Island for decades. But, of course, there are exceptions to every rule. After World War II, many private carriage horses wore rubber shoes. Rubber horseshoes helped to cushion the feet of a horse, especially if that horse had to spend much time covering miles of paved roads and hauling a carriage. In the years of 1948- 1949, when Mackinac’s liveries were organizing into Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, those horses were wearing both rubber and steel on their feet. There was not a uniform standard for them.

The problem with rubber shoes is that they wear out very soon, and on Mackinac Island, they did. The newly formed Mackinac Island Carriage Tours had not just a seasonal problem, but had a daily one. Most horses’ hooves grow in a similar fashion as do our fingernails and toenails. Horses should have their hooves trimmed at least every six to 19 weeks, depending on how quickly the hoof grows. These are horses that have bare feet. That trim is just good horse keeping, encouraging strong walls and pliable frogs (soles) and heels. A shod horse needs to be reset in a similar time frame, usually between six to eight weeks. Hooves grow fastest in the spring and summer. Taking a shoe off, resetting, or placing it allows for a healthier hoof, as well as letting old nail holes grow out. Shoeing is a lot of work; however, a constant resetting can lead to a serious breakdown of the horse’s foot, and those were some conditions facing Mackinac Island Carriage Tours. By the 1970s a composite shoe had been developed. This shoe was a steel shoe encased in a hard plastic type of outer body, complete in various sizes, and even with a front tow clip to help hold it in the hoof. The shoe has pre-drilled holes for nails (as all horseshoes do except for glue-ons) and the shoe is nailed on like steel shoes. The difference is that the shoe has some degree of cushioning, but has a longer street durability and wear. In the case of any shoe, from rubber to aluminum, steel or composite, money plays a role. On Mackinac Island, where nothing is ever very easy, good shoes that do the job are important.

The whole concept of this shoe was for a working draft/carriage horse. Thus, on Mackinac Island, a practical “new” shoe was born and has been a part of our horse heritage for many years. The saga of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, a veterinarian, and the 3M Company is a fascinating story. But it will have to wait for another Horse Tale.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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I really enjoyed this story

I really enjoyed this story and it delights me to think of the hard-working horses, whose clippity clop brought me such joy during my visit, will have a nice off-season in pasture and grazing lands.
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