No shoes required for this successful junior hunter.
At this year’s West Coast Junior Hunter Finals in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., a group of farriers gathered at the in-gate as riders were called back for the under saddle phase. Catering to an old tradition, they quickly pulled front shoes left and right before the horses returned to the ring for the final flat test.
But Tall, Dark, and Handsome stood alone as the sound of hammers rang in the air. The large junior hunter was the only horse that didn’t need his feet attended. Since overcoming a nasty case of white line disease six years ago, “Zephyr” has become a rarity on the “A-circuit” for what’s not on his hooves.
The 14-year-old Belgian Warmblood jumps completely barefoot and has for the past six years.
Standing Out From The Ground Up
With that distinction, 15-year-old Laurel Hicks and Zephyr jumped well in both rounds and were competitive in the under saddle phase. They placed seventh overall in the large junior, 15 and under, division in their first year at the West Coast Finals.
“We’re already looking forward to going back next year,” said Hicks. “There were a lot of challenging jumps on the course and a long bending line that rode in 10 strides. Keeping the pace was the hardest part, but riding Zephyr without shoes feels the same as riding a horse with shoes. He was great.”
It’s been a long road for Zephyr and his owners, who were told by vets and farriers that he would never jump again in 2002.
As a 7- and 8-year-old, Zephyr carried Georgette Topakas, Montecito, Calif., around the adult amateur and modified divisions, but she had originally imported him as a move-up horse for her daughter Laurel.
However, during the middle of the show season in 2004, the 17-hand gelding (Saygon—Noblesse Hof Ter Heide) began constantly throwing his front shoes. Topakas wondered why as the bills for re-shoeing piled up.
“I took Zephyr to a new farrier, who did a pincer test on the base of each hoof,” Topakas said. “When he did that, I saw gray goo come out of the laminae. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. He did that test on all his feet with the same result.”
Out-Of-Control Fungus In All Four Feet
White line disease occurs when bacteria enter the laminae between the hoof wall and the coffin bone. Healthy laminae holds the hoof wall together from the coronary band all the way down to the ground, but when bacteria comes into contact with the laminae, a fungus eats away at it, creating a hollow space and weakening the hooves. The “gray goo” that Topakas saw during the hoof test was out-of-control fungus, a serious symptom of white line disease. Zephyr’s case was so severe that his laminae space was hollow in all four feet.
Farriers typically treat white line disease by re-sectioning the hoof. They carve out a large chunk of the outer hoof wall to allow for greater airflow to the affected area and use bar shoes to support the hoof while the laminae heals.
Topakas Takes Control
After Zephyr was diagnosed with white line disease, Topakas felt betrayed. She’d been following the shoeing advice of horse professionals for several years, but Zephyr’s hooves were a mess. Topakas decided to take matters into her own hands.
Her background in pharmaceuticals and botanical knowledge lent itself well to Zephyr’s condition. Topakas holds a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Arizona but attests to a lifelong passion for plants and their uses. A second career in pharmaceuticals, in which she partnered with her father to build up and later sell the pharma marketing company PromoTECH, gave her extensive knowledge to proceed.
With a hunger to truly understand Zephyr’s health and how she could improve it, Topakas spent the better part of two years reading every book she could find on herbs for horses.
“I like to do lots of research before I go into something,” said Topakas. “I’ve always understood plants’ uses and how they interact with each other. With Zephyr’s condition, I wanted to understand what we needed to accomplish before we got into it.”
Topakas also began to read about barefoot trimming. She spoke to people that had gone barefoot and learned what worked best for them. She consulted with Oklahoma-based barefoot trimmer Mike LaGrone, who agreed to see Zephyr on one of his trips west.
Addressing The Whole Picture
“Zephyr’s feet were just about falling off before I met him,” said LaGrone. “It was ugly. I looked at him and told Georgette that the best thing for that horse was to change his whole life. He needed to get out of a stall, have his shoes taken off and his diet changed, everything.
“Hoof problems are a symptom of environment,” added LaGrone. “And there’s no way to cure a problem by addressing a symptom. You’ve got to address the whole picture.”
Once Zephyr’s shoes were removed, circulation and blood flow to the hooves increased, and he needed constant movement to stay comfortable. Topakas realized that diet and environment were having a critical effect on Zephyr’s health, and she began to approach horse care from a new angle.
“I wanted not only to fix the white line, but also to prevent it from ever happening again,” said Topakas. “Curing the white line was only part of the equation. The other primary factors were diet and environment.”
Topakas faced a barrage of criticism from her veterinarian and long-term farrier when she had Zephyr’s shoes pulled and turned him out to pasture for a year. Eschewing corrective shoeing for her expensive hunter was a rare move, but Topakas believed that re-sectioning would only be a quick fix.