Saturday, May 2, 2009

Never Look A...Mechanical Engineer in the Mouth

(Photo-Garry Jones, AP)

One of the bright spots in pre-Derby week was an article by TD Thorton in the Boston Globe about one Michael (Mick) Peterson Jr. (pictured at left), an unassuming sort of fellow that holds advanced degrees in both theoretical and applied mechanics – two subjects that hold interest for me (from a horseshoeing angle – pun intended) and also drive me marginally insane when ‘absolutes’ and ‘horse’ end up in the same sentence. More on that in a minute. Peterson is also a fan of racing. Definitely a bonus.

What the Globe article drove home is that answers begin with questions and great ideas often come zinging in from left field on a day when you can really use the lift. As Peterson stated, it all started with a “na├»ve question – what kind of standards do we have to meet?” Hmm. The focus had always been on real or potential problems and not on what might be ideal because that parameter had never really been established. No data existed to support the good news unless it was subtracted from the bad – that information buried in what the science bizz calls ‘undefined variables.’ Or something to that effect. And of course the horse, the biggest variable of the bunch. Peterson’s point: You can’t seek an ideal without identifying it first, a deductive process. That requires data and more importantly, an unbiased mind.

What does it have to with horseshoeing? Simple. Overturning tradition with either new information or in Peterson’s case, a better question. I started shoeing in the early ‘70’s – shortly before the union busting years at the tracks. I was licensed under some pretty questionable circumstances, but it hardly mattered since it sort of qualified under the ‘rules of racing.’ Yeah, they were pretty vague. I plated for a couple of years, but found the track superstitious, traditionalist and really, moribund. The last thing anybody wanted was an idea. Switched to jumpers. More creativity, but a lot of the same mindset as the track – a great deal of it invented by the veterinary community. They wanted to run our affairs primarily because they had no idea what we really did. They were the self- anointed chiefs’ of the mystics. As such, every time an article appeared in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine, a new fetish showed up in the barn. For a few years, it was wedge pads. Everybody was enamored with the angles of a horse’s hoof – an ideal. Nobody ever bothered to ask what the horse did for a living. We were plagued with soft tissue injuries. Pulled suspensories, check ligaments ad nauseam. We were shoeing to aesthetics, not athletics.

By the early ‘80’s, performance horses began to circulate around the country more. We got a chance to look at more horses from back east and reluctantly exchange some ideas or simply extrapolate a theory on the available evidence. Horseshoers were still not to the communication phase when it came to the competition. Two shoers back east, notably Brady and Fitzgerald seemed to be on a different wavelength, though they weren’t talking. However, their work had a lot to say if you really took a look at the subtleties. One thing you didn’t find were gimmicks, including wedge pads. The shoeing was focused on the job description of the animal, how that animal was constructed and really, with a certain amount of humility. These were the best horses in the world at their job – Olympic level grand prix horses. The idea was to not mess with something that’s not broken. Focus on the task at hand.

Around the same time, some research veterinarians, notably Dr. Hillary Clayton, at that time working out of the University of Saskatchewan in Canada were studying biomechanics with extremely high-speed video filming. I knew Dr. Clayton pretty well, (having traveled with her in China, looking at alternative medicine options) but admittedly we didn’t always agree on conclusions. Taking research from the lab to the real world is a difficult transition and is often based on a preconceived assumption, and when dealing with horses, a host of variables. There is also the inherent agenda that exists when academic medicine gets married to outside funding. However, we still get to keep the information.

During this period I also met up with a theoretical mechanics guy that worked in the aerospace business at Boeing. He also didn’t know much about horses, but was sort of fascinated by what I did – more accurately, how I decided what to do. We talked a lot about things like angles, weight distribution, psi, ground impact (something he didn’t like to think about with aircraft) and spent time with the films. He was particularly focused on how the fetlock of the horse seeks the ground when landing off a fence. Quite similar to a racehorse when the animal’s body passes over the front leg at the end of the extension process of a stride. He wrote some things down for me. I said, “I don’t do math.”

He said, “It’s like this. Ever see a woman sprain her ankle in a pair of high heels?”

Well, I hadn’t personally, but let him go on. “If the angle of the hoof is too high, then the horse will fall off his foot. A lower angle would seem better as the horse would be more on his leg and not so much teetering on his foot. Of course, you’ll need a bigger shoe since reducing the heel will create more posterior length to the hoof. Your ‘tip’ point will be greatly reduced.”


Well, I took a lot of this heart and changed my thinking, which is really difficult if you happen to be a horseshoer. I also took a lot of flak, particularly from veterinarians up in the grandstands or other shoers. Partly because it wasn’t their idea and partly because it began to cut into their day money. Tendon and ligament problems dropped precipitously. The overall hoof was greatly improved. And the talent level went up. Jumping horses have a distinct need to feel confident about their landing gear. Over the ensuing years I was very fortunate to work on some very talented horses, including many of the members of six national teams at the international level. It was kind of humbling in a way, though that too is difficult for a horseshoer. But I did learn that answers sometimes show up disguised as a Boeing engineer. And when you have a talented horse to work on, then focus on doing the least, not the most, because it is really about his talent and his job, not yours.
So thank you Mick for taking a look at our bizz and asking that very important question. That’s the first step toward an answer.