Horses’ hooves are naturally designed to provide traction on a variety of surfaces. After all, the cougar looking for dinner doesn’t care whether the ground is muddy, the surface is as hard as a rock, or the incline is steep and sandy—horses need to get away from danger in any circumstance, after all.
There are some scenarios for domestic horses, however, in which extra traction is helpful: fox-hunting in snowy conditions, making a tight and quick turn on a jump course, or galloping downhill on a cross-country course, like world-class horses and riders will do on Saturday during the 2017 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. In these situations, riders often use studs—small pieces of metal that screw into the bottom of drilled and tapped horse shoes—to help their mounts keep their footing in hopes of preventing slip- or fall-related injuries.
Though studs might be small in size, they require substantial knowledge for proper use. Used incorrectly, they could result in equine, and even human, injury. So, we consulted a veterinarian and a farrier for tips on using studs and the risks that could accompany them.
Susan Johns, DVM, CVA, is a sports medicine veterinarian at Virginia Equine Imaging, in The Plains, who is head veterinarian for the U.S. eventing team and a treating veterinarian for the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.
Steve Teichman, a partner in Chester County Farrier Associates—a multi-farrier practice in Unionville, Pennsylvania, specializing in shoeing sport horses—is the U.S. Equestrian Team farrier for eventing and has shod horses at multiple Olympics, World Equestrian Games, Pan-American Games, and European Opens in addition to regularly shoeing many of the United States’ top event horses.
“Studs are primarily used to provide added grip when working on natural turf or other surfaces that are muddy or slippery and require better traction,” Johns said.
Added Teichman, “Soft to muddy conditions tend to be the most likely place to use studs. The softer and deeper footing require a larger stud. On the flip side, a smaller stud used to penetrate the surface is helpful when footing is extremely hard and tends to also be slippery.”
Studs come in an array of shapes, sizes, and materials, so it can be overwhelming to even decide which to purchase, let alone apply. There are a few basic types, however, that typically represent a basic stud kit:
The rule of thumb is to always use the smallest studs possible. Larger mud studs, for example, might not be able to penetrate firm, dry grass, basically leaving the horse on high-heels and potentially unbalanced.
Studs don’t necessarily require a particular type of shoe, but shoes will require some modification before you can apply studs.
“Any shoe your farrier can drill and tap you can stud,” Johns said. “Studs seem to work well with open-heeled shoes that can support the depth and weight of the individual studs.”
“All studs in the United States are a 3/8"-16 NC (national course, which refers to the angle and shape of the threads) thread shank and about 5/16" long,” he said “You need enough shoe stock to provide strength and depth to support the studs.”
Many farriers—and, by and large, all sport horse farriers, at least—are familiar with drilling and tapping shoes for studs. Still, you might find it useful to discuss the possibility of preparing shoes for studs in advance to ensure the farrier has the proper equipment and is comfortable with the task.
“It takes a great deal of experience to know just how and when to use studs,” Teichman said. “Seeking help from knowledgeable riders and professionals is important,” especially when they’re a new tool in the toolbox.
Studs can be very useful in providing added traction, but both sources agree that their use isn’t risk-free.
Ideally, Teichman said, studs “should not have much impact on hoof balance, because they are only applied when they can penetrate footing and not alter balance.”
However, one caveat is if they’re applied asymmetrically: If a larger stud is used on the outside of the shoe than on the inside of the shoe, for example, Johns said.
“In deep deformable riding surfaces this has minimal impact, but on firmer surfaces this can have a more significant issue,” she said.
Studs can also impact how the horse’s hoof deals with forces
“The horse’s foot is designed to absorb concussion during the stresses and strains of the impact on landing,” Johns explained. “It is a balancing act between slipping on a competition surface and the potential risks of suddenly stopping the movement of the foot.
“Limbs that are going from a rapid movement to an abrupt stop are at a higher risk for injury to the structures above the foot such as the flexor tendons or the suspensory ligaments,” she cautioned. “In addition, a sudden stop and torque of the foot could adversely impact the collateral ligaments of the distal limb such as a coffin joint.”
In other words, studs can, in some cases, afford the horse too much traction, which can lead to injury. Riders can reduce the risk of such injuries by choosing studs appropriate for the footing conditions, consulting with farriers and experienced riders and/or grooms, as needed, Johns said.
“With stud use you make the most educated choice for the conditions and go for it,” Teichman said, adding that despite best efforts, in some cases, injuries can still occur.
Johns also noted that it’s crucial to use proper protective gear on horses’ legs, such as bell boots and protective when using studs.
“There is potential risk for a horse to strike or ‘stud’ himself, creating a superficial wound through the skin or heel grab that may hinder their ability to perform well at an event,” she said. “For example, a three-day event horse that ‘studs’ himself during the cross-country phase may have difficulty trotting up sound during the horse inspection the following morning if the trauma sustained from the stud causes a lameness. If your horse has a propensity for one or more hooves to strike another leg during movement, protective boots are particularly beneficial to help prevent injury from the studs.”
Studs can be useful to horses and riders in a variety of disciplines. But it’s important to understand how they work, get advice and assistance for experienced individuals, and prepare ahead of time.
“The increased use of all-weather surfaces for the majority of training plays a factor in the use of studs,” Johns said. "Sometimes there can be risks using them at shows if horses and riders are not accustomed to running with them" because they do the majority of their training in a prepared arena.
“I think it is important to also train your horses across turf using studs prior to a competition, so that your horse has a chance to get acclimated as we are effectively changing the mechanical effect of the foot,” she added.
Finally, always keep the lines of communication open. “Good communication between the veterinarians, farriers, riders, and grooms is paramount for helping make good decisions about proper stud use for varying conditions,” Johns said.
(Reprinted from The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care - an AAPF/IAPF Educational Partner)