By Tyler Bui
Proper hoof care is essential to any horse’s overall well-being, but when it comes to hunter/jumper athletes, even the slightest change in shoeing can make a huge impact on their performance. Dave Gilliam of Equisport Hoof Care focuses on not just the hooves of his hunter jumpers, but also their overall soundness and success in the ring.
Gilliam has had great success in the hunter/jumper world. In 2021 alone, he had worked on eight WEF circuit champions, and more than a dozen reserve or grand champions during the fall indoor championships at Capital Challenge, Harrisburg, Washington International, and Kentucky. He has also had the privilege of working with some of the most elite hunter/jumper riders and horses, including those competing in the Olympics and World Equestrian Games from various countries, and multiple USEF hunter Horse of the Year winners and WCHR Champions.
One of Gilliam’s highest performing clients is Bill Schuab’s Over The Hill Farm, where he maintains the hoof care of numerous top hunters and jumpers. “Working with Bill is a pleasure. Aside from being just a nice man and good person, Bill runs one of the top programs in the country,” says Gilliam. “At OTH, they strive to have each horse and rider at their very best, which translates to allowing me to do my best job, as I have consistent feedback and information.”
Gilliam has been around animals his entire life. As a teenager, he began working as an apprentice for a close friend who had begun his career as a farrier.
“I didn’t think that was the direction I was going to go with my career—my major was agriculture business so I thought I would get into that line of work as I did a lot of farming growing up,” Gilliam tells The Plaid Horse.
“Something excited me about the idea of being able to work with animals on a daily basis as a farrier—being your own boss, and being able to see the improvements you can make helping a horse. It’s really rewarding being able to help the animal, not only from a lameness perspective but also with their show ring success. Making a sound horse better is what I like to say.”
He has now been a farrier for almost 28 years, focusing on hunter/jumper athletes on the circuit. In the first ten years of his career, Gilliam gravitated more towards the Western arena, as he rode cutting and roping horses growing up; but after getting a glimpse of the hunter/jumper world, he found a new love for the sport.
“I didn’t really start working on hunter/jumpers until my mid-thirties,” he says. “I was asked to be a show farrier for a local hunter/jumper show, and I spent a couple days watching these athletes and was just blown away by what they could do.”
“To me, hunter/jumpers are the ultimate athletes as far as a horse goes. There are so many variables to consider for these horses…landing from a jump, for instance, you need to give the proper support to the tendon structures and ligaments to maintain and support the horse.”
IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS
From the horse’s conformation to the footing in the ring, each and every element matters to Gilliam. He always plans ahead, managing shoeing schedules based on competition schedules, and spends time watching the horses in the ring himself.
“Watching the horses, talking to the trainers— the communication aspect is so important. Every horse is different, and every rider rides differently. You can take the same horse, but if you have an amateur or a professional riding it, how that horse moves is different with each rider,” says Gilliam. To date, he has worked on eight WEF circuit champions, more than a dozen Indoors champions, and multiple Grand Prix and Hunter Derby winners.
“Say you have a horse that is coming into the jump too tight and can’t get out of the way of himself. You can do things like speeding the front end up so it’s out of the way. You can also slow the hind end down, so there’s multiple ways of addressing that problem. We can lengthen stride, and we can do that with how we set the horse up with shoeing. We can truly make a horse move as good as we want, it’s about understanding the biomechanical aspect of how the horse moves and being able to manipulate it to get what you need, and there are so many variables you can implement to get you there.”
Not only does Gilliam maintain close relationships with his clients and trainers, but he also works closely with their veterinarians. By doing so, he hopes to maintain the horse’s overall soundness and prevent injuries from occurring before they present themselves.
“A common phrase is ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ But as a farrier, we see the horse so much more than their veterinarian,” says Gilliam. “I try to work from a proactive position, so when I see problems developing, I take it upon myself with the veterinarian to fix it before it becomes a problem. Working with the veterinarians, I’ve learned what not being proactive can lead to. My perspective has changed to address things I see show up and incorporate the veterinarian into what I’m doing as far as a shoeing change because of what I see.”
“There’s an old school thought that if the horse is injured they should be on stall rest, but with the abilities and tools we have in this day and age, we can be understanding of the injury, shoe according so you’re accomodating to what that injury needs, but also allow that horse to maintain a training program,” he adds. “Of course, if it’s a major issue or strain then the horse will have to be put on stall rest. But if it’s a mild issue that you can unload and isolate that injury so it can rehab, and have the ability to go out and train and show, that’s a big deal. It’s a balancing act of fixing a therapeutic issue with the performance of the horse, and allowing them to still move well. You can have the best of both worlds, you can keep the horse moving and performing the way it is now but also address the problem that is brewing that’s going to be a big problem in the future.”
NEVER STOP LEARNING
In addition to his 28 years of experience, Gilliam was one of twelve students in the U.S. to graduate first from the Royal Veterinary Colleges Equine Locomotor and Research Program. He believes that continuing education opportunities are crucial to the industry, as collaboration and research can only improve the impact that a farrier has on the performance of a horse.
“Four years ago, there were thousands of research papers about the hoof on the veterinary side but very little research done on the hoof by farriers. I jumped on the chance to study in this program when it had never been offered to farriers before,” says Gilliam. “This opportunity came around and it taught hands-on about biomechanics and locomotion, which gives you insight into understanding how the horse moves and allows you to do things like lengthening a horse’s stride or speeding the front end up because you understand how it all works. We also learned how to conduct and produce research to put out there and be peer-reviewed like large research studies.”
Gilliam is also the President of the American Association of Equine Soundness Professionals, which he founded in 2015 and has grown to now have around 300 members, with veterinarians from Olympic teams and some of the most well-respected farriers worldwide.
“The purpose behind it was that there’s not a lot of focus on the lower limb of the horse,” says Gilliam. “It’s mainly about collaboration between the farrier and veterinary industries to work together to understand it. Just because a horse is sound, it doesn’t mean he’s moving his best. It’s about encouraging and striving for better. Just because we reach a certain level doesn’t mean we can’t reach another level.”
Gilliam will spend the 2022-23 winter circuit in Wellington and then will travel from Kentucky to the east coast during the summer to care for his client’s horses. He aims to do everything in his power to keep his horses and clients in the ring performing at their highest level, and goes the extra mile to ensure no issue is being overlooked.
“My philosophy is to be proactive,” says Gilliam. “You should always invest and take the time to watch the horse move. From a lameness perspective, I say to load the good and unload the bad. If something is not comfortable in the horse, there’s a lameness issue. You learn to unload that and load the good structures so the horse can rehab but still continue on with its daily routine of showing and training. These horses are athletes, so you have to set them up to be able to perform to be an athlete.”
*This story was originally published in the July 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!