This blog post is an interview with Maria Fraser-Baggström, a dressage rider and trainer from Finland. Maria rides high-level dressage with her horses and in this post talks about her experiences of doing so barefoot.
Hi Maria! To begin with, could you introduce yourself and your horse to us, and tell us how you got into dressage?
I’m a dressage rider and trainer who live with my husband, our 3 boys, 4 horses and a standard poodle in the beautiful archipelago in the south of Finland. I started my riding career as a show jumper and was competing 120 classes at national level with my first horse Nyaruto, or Nisse as we called him. He was a palomino colored Hanoverian gelding who was 5 when we bought him and we ended up having him for 16 years until he died at the age of 21.
When he was 14 our vet told us that his front legs were worn and if I wanted to continue riding him we needed to stop jumping, so I started dressage with him. He was a fun horse who learned tricks very easily. Rearing, Spanish walk and bucking on command to name a few. He also found the tempi changes so easy that I for the longest time thought that one tempis was the easiest movement to teach, but I have since been put in place. He was really the horse that made me fall in love with dressage, and the more horses I have had the privilege to train the more I’m fascinated by the art of dressage.
My current herd of geldings consists of Gosse, Mingo, Hero and Eça.
Gosse is a 20-year-old Friesian. He came to me as a four-year-old in 2006 and I schooled and competed him up to medium advanced level. He was diagnosed with Cushing’s at the age of 16 so I then retired him from competition and now he is the perfect schoolmaster for my students.
Pin Rock’s Domingo “Mingo” is a 12-year-old warmblood who I bought as a yearling from the breeder in 2011. He has been the horse I’ve done so many first with on our journey to upper level dressage, and what he lacks in talent he makes up with work morale.
Rivendell’s First Hero “Hero” is a 10-year-old Finnish warmblood. He came to me as a second chance horse in February 2016. He was only 4 and had just started his riding career when ligament injuries in his back legs resulted in a death sentence by the veterinarian. I had the possibility to give him a home so decided to take the risk and rehabilitate him. The risk definitely paid off and now he is doing really well.
Eça is a 13-year-old Lusitano who joined the herd in November 2016. True to his breed he is a very smart and hardworking horse. In addition to dressage we also play with tackless riding, liberty and trick training. He came from being stabled, shod and kept alone in the paddock because he was too playful, to living barefoot in my herd. He loves being part of the bachelor gang and is always the one ready to play.
What is it that excites you about dressage?
Nothing beats the feeling of the horse reading your thoughts and producing beautiful movements with the lightest of aids.
What are some of your highlights or greatest achievements in dressage?
2021 was a great season with all the horses. Mingo and I did our first Grand Prix Kür, it was so much fun riding to music. Eça did his first Intermediate level and we won the Finnish Lusitano Championship second year in a row, and Hero did his first Prix St George. So happy with what we’ve achieved.
Have your horses always been barefoot?
I started keeping my horses barefoot and living in loose housing system almost 20 years ago. Both Gosse and Eça were shod before they came to me, Mingo and Hero have never had shoes on.
In general, what do you think are the benefits of having horses barefoot?
I find it healthier for the whole body, but especially the joints and ligaments. And of course the hooves have a possibility to function better barefoot. Another big advantage is that they can play with each other without me worrying that they will accidentally injure the other. Their playtime can be quite wild at times.
Is it any different doing dressage barefoot than with a shod horse?
I find my horses are very sure footed and soft in their movements. I also don’t have the same need for leg protectors as when horses are shod. One disadvantage is higher maintenance of their paddock in wintertime when it’s slippery.
You’re also a horse trainer, so how does the barefoot ethos fit in with your training?
My clients have both shod and barefoot horses. If the owner ask me I’m more than happy to share my experiences of keeping and training barefoot horses, but I also respect that this is not the path for everyone.
Why did you decide to use Flex Boots on your horses?
I like the design and that they are very light and snug fitting. Another plus is that they are very easy to put on and take off. The soft rubber also gives good shock absorption, and the material is easy to keep clean and doesn’t absorb water.
How long have you been using Flex Boots on your horses, and what’s your opinion of them?
I have now used Flex Hoof Boots for one and a half years. I love that even when I’ve used them many days in a row they have not caused any rubbing. They are very light weight and the horses seem very comfortable wearing them. They have been good to use when going on hacks on gravel roads and in the winter they have been perfect to give grip in icy conditions.
Do you use boots on your horses every time you ride, or just in certain situations?
Gosse, my Friesian uses the boots almost always when ridden. Because of his Cushing’s he has become more sensitive with his feet. With my other horses I use them in wintertime when we have hard ground or slippery conditions and in summertime when hacking on roads. So basically when I feel they need more hoof protection or better grip.
In competitions, you’re not allowed to use boots, right? So does being barefoot affect the competing at all?
In dressage competition boots are not allowed. Thankfully the arena surfaces are usually very good at competitions so it has not been a problem for us. The only time I have felt a disadvantage was last summer when I competed on grass. Both me and Hero were a bit tense about trusting the footing and this could be seen in the extended movements. Luckily, we had good weather and it wasn’t slippery, but I think in the future I will avoid competing on grass.
What would be your advice to someone who is interested in taking their dressage horse’s shoes off and going barefoot?
Do your research beforehand, and prepare to give it time. Find a good barefoot trimmer and learn to do a basic maintenance trim yourself. Get some good protective boots and don’t hesitate to use them to help your horse transition to barefoot. And last but not least: remember to enjoy the journey!