For more than a decade Rob Sigafoos toiled in the tight confines of his lab. Hunched over a cluttered workbench and covered in glue and soot, the farrier plied horseshoes out of high-tech composites and super-strong fabric. His quest: a nail-free, adhesive-bonded horseshoe system.
Sigafoos struck gold with a glue-on shoe that has proven a godsend for treating equine "sore feet" problems. In the late 1990's, in addition to researching the prevention and treatment of hoof problems at the University of PA's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., Sigafoos found time to knock out between three and five pairs of shoes a day.
Today, Sigafoos' glue-on shoes are manufactured by a western Pennsylvania firm and marketed through Sound Horse Technologies in Unionville, Pa. From pleasure horses to sport or performance horses (including a Breeders' Cup champion), they have all worn his handiwork.
"The shoes are designed to stay on better than traditional nail-on shoes and there is a significant reduction in concussion." said Sigafoos, the chief farrier at New Bolton for 25 years.
"If you examine the way horses were shod during the Civil War, that's exactly how they are being done today. The steel or aluminum doesn't do squat for absorbing concussion. Just drop a metal plate on the floor and hear it ring. It does nothing to dissipate the shock or deaden the vibration."
The Sound Horse glue-on shoes can benefit horses with cracked and broken feet that have nothing to nail to. They combine a lightweight aluminum shoe with a ¼ inch-thick, concaved, urethane rim pad to reduce concussive shock effects on the hoof and lower leg.
The shoe is securely bonded to the hoof wall by saturating the fabric cuff with an acrylic adhesive. It is stretched-wrapped to the hoof for ten minutes while the adhesive sets up. The adhesive bonded horseshoe system distributes the load of attachment over a broad area, reducing the focal stresses typical of nails. There are no mechanical fasteners or any glue contacting the sole.
"One way of thinking, of it is having your socks permanently glued to your shoes, so when you put your socks on you're putting your shoes on at the same time," he explained. "If you really want to keep your shoes, you glue your socks to your feet. That's the glue-on shoe."
A word-of-mouth campaign has fostered a greater acceptance of the glue-ons among farriers with referrals from veterinarians at equine hospitals and clinics scattered throughout the country. "It may look a little bulky when you're used to looking at a aluminum shoe, but there are plenty of benefits," noted Scott Morrison, farrier and veterinarian at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky. "Beyond more shock absorption there is a bit of lift off the ground which protects tender soles. We have a lot of visiting farriers from around the world who see it and we take it on the road shoeing horses."
Fixing Broken Feet
Born to a pair of Ph. D.'s who taught botany at northern Virginia universities, Sigafoos studied art at the local community college before he switched gears working as an apprenticed farrier at the Reston Polo Club for two years. In 1976 he attended Oklahoma Farrier College in out-of-the-way Sperry, Ok.
"It was a rude awakening," Sigfoos related with a laugh. "My instructor had a cleft palate, a very heavy Oklahoma accent and would teach with a cigar dangling in his mouth. I was able to pick up a few words with soft vowels."
Returning to northern Virginia, he set up a practice until a veterinarian friend encouraged him to enroll in an advanced farrier course at the New Bolton Center. After completing the course, Sigafoos was offered a job at the equine hospital in 1983. His first task: build a farrier business.
"I knew farriers hated dealing with broken up feet, horses that can't keep their shoes on," Sigafoos said. "I figured they would want to unload these bad, money-losing cases, so I just needed to figure out how to deal with them. That was the evolution of glue-shoe and all the hoof repair I've done here."
One of the first people he teamed up with at New Bolton was Bill Moyer, D.V.M., who specialized in corrective shoeing. Throughout the 1980s the two men dealt with New Bolton's severest foot problems.
"Rob has a natural way of dealing with both horses and people, and that's a unique gift," said Moyer, the department head of the Veterinary Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Texas A & M. "He is self taught, and has a tremendous intellectual curiosity. How does a horse's foot work, mechanically and engineering-wise? He was always searching for answers.
"Back then he was the only blacksmith I knew who was listening to opera and NPR, not chewing tobacco, spitting and swearing."
Adhesives The Key
The genesis of the Sigafoos glue-on shoe dates back to 1977 when New Bolton's famed orthopedic surgeon Jacques Jenny and a DuPont chemist built the first prototypes.
"They were making them in a little springhouse," recalled trainer Dr. John Fisher, D.V.M. "They ere gluing them on to the bottom of the horse's foot. They just couldn't find the right adhesive. Dr. Jenny died and the project was abandoned."
In 1983 Sigafoos picked up the torch by delving into urethane chemistry. One of the offshoots of his experiments was the development of a polyurethane boot for horses with laminitis..
"We married the hoof repair process to the polyurethane technology, " Sigafoos said. "It was a lot of late nights and weekends, banging your head against the wall.
"Doing hoof repair we found adhesive that had great affinity to the hoof wall. We were using fabric to reinforce the hoof wall and I noticed that the fabric would stay tenaciously attached to the hoof for quite some time. I realized if you could attach to the shoe to the fabric you could use the same technology to keep a shoe on the foot."
The first patent was issued in 1994. The Sigafoos' shoe allows a farrier the ability to safely shoe a horse that has less than an ideal hoof wall.
"When horses lose a shoe they can damage the hoof wall so there is nothing to attach a shoe to," Sigafoos explained. "It's a progressive problem, a horse pulls a shoe, the foot gets damaged, you nail into it again, that causes more damage the shoes not attached securely and it comes off again causing more damage."
Sigafoos also found that damaged hoof walls lead to another major problem: thin soles that cause tender feet. The latter was a scenario that owner Rick Porter encountered with his talented mare Round Pond last spring. After she missed the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park, Porter wondered whether it was something more serious so he sent Round Pound to veterinarian Larry Bramlage at Rood & Riddle.
"Larry said 'if you fix her feet you won't have any (suspensory ligament) problems,'" Porter related. "After Michael Matz took over her training Mike Lopata put on the Sigafoos glue-on shoes to grow her feet out as much as possible."
Matz put the filly back into conventional shoes for the Molly Pitcher race, but when her feet got sore again the glue-on shoes returned for good.
"The glue-ons made all the difference," Porter noted. "She went from a retired horse to winning the Breeders Cup Distaff."
A farrier for two decades, Lopata said the application process for glue-ons takes about 20 minutes longer than for a conventional shoe and requires no special tools.
"Getting ground clearance is very important in a thin soled horse that can't take a nail," Lopata explained. "Round Pond was walking on egg shells when I first saw her, you couldn't train her the way she was. Once the Sigafoos shoes went on her, there was immediate improvement.
"They are superior to nail-ons as far as staying on the horses. They are more expensive, but if you have a horse that needs them, it is money well spent."
There is a lifetime's satisfaction in Sigafoos' knobby hands that are wrapped around a coffee mug on an unseasonably mild December morning. He lives with his wife Mary in a rustic home under a cluster of sycamore trees on the backside of New Bolton's 600 acres.
His property backs up to a wildlife preserve where Sigafoos and his two brawny dogs hike daily for close-up views of browsing deer, wild turkey, a bald eagle and the antics of a family of foxes.
Sitting at a dining room table that he handcrafted out of hardwood, Sigafoos peers out a picture window overlooking a brimming pond where Penn aquaculture students study fish farming and fish diseases.
Woodworking and creating metal sculptures is another Sigafoos passion. He's crafted more than 100 over two decades. In his living room there is a six-foot high lamp created out of hefty vines and metalwork. He's a sucker for big projects.
"I have a 1500-pound Sycamore log that I'm making into a china cabinet ten feet tall, carving out the center with branches that loop around the side," Sigafoos related.
"Walking through the woods you see how these massive vines seem to attack, wrapping around other vines and trees. It's this great slow motion struggle for life. I've been incorporating them into lot of furniture and sculpture pieces."
A quarter of a century of shoeing horses has finally caught up with him. His vertebrae have shifted and he's undergone major back surgery twice in the last ten years. On the advice of his doctors, Sigafoos is currently on a medical leave of absence.
"You can't keep your back straight," he explained. "Then you compound that with horses that try and smack you up against a wall. If I get hit badly one more time, you could see me peddling around in a wheelchair."
His future plans are unsettled but Sigafoos would like to be hired for speaking engagements and clinics representing both New Bolton Center and Sound Horse Technology.
"Hopefully, Rob will stay active and come out with new ideas that push all farriers forward," said Morrrison, of Rood & Riddle. "We need his intellect involved in the next generation of shoe products."
Sound Horse Technology
Mary Hazzard began testing Sigafoos' glue-on shoes as a rider in international eventing competitions in 1990. The shoes survived galloping muddy terrain, a force of 1200 pounds digging in at 30 m.p.h. Now retired from competitions, Hazzard is a partner in Sound Horse Technology that is headquartered on her 80-acre farm in Unionville, Pa.
"I can teach you to put them on in a half hour," Hazzard said. "If you can wrap a horse's foot for an abscess, you can put these on. However, the foot still needs to be balanced and the shoe needs to be shaped. You can't eliminate the farrier or his skills."
A former nurse anesthetist for humans and equines, Hazzard worked with Dr. Jenny, then Sigafoos on early versions of the glue-ons while employed at the New Bolton Center. Patented by the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, glue-ons were licensed to Sound Horse Technologies in 1999. The university receives a royalty for each shoe sold.
"For many years people have a bad taste in their mouth from the first generation glue on shoes because they'd flip off," noted Hazzard. "Years ago we didn't have the adhesives and fabrics strong enough to survive in the equine world. Today we do and the horses go away happy."
After wading through a series of suppliers, Sound Horse teamed up with Pleiger Plastics in November 2004. Located in Washington, Pa., the company produces an array of polyurethane products, everything from snowplow bumpers and shock absorbers. Victory Racing Plate Co., of Baltimore, provides the aluminum racing plates.
The racing shoes are available in Queens Plate (flush toe and XLT), and Outer Rim, as well as the Elite Competition Flat, 2* Wedge, and Hinds.
"They take the sting out of racing," said Bill Kirkpatrick, Sound Horse's partner and general manager Bill Kirkpatrick. "The 1/4-inch tick polymer rim-pad reduces impact by over 50 percent.
"A lot of people who find us are desperate. They've got brittle, cracked hoof that can't keep a shoe on. Our shoe goes on and the horse goes back to work."
Sound Horse has sold close to 10,000 pairs of glue-ons since the company was launched in 1999. Kirkpatrick projects a sales increase of 20 percent for this year.
"We're just putting another tool in the farrier box," Kirkpatrick noted. "Not all horses need glue-ons. We're all about the horses that do."