Even though Penn’s New Bolton Center is situated in the quiet farmlands of Kennett Square, Robert Sigafoos has treated horses from as far away as Canada and the Midwest. The long trek to see Sigafoos isn’t so odd, considering his claim to fame. Sigafoos, who heads New Bolton’s Farrier Services Department, is the inventor of a unique adhesive-bonded horseshoe called the Sigafoos shoe. If you ever thought nailing shoes to horses’ feet wasn’t the greatest idea, well, you’re not the first. Because of his invention, Sigafoos is now able to offer horses a better alternative to nail-on shoes, which make horses more susceptible to infections. We met up with him recently to talk about the science behind horses’ hooves.
Q. What do you do at New Bolton?
A. I run their farrier services department. I also do research into a variety of things. Basically overall I’d say general orthopedic applications, such as devices and things that contribute to the general welfare of mostly horses but also small animals. Orthopedic devices such as shoes, orthotics, some braces and splints. That sort of stuff.
Q. What did you do before coming here?
A. I shod horses in Northern Virginia for about 10 years before I came here.
Q. Do all horses require shoes?
A. The vast majority of horses in the U.S. and the world are shod [and] particularly in the Western countries, where they’re using horses for performance. Horses are shod mainly to protect the horse’s foot against wear. In the wild, horses don’t wear shoes, but natural selection tends to select for better hooved animals or they tend to live in environments where hoof quality isn’t an issue.
Q. What has been the response to your invention?
A. We can’t come anywhere close to producing them fast enough. We’re currently getting them made in Mexico and Canada and in the U.S. We’re always out of inventory. We sell a huge amount in Europe and Australia.
Q. What makes your horseshoe so unique?
A. It’s the fact that you can glue on the shoe really reliably. People have tried to glue shoes on in the past unsuccessfully.
Everybody thought that our shoes wouldn’t work, so we were finally able to demonstrate that you could in fact use this technique to glue the shoes on and very effectively. There is a strong emphasis on improving the therapeutic quality of shoes as well. It’s sort of the difference of having a cheap pair of K-Mart sneakers as opposed to a good pair of Nike running shoes.
Q. What was the process that led up to this invention?
A. When I came here in 1983, I’d been doing a lot of work in polyurethane and plastics and had also been doing a lot of hoof repair. And the marriage between the polyurethane work that I was doing and the hoof repair was what actually came up with the glue-on shoe.
I used to ride horses when I was a kid. I was a stable manager for a polo club in Virginia and worked with a farrier. I’d always been very interested in foot problems and injuries, particularly in the polo horses that we were seeing because they have a lot of problems with their feet.
Q. Is your work more on the preventive or the treatment side?
A. Unfortunately, it’s more on the treatment just because of the types of cases that we see. The professional industries around here, the veterinary and farrier, are extremely good, so 90 percent of the problems that horses have never make it here because they are being treated in the outside, so we tend to see things that people either wait too long to treat or we’ll see the things that are untreatable by conventional means so we end up having to come up with some way of treating them.
Q. How many patients do you treat?
A. We see three to four cases a day, from all over the East Coast, Midwest and even from Canada.
In the space of a week, we will see more complex problems then the average farrier would see in a lifetime. We never do a routine [case]. It never happens.
Q. Since you treat competitive horses, do you ever deal with ethical issues?
A. Where it really comes up is in halter horses. That’s common not so much in the shoeing as in the way the feet are trimmed. Halter horses can be any breed; they are horses that are being shown in hand. No one actually rides the horse, kind of like a dog show.
We do occasionally run into cases where people are trying to get you to trim the feet differently than the horse’s should be. In very rare cases is that a problem because most of the time people want you to trim a horse so that it makes the leg straighter because they don’t realize it’s detrimental to the horse, and then when you explain it to them they immediately don’t want you to do it because it damages their investment.
You do occasionally get someone that tries to get you to shoe a horse in such a way that’s counterproductive, and you just don’t do it. I can count the number of times on one hand that has happened to me in 30 years of shoeing horses.
Originally published on November 29, 2001