Like ours, horses’ feet can hurt after a long day. But thanks to farriers, many enjoy a regular pedicure and sport the equivalent of Italian-made boots — hot shoes straight from the forge.
Knees bent, his agile torso angled forward, Josh Stanley straddles the left foreleg of Happy, a
26-year-old quarter horse, between his thighs. This is a routine reset, and Happy is, at the moment, shoeless. Arthritis causes the horse to shift from foot to foot. One of Stanley’s regulars, Happy senses he’s in good hands. Still, you can be patient only so long; a sudden tail flick indicates he’s had enough.
“He’s starting to swish, which means he’s getting uncomfortable,” says Stanley, a certified journeyman farrier and the owner of Montana-based Sunlight Forge, where he uses a coke-fueled (refined coal) forge to fashion steel into handmade horseshoes. He knows it’s harder for Happy to stand on his left hoof than his right, so he alternates sides even though he hasn’t finished trimming the left.
The farrier, who bears a startling resemblance to a young Tom Cruise, wields nippers and a rasp to shape and smooth the hoof wall (which can grow one-half to three-eighths of an inch per month), and a hoof knife to trim the sole and frog (the horny pad on the rear of the sole). It’s critical not to dress off too much wall when trimming. Although much of the hoof is made of keratin, just like human fingernails and toenails, the area inside of the hoof is sensitive and could be damaged if the trim is too close.
Stanley holds himself to the “pantyhose standard,” which was introduced during a shoeing competition in Scotland. “The judge would run pantyhose over the hoof,” he says. “Snags would not score well.” The goal is to turn the hoof into a continuous, smooth arc.
Fortunately, Happy’s hooves are balanced. Stanley nails on the wedge-bar shoes fashioned to take the pressure off his coffin joint, and then Luke Little, his apprentice, steps in to clinch, placing the horse’s front hoof on a stand. Clearly less comfortable in the same semi-squat Stanley had held with ease, Little cuts off the excess nail and makes a groove under it. Then he bends the nail parallel to the hoof wall, packs it in, and smooths it out.
There’s feedback from Happy, who senses a different pair of legs wedged around his. Dodging a hoof stomp, Little straightens up. “You think you’re gonna go to school and learn it all, but it’s a lot more specialized than you realize,” he says. “And it takes about a year to learn to hold your body like that without getting tired.”
Stanley’s mentor, International Horseshoeing Hall of Fame farrier Tom Wolfe, who has shoed professionally for nearly 45 years and taught Stanley farriery at Montana State University in Bozeman, notes: “Part of a farrier’s education should be ergonomics and taking care of your body. There is the potential to get hurt when working with this huge animal.” He also alludes to the importance of Stanley’s innate “horse whispering” skill. “A lot of people starting off take the foot and put it on the stand. When Josh walks up, he approaches the horse and takes a second or two just to stand there. The horse will pick up the foot and give it to him. They’re more willing to take the foot up if they’re invited to.”
Invited or not, farriers have to take the time to look for bruising, cracks, flare (distortion in the hoof wall), prolapsed soles, and signs of wall separation, all of which compromise structural integrity. The goal is to strategically fit the shoes in order to solve any problems and help a horse become or stay sound, meaning no gait impediment, no lameness.
“[The term sound] may have originated from farriers listening to the sound of hooves hitting the ground,” Wolfe says. “We’ll take a horse out of a stall and walk down the barn row and listen, not look. Do you hear four even-spaced beats, or is one louder or off cadence?”
While some farriers use innovative wares to correct a lame gait, Stanley is wary. “I’ve seen the best in the world; they don’t claim to be doing anything but basic shoeing. Then you find people using a bunch of product, offering a lot of shine but not a lot of substance. Their skills aren’t really there.”
Wolfe is more diplomatic. “I shoe 250 horses multiple times a year and rarely have problems. But you go to the marketplaces and find all kinds of glue-on, acrylic-like things that pour into the bottom of the foot. These products have very limited application and are very expensive. In Cincinnati, someone had magnets that could be put into the hoof capsule. I’ve never done that, so I really don’t know. I think if you learn proper balance of the feet, you don’t need products.”
In February, the Wild West Winterfest farrier contest brought competitors from Washington, Wyoming, and Montana to Bozeman for a regional competition. Local favorites included Earl Craig, a fellow certified journeyman farrier from Livingston, and Luke Little, Stanley’s apprentice, who both won their respective divisions.
At the contest, each farrier mans a station (there is one woman among them) equipped with an anvil and a propane forge. What they’ve got to start with is a straight piece of steel bar stock, which they knock into a rough, open U shape, creating a bend to fit the toe of the horse. The shoe can be fullered before nail holes are punched or plain-stamped (punched for nails without the groove), and then the branches are turned to perfectly fit the sides of the hoof. Fronts and hinds are shaped differently to accommodate slightly different anatomical tasks, just like human feet do different things than hands do.
Rounding hammers, forepunches, tongs, pritchels, and fuller/creasers (used to make the groove along the outside of the shoe) are interchanged with alacrity as the anvils register repeated blows. Clusters of onlookers scuff up dust as they stand transfixed. There is a music to all this pounding, set against the constant windlike whoosh of propane, and a collective cringe as the farriers lift hooves and fit still-glowing shoes onto the horses’ feet, creating a distinct, caustic smell.
“Hoof walls are made of hollow tubes, so the heat kills bacteria, cauterizes the tubes, and seals the ends,” assures Stanley. Plus, checking the fit before cooling the shoe lets you make further changes, notes Wolfe. “It’s easier to get the shoe flat [this way] than it is to get the foot flat with the rasp. It’s a way to take it from pretty good to perfect.” Still, the fact that the equines allow you to fit pieces of 1,500-degree Fahrenheit steel onto the bottom of their feet is pretty impressive.
Horseshoes of various shapes and sizes are popped in and out of the forges, which resemble toaster ovens. Traditionally coal was used as fuel, allowing the temperature to reach 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Most farriers now use a coke forge in their shops, but propane has gained popularity because it is portable and can reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Surprisingly, despite the heat, the farriers work barehanded. “You can’t wear gloves or you’ll overgrip the hammer,” says Jeff Hampton of Spokane, Washington. “That stiffens your whole arm and can lead to elbow problems.” Wolfe, who learned the trade in New Mexico, agrees: “Some of the younger people swing like crazy; as you get older you learn to let the hammer do the work. It’s a dance between you, the forge, and the animal.”
Rasping furiously as the clock runs out, Hampton looks like an impassioned fiddler. Sparks literally fly off his tools. He’s just made a lateral break-over and a front lateral support and is eyeing his handiwork. “The challenge is figuring out how to move steel around to match what’s on the table. It’s easy to get lax; competition puts you in the environment to be judged by your peers. You’re basically just walkin’ out here and droppin’ your pants — this is what I got.”
European farriers began nailing shoes to hooves around the sixth century, and the tradition was subsequently exported to the New World along with the equine. “Up until the Industrial Revolution [and advent of the automobile and tractor], much time, energy, and intellect went into American farriery, along with an interest in equine anatomy,” Craig says. “After that, the trade gradually went downhill, reaching its soggiest in the 1960s. Sports and recreation helped farriery rebound during the 1980s and ’90s, and it’s continuing its upward curve.”
Still, there is no standardized protocol for training horseshoers in the United States. “In England, you apprentice with a smithy for over four years, concentrating on anatomy and physiology during intermittent classes,” Wolfe says. “Here, we send them to school for 12 weeks and turn them loose. There is no licensing, no requirements whatsoever.” The American Farriers Association does administer optional written forging and practical horseshoeing exams, and England’s esteemed Worshipful Company of Farriers has offered advanced testing in this country for the last 10 years. Stanley, who will represent the United States on the American Farriers team this fall at the British Farriers and Blacksmiths Association International Team Horseshoeing Championships (being held September 26 – 28 at Stoneleigh Park, near Warwickshire, England), notes that apprenticeships and competitions are vital to developing proficiency.
Yet, even though horseshoeing contests date to the mid-1800s, Craig estimates that less than 5 percent of U.S. farriers participate in horseshoeing contests of any sort. Today, the most prestigious is the World Champion Blacksmiths’ Competition, held each July at the Calgary Stampede in Alberta, Canada. Considered the Olympics of farriery, the event offers $35,000 in prize money and requires 6 tons of coke and 1,300 linear feet of steel bar stock.
Most competitions judge shoe forging, fit, and finish, as well as the first, and perhaps most important, step — the initial trim.
“You trim to balance the lower limb,” Wolfe says. It may seem [like] a simple task, yet it is one that is far from straightforward. Balance includes the length of toe, heels, inner and outer hoof walls, and the foot angle relative to the foreleg. Few animals have textbook conformation, but not only that, horses make tiny weight shifts, and as they relax they’ll take the hind foot and cock it back, throwing off your measurements.”
“The whole drill is to help the animal have the healthiest hoof capsule possible, not to try to correct its conformation,” states Craig, who worked the dude string as a wrangler before attending the Kentucky Horseshoeing School near Lexington in 1998. “I don’t care what the climate is, what the horse’s workload is, or the terrain — maintain the trim that honors that animal’s conformation and its foot. Keep the hoof wall straight and strong. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not a job where you’re 80 percent checked out, listening to your iPod. Farriery demands intense focus.”
Although Craig describes trim days as “being in the trenches” (“It’s muddy, the horses are filthy — you grab a dirty sweat shirt, get your apron on, and go for it.”), there’s a sensuous aspect to this trade, requiring the tactile use of hands to ensure that the hoof is a continuous, smooth arc. “Various smooth arcs keep the foot healthy,” Craig notes. “The golden ratio pops up in the arches, buttresses, curves, cups, bone lengths, and proportional relationships in healthy horses’ feet.”
Whatever the style — roadster, aluminum racer, French fullered rim, heart, or egg bar — horseshoes should be changed or adjusted every six weeks after a horse is first fit. Stanley recommends waiting until the horse is at least three to start light training. “Earlier than that would be like taking a 10-year-old child through the grueling training of an Olympic gymnast,” he says. “Most horses mature at 5, though racehorses may have shoes as a yearling.” And unless the terrain is unusually rough or the workload particularly strenuous, winter can be a time to let horses go barefoot. You know the sensation — kicking off even the most comfy boots after a hard day’s work can feel like freedom.
For more information, call 877.268.4505 or visit www.americanfarriers.org.
From the August/September 2014 issue.