The dogs at Skip Kammer’s place gather in greeting as a gold pickup pulling a metal box trailer maneuvers its way down the winding drive to the horse pastures off Broadford Road in Bellevue.
As the vehicle comes to rest next to the post and rail fence, the horses there look up from their grazing and take notice of the familiar rig and face that comes out every few weeks to take a look at them. The ruddy-cheeked man in the gimme cap is there to take a look at their feet.
The Hippocratic oath of the farrier is “No foot, no horse.”
The hoof doctor is in and he’s on.
Progress to perfection
The word farrier is derived from a number of assumed sources, but the basic term is thought to have come from “ferrarius,” which is Latin for worker of iron.
The first known horseshoeing was found among the Egyptians and Persians who wove sandal-like shoes from grass.
Warrior Genghis Khan upped the ante using rawhide cups to protect the feet of his cavalry horses.
It would take the American Industrial Revolution to advance warfare techniques and begin centralized manufacturing to likewise modernize the approach to horseshoeing. By then, not only were horses required for daily life, but they were also a crucial component in moving these developing metal miracles that were changing our ancestors’ lives. It was then that a more recognized U-shape horseshoe was first designed.
When the automobile came on the scene in the early 1900s, the number of horses in the U.S. went down and the nature of the horse population changed. There were fewer draft or heavy work horses and more pleasure and riding horses. That likewise raised the profile of the farrier as an essential component in horse health.
Life from down under
In this Valley, horses are used for farm work, hunting, trail riding, therapy, cutting, team penning, dressage, hunter jumpers and merely as pets. Farriers here have been called on to put shoes on miniature horses and wild horses, ornery burros and those built like VW’s. Some horses love
having it done, like a human loves a back rub. Some seem to stand taller in new shoes, just like we do when we find that perfect heel. There are horses that hate the process so much they have to be tranquilized, while some cooperate over a bucket of grain. They will have shoes to wear for parades, shoes to wear in winter and shoes for therapeutic reasons, to repair an off-kilter gait just as some children need corrective shoes.
Farrier Tyler Peterson spends time gaining the trust of a young mare, a rescue horse that has never worn shoes. Even though he won’t try to put shoes on this day, the bonding is an important element of a farrier’s job. Trust can make or break each encounter.
On this day, farrier Tyler Peterson is not there to put on shoes. This is just a simple trim. Think of it like cutting your toenails. Too long and they hurt in your shoes and could get painfully ingrown.
Too long on a horse can leave them vulnerable to cracking, infection and lameness or injury from tripping over their own feet. Leg injuries are among the biggest reasons an animal has to be put down, so prevention is crucial.
Peterson straps on his leather apron and prepares his tools before ambling over to greet Kammer and catch up on things before they turn their attention to the horses. “How’s Jesse been moving? Have you gotten a halter on Cotton yet, ’cause I’d sure like to get ahold of those feet—they’re getting long.”
Skip Kammer is one of those horse owners who isn’t embarrassed to admit that he and his wife take on a lot of broken-down, retired or otherwise compromised horses that are nothing more than lovable yard art.
His latest batch includes what remains of a herd of about 25 animals obtained from a Salmon horse breeder who had a contract to breed sweet-tempered horses for use in a therapeutic riding program that never came to fruition. The overwhelmed rancher was relieved of the animals which came to Kammer’s ranchette for some TLC and future adoption. Most have found homes.
Some have yet to meet their farrier, but their time will come. >>>
The heroic Barbaro
Never before did the health of a horse’s foot gather more national attention than in 2006, when Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro began his regal battle for life after a leg injury. One of the most serious repercussions of such an injury that can and did develop is laminitis, an often lethal disease that can result from a horse not being able to be balanced on all four legs.
People learned, through regular news updates charting his progress and decline, about the importance of a horse’s foot health for his overall health.
A horse’s feet provide his mode of transport, obviously, but not so obvious is how a horse’s body is connected so that any injury or infection in the hoof area can cause a whole body imbalance that sends his immune system crashing and can mean death, as it did in Barbaro’s case. So intense was the interest in his story—even beyond horse people—that by default, people were educated about the farrier.
The American farrier, more familiarly known as a horseshoer, has many obstacles to overcome beyond simply convincing a 1,200-pound animal to give in to the hoof tending without taking out the tender.
There’s the mispronunciations, “so you’re a furrier?” And then there are the assumptions about their intellect for choosing to do such a dangerous job usually while standing in manure. There are various and sundry indignities that go with being upside down under a large animal with a sense of humor, that might include sitting on you, biting your butt, ripping your shirt or kicking you square in the soft spots.
Left: Tom Riney is not your average farrier. First, he didn’t grow up aspiring to be one, he started out his professional life as a writer. Second, he is well over six feet where being stocky is definitely easier. Riney has managed to work and mentor most of the Valley’s farriers for nearly three decades. Right: A few of the basic tools of the trade: a large file, nippers and pulls. The only thing about horseshoeing that hasn’t changed dramatically over the years are the tools.
A good farrier must understand the various needs of the myriad disciplines in equine technique, from farm work to racing, trail riding to jumping, rodeoing to Olympic-winning dressage like River Grove’s own Brentina, who, by the way, has her own personal shoer who travels the world for her events.
A farrier must also have blacksmithing skills that allow him to customize the shoe to the horse on site using a fire, anvil and hammer. To be certified requires not only a written, but also a practical, test and includes extensive time with a mentor before going out on his or her own. In truth, today’s certified farrier has spent countless hours in book study of a horse’s anatomy, physiology, chemistry, psychology and history.
Good farriers share an ability to assess, improvise, problem-solve and know when to get backup like an equine veterinarian. The best of them will be able to finesse a solution that can please even the most zealous horse owner without offending a client’s knowledge of their own animal. They must serve as a liaison with owners, trainers and vets to make the best decision for the animal’s care.
Today, there are thousands of farriers certified with the American Farrier’s Association (AFA), roughly 10 percent of them women. While this job does require physical strength, it also requires mental strength so as to be able to match wits with the animal for comfortable compliance. Brute force doesn’t get anyone anywhere. And, the horse will always win.
Dr. Doug Butler, in his book Principles of Horseshoeing P-3, states that the qualifications for a good farrier include: a desire to succeed, to work hard, to tolerate pain, to work not just with horses but also with people, and to manage yourself.
An individual farrier’s education opportunities through the AFA—which was established in 1971 to standardize the trade—are limited only by themselves. One avenue of particular growth is in the therapeutic techniques of shoeing so a shoer can help a horse compensate for a flaw that might otherwise mean putting them down or a lifetime of discomfort.
There is no doubt that animals are seeing better overall healthcare in this century than in any before and though the foot is a vital element, a horse’s teeth, nutrition, chiropractic adjustments, massage and vaccines are all part and parcel of health. Because horses are living longer, they are likewise subject to problems of aging just as humans are and a farrier is trained now to help ease that transition. For optimal health, a well-maintained horse will be seen every four to six weeks with the occasional emergency call for a thrown shoe or signs of lameness. >>>
Back at Kammer’s place, Peterson has caught up on what the attentive caretaker has been seeing in his wards. Cotton, one of the recently rescued young mares, is in need of a trim, but won’t let anyone slip a halter on her. Jesse, who Kammer is going to get for Peterson, is sweet and sour as ever.
That is another challenge for farriers who often are forced to work alone. They not only have to go out and catch an unwilling horse, they then must try to find a way to make them behave without the usually calming presence of an owner.
Think of a solo farrier like a daycare provider. You turn your kids over, they can spend the day wreaking havoc on the school, the teacher and the other toddlers, and yet, when mom or dad comes to pick them up, the kids must be returned smarter and unscathed and everyone else alive and unharmed.
The work can be hot as Hades or freezing. When a horse requires shoes, there is no “one size fits all.” Whereas you can decide to squeeze your foot into a half-size smaller set of heels that are well worth the blisters, a horse’s shoe can make or break its ability to function.
Once an assessment is made, the shoer selects the appropriate metal and begins to heat the forge.
The glowing red shoe is banged and bent and manipulated to the desired shape before being plunged into cold water to set the form.
Kammer leads over a beautiful dark horse with a black forelock that is long and wavy between dewy eyes. She looks like the kind of horse a model would ride in a Ralph Lauren ad. But she has a dark side that she saves for times like these.
“She just has her moods,” Kammer says. “One day she’s sweet as pie and the next she’s coming at me with her teeth bared like she wants to kill me. I think in the pasture she’s the low man on the totem pole and when she gets a chance, she picks on someone else to be lower.”
Today, she’s saved her wrath for Peterson, who takes a deep breath before approaching the seemingly calm mare. He coos to her, strokes her, lets her get comfortable with his touch before leaning down to her back feet to coax one up to rest on his bent legs and touching knees.
The other horses watch guardedly. This is because horses are herd animals and need to stay close, but it also lets them see that Peterson is not there to harm anyone.
It starts out fine, everyone seems surprised, but cautiously optimistic. She sniffs Peterson’s back and snuffles the back of his neck, she licks her lips and her ears are neither forward nor pinned back, two signs to anyone who knows horses that she is relaxed.
Come the second foot, the rodeo is on. She snaps her leg away from Peterson and tries to kick him, hard. She bites him, “Ow! Oh yeah, she got me good,” and wrestles Kammer so that they have to walk away. She stamps her feet, her ears are pinned back. She’s over it.
Peterson stands back while Kammer tries to talk her down.
“She’s got a crooked spine and she’s had a hard life so it’s hard to get mad at her,” Peterson explains, “but I’m afraid if we don’t get her done this time, she might succeed at taking my head off.”
As a last resort, Kammer brings in a bucket of oats.
“Oh yeah, just eat, babe, don’t even come up for air,” Peterson says, reaching down for the other back leg again. This time, she relents, and, another trick to dealing with Jesse is noted for return calls.
“Every time you meet up with a horse, it’s a continual effort to gain its trust to make the whole situation better for everyone,” Peterson explains. “It’s important to end things on a good note because trust, just like with people, is the basis that we do our best relationship building around.”
Before Peterson leaves, he will ask Kammer to walk the horse around so he can look for any problems and, if he’s lucky, call it a day. A smelly, sore and wearing day.
So what makes a farrier keep going against the odds?
“I had a choice—leave my dirt poor but happy life as a ranch cowboy and get a job, or try and make a real living working around horses. I might have liked vet work, but I don’t think I could handle those life-and-death decisions every day. Even my parents didn’t always understand, but, this way, I help horses, can be around them every day and support my family. Two dreams in one,” says Peterson.
Ask any farrier and he or she will tell you that working outside is their preference, the money’s not bad, but the bottom line is that there’s nothing like the outside of a horse to heal the inside of a person.
Tom Riney is a certified journeyman farrier originally from Kentucky with 36 of his 39 years of experience shoeing spent here in the Valley. He left the newspaper business, which included covering the Manson murder trial in Los Angeles, after doing a story on farriers and deciding that was a better way of life. Jennifer Liebrum left the newspaper business and ended up married to a farrier.