photography: Michael Edminster
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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. >>>