by Scott Simpson
Farrier Horsemanship - Part 1
|Published in the February 2000 Issue of Anvil Magazine
"This book is a work in progress," says author Scott Simpson, who has been a farrier for six decades. He is also a veteran farrier instructor and retired owner of Northwest School of Horseshoeing in Walla Walla, Washington. Says Scott, "I hope to have it completed and published sometime after the new millennium."
There appears to be an increase in the number of people entering the horseshoeing trade with limited ability to handle horses correctly. Experience working with horses is considered an asset when one decides to become a horseshoer. Horsemanship is an acquired skill and will be learned by default if a person works with horses on a daily basis. Unfortunately, some people never acquire "horse-sense" and a lot of harmful experiences to both the horses and the shoers may happen along the way. Most books of this type offer an abundance of instructions on methods dealing with restraining or subduing fractious horses. I will try to propose more guidance as to getting along with these animals and avoiding situations which may create most of the need to use restraints or discipline. Before I get too far into this subject, I want to assure the reader that I believe in correction of unruly behavior in horses and children. As in dealing with children, discipline of a horse does not mean abuse or anger. If you control the environment of your work and make it easy for the horse to behave and difficult for it to misbehave, your horsemanship skills will improve with every horse you work on. I have used more than my share of devices to restrain and distract horses from trying to maim me as I applied the necessary treatments to their feet. I will focus here on creating situations which will make the task of shoeing horses safer and more enjoyable.
I have lived long enough to see the horse evolve into more tractable animals than they were even forty years ago. I truly believe that we see fewer naturally bad actors today than when I first started in this business. Because of this tendency to be gentler by disposition, those of us who work with them have a major responsibility to nurture these traits. It used to be accepted practice for horseshoers to throw or even beat horses which didn't behave so that they could complete their duties. This is not accepted performance these days. Horses are an expensive and much-loved commodity and the majority of our clients will no longer tolerate these actions as standard operating procedure.
To a farrier instructor, there is nothing more amusing or empathetic to watch than a student who has run out of ideas as to how to get a horse to cooperate with his efforts. It usually ends up as a frustration that triggers a fit of temper which, if allowed to continue, results in a desire to strike the horse. This is human nature, and cannot seem to be controlled by many. In almost every case, the instructor can identify some actions of the student which causes the situation to occur. Most of these conditions can be remedied and if the student has a good attitude, he can complete the job by applying the technique the instructor suggests. The key here is attitude.
Categorically, horseshoeing is a hazardous occupation. A friend of mine is often known to remark, "If you mess with motorcycles, airplanes or horses long enough, you're going to get hurt." I never cared for motorcycles, but I did seriously crash an airplane once. I luckily walked away from that one unscathed. The horses are a different story. I guess what needs to be determined here is the difference between hurt and injured. Certainly we get some scrapes and bruises as does anyone else who labors at any type of physical work. My dad was a meat cutter and was constantly getting cuts on his hands as well as backaches from handling heavy quarters of beef. Mechanics are always busting their knuckles and secretaries develop carpal tunnel syndrome and back fatigue. So if we put horseshoeing into perspective with other jobs, we can prepare for the possibility of getting hurt. What we must avoid is serious injuries that horses are capable of inflicting. To do this, start by being smarter than the horse.
The following are simple things which will make most horses more receptive to your working with them:
Tying a horse fast means to tie its head to a solid object with an unbreakable rope and halter. Doing this for the purpose of shoeing is the single most likely cause of creating an altercation. Granted, some horses have been well trained to tie and may never pull back. Many, though, will pull back at the slightest provocation and if they cannot pull free, they will rear and lunge forward in a state of mild to severe panic. What has happened is that their safety mechanism of being able to flee has been compromised. The old adage of fight or flight comes into the picture. As most of today's horses are not real fighters, they try to get away from an annoying situation. A shoer trying to hold a front leg in a vise-like grip with his legs often provokes this response. As a horse pulls back, the shoer is often trapped beneath the horse when it lunges. Regardless of the outcome of this incidence, the horse is now in a frame of mind for anything other than cooperating with the job at hand.
A Tied-Fast Horse A tied-fast horse will rear and lunge forward if it pulls back and cannot free itself. All too often, when the above scenario happens, something breaks. Most frequently it is the snap of the lead rope. These devices are aptly named because that's exactly the sound they make as they break:"Snap!." (I will make some recommendations later on about this equipment.) If a fence rail, post or tree limb breaks during one of these events it is a cinch that you and the horse are going to have some mutual disrespect for one another.
Catching a horse that is trying to escape with several feet of fence rail tied to its head is an experience you don't need. If shoer and horse are very lucky, perhaps they will both come out of one of these wrecks uninjured. We can control luck to some degree.
Holding a Horse Cross-ties can be another risky situation. Fortunately, most horses that we shoe in these ties are barn residents and are accustomed to being groomed and saddled in them. Do not count on it for our work, though. Shoeing is not grooming or saddling. If you use cross-ties installed in a barn, provide your own fastening devices which will fail if an unusual amount of pressure is exerted by the horse. Tying your own snaps to the ropes or chains with a length of sturdy twine will assure you that they will break free should a pullback occur. By now you're probably asking yourself, "How do I manage this situation of keeping the horse contained for shoeing?" The best answer is to always have a competent handler hold the horse for you. This is seldom a viable option, however, unless you are the one who can provide that someone, then have the client pay for their services as well as yours. (This avoids your having to hire an employee.) Actually, in these contemporary times, this is a serious consideration when expensive horses are involved, where the client can't provide someone. I know some farriers who will never shoe a horse unless the owner or trainer holds it. Ideally, this is a wonderful concept, but in reality it just isn't going to happen most of the time. The next best thing is to learn to wrap your lead rope so as to simply contain the horse rather than restrain it. This may require more insistence on your part to be certain the client provides you with a secure working area, one from which the horse can't escape, should it get loose. Another friend and mentor, Newman Gist, was watching me shoe a gentle kid's horse one day. I can vividly recall him remarking, "Scooter, you're really going to get hurt one of these days, tieing these horses solid like that." I had this horse tied up to a pepper tree and it was a great site, because it also provided shade. Like most know-it-all kids, I let his words of wisdom go unheeded. Oh, sure, I'd had some real wrecks during my short career, but remember, I was bulletproof in those early years. The next horse I had to do that day was a Thoroughbred mare that just needed trimming. I knew that the couple who owned her both worked and would not be home. I parked my truck along the road and hopped the fence with just my trimming tools in hand. I knew there would be a halter and lead rope hanging outside their tack room. The pen the mare was in was on a side hill. I led her down to the driveway so as to have level place to work. I tied her to a rail fence next to a post and proceeded to go to work. I had trimmed this mare several times before and she was always easy to handle. I had never worked on her tied up as someone had always been there to hold her for me. As I picked up her near fore foot, someone across the street started a lawn mower. The mare pulled back and immediately the snap on the lead rope broke. I grabbed her halter and quieted her. I then tied the other end of the lead to the halter and resumed work. She pulled back again and this time the owner's cheap halter failed. The mare ran back into her pen and I closed the gate and hopped the fence again and returned to my truck. I got my own trusty gear out and repeated the whole operation again. This time was an instant replay of the first. By now the mare was frantically wound up and as I reached for a foot, the lawnmower man came roaring past us on the other side of the street. She pulled back so hard this time that, when she couldn't release, she leapt high up into the air and flipped over the fence rail, breaking it. Scrambling to her feet, she immediately pulled back again and tore the rail from the post it was still attached to. By now we were in the customer's backyard and the mare was trying to get away from the flailing monster that was attacking her. I rushed forward to try to get control of her head when she spun away from me. The end of the flying rail struck me across both shins with such force that I thought both of my legs were broken. The mare was so frightened that she froze, facing the dangling rail. Newman's words of wisdom were now racing through my brain as I lay there in a heap looking at this nice mare who was just split- seconds away from another eruption. Fortunately for us both, the lawn guy saw what was happening and had shut down his infernal machine. My halter had slipped over the mare's ear and was sliding off of her muzzle. This evoked another pull, which freed her from the object that had been tormenting her. My heart pounding in my ears, I rolled over and got to my feet trying to soothe my charge and assessing my personal damage at the same time. Nothing was broken, but the pain in my legs was fierce. How I finally caught the mare and got her back into her pen is another story much too long to tell here. The damage sustained to the lawn, shrubs and some patio furniture was substantial, though.
This is a good time to remind you of the care and custody liabilities of today. If you have tied a horse fast and it gets injured, who's responsible? Also, who is responsible if you get injured? You is the answer to both questions.
All too often, we accept jobs on horses that are not properly prepared for trimming or shoeing. In the vernacular, most people refer to green or young horses as "colts". Although this is not a correct term unless they are male, these "colts" need our services and we are the stewards who will provide their hoof care and maintenance.
First Time Trimming and Shoeing There are two things that occur only once in every horse's life, of which we are a part: The first time it has its feet trimmed and the first time it gets shod. It is fun to follow the career of a horse, especially a champion, and know that you were the first to provide it with one or both situations. The nature of the individual and how it has been reared and handled certainly has some bearing as to how either of these first experiences will turn out. Clients often ask us to provide these services to their young horses long before they are prepared to receive them. First trims and first shoes are separated by years, so they may be totally different experiences for the horse. Foals should begin having their feet trimmed very early in life. This will help them to develop more conformationally correct, and it accustoms them to having their feet handled. If begun at about three months of age and done on an regular schedule of about eight times a year, they should be fairly well resigned to foot care by the time they are old enough to begin needing shoes. Many people who raise horses are into imprint training and begin to handle the foal's feet within hours of birth. I'm not against this, but I have to be realistic enough to contend that it doesn't do much good unless the process is repeated often for several months. Due to the fact that most foals can be manhandled into standing for trimming, they really don't learn much about what to do later on in life when they need horseshoes. Preparing these youngsters for being trimmed is not the horseshoer's task; however, it mostly falls upon us because of indifference on the part of the owners to fully understand the importance of this fundamental training.
Tying a Young Horse The inherent nature of the individual youngster is where it begins. A large percentage of them are reasonably gentle and are naturally somewhat receptive to having their feet and legs handled. This is the time to teach them to tie. A foal left tied up for short periods of time will teach itself more about manners and cooperating with humans than will any other form of training. The foal must be safely tied higher than its withers and to a solid object, which will present no hazard if they begin to resist this experience. A wall works best. A flexible tree is also good. The mare should be kept close by, although this episode can sometimes be upsetting to an overly protective mother. Once the foal accepts being tied up, it should be rubbed, groomed and gentled. This could take several sessions and even weeks. Even if the foal has an aggressive or frightened nature, learning to be tied will prove useful later on. The leg and foot handling should never be attempted while the foal is tied up. It is best done in a box stall or small pen with the lead rope held by a competent handler or, better yet, just left loose. Patience is the key to how well this animal will become for subsequent foot care, so every effort must put forth to make these pleasant experiences for the foal. Frightened foals take much more time and the small percentage of aggressive ones must be shown the errors of their ways. I don't want to broach the subject of how this is done, as it is too controversial to deal with in this work. Remember though, that I do believe in discipline. (Not to be confused with abuse.) By now it should be obvious that this early training takes too much time for it to be part of the horseshoer's job. If the farrier wants to take on these responsibilities, it takes on the perspective of a different occupation. Shoers work for trainers who are very skilled at handling young horses. They should suggest that their clients hire an adept person to come and work with their youngsters if they don't have the time or ability to do it themselves. It is discouraging to know that this advice will, for the most part, go unheeded, but this is the professional way in these contemporary times. First time and early shoeing jobs should not be traumatic experiences for the horse if the previous methods were employed and foot care has been performed on a regular basis. However, because these duties have been a part of the youngster's life, it does not mean that it the young animal is quite ready to submit to having shoes placed on its feet. One of the issues which should be discussed here is; when should the first shoeing be performed? My stock answer is as soon as it becomes necessary. Certain therapeutic or orthopedic conditions create a need to shoe young foals.
Which Shoes? The new glue-on type shoes will work best on these tiny, underdeveloped feet. Some breed associations allow the common practice of putting shoes on the front feet of yearlings and weanlings so they can be shown in futurity halter classes. This is not called for, and mere common sense should dictate that this bizarre practice be discontinued.
When to Shoe Ideally, shoeing should begin after the colt or filly has been put into training. This is usually between two and three years of age. It is common for clients and trainers to want the horse shod before they begin riding or driving. The animal will be in a better frame of mind for the procedure after they are worked a bit and some of their energy is worn off. I prefer a week or two of work before I subject the youngster to its first shoeing. As a horseshoer and at my schools, I have shod or directed the first-time shoeings of thousands of young horses. If someone needs this service for their young horse, I will not make an appointment to do so until they can assure me that a few basic criteria are met. The customer will usually say "I can pick up all of his feet." That's laudable, but not nearly enough for me to waste time on not being able to do a good job or make it a good experience for the horse. I insist that whoever is doing the handling be able to hold the front feet between their legs for at least five minutes at a time. Simply being able to pick up the feet is not enough. They have to be held in the shoeing position for long enough to complete the shoeing operations. While held in this position, the youngster must submit to concussion, which simulates the driving of nails. Tapping the edges of the hoof walls with a hammer handle is usually enough to accustom the horse to this experience. This must be done often and be totally accepted before applying shoes can be considered. The next thing that must be a part of this routine is getting the horse to accept having its front legs pulled forward and the feet held in the clinching position for at least three minutes. This is a most important aspect of preparing the horse for first- time shoes and is almost always overlooked. For some reason, the hind legs don't seem to need as much preparation in this position, but the horse must accept this, as well. When a customer can assure me that their youngster will readily accept being held in these positions, I can be reasonably assured that the first shoes will not be an ordeal for me or the horse. My conviction for this job, though, is: this is training more than anything else. I am more concerned with doing an efficient and functional job than an elegant one. In some cases, I may elect to finish this shoeing in two sessions rather than one, if it will be better accepted by the horse. I don't like to do this, but sometimes it is for the best to prevent a struggle to finish because the child has lost its patience for the lesson. To assess some of the first-time shoeing problems, the procedures that consistently cause the greatest problems are nailing and clinching. Just because the horse has been taught to accept some minor concussion to the bottom of its feet doesn't mean that it can't feel a sensation as nails are driven into hoof wall. I equate this to having a deadened tooth drilled. It doesn't exactly hurt, but you feel a sensation that may cause you some discomfort. To avoid this likelihood, try to leave the feet a little longer than you normally would, and do not set the clinches into the hoof wall with the hammer. Use as few small- size nails as practical. Be certain to explain this to your client so that they don't criticize the finished job unfairly. If the horse has been properly prepared for its first shoes, it should be a routine job. The only other factor is to keep yourself mentally prepared to treat it as routine. Some shoers get apprehensive and transmit this emotion to the horse. Through my schools, we frequently put first shoes on numerous horses each year. I used to make the mistake of telling students, "This horse has never had shoes before." Inevitably, the student would become anxious and transfer this to the horse. I long ago quit telling students this until after the work was completed. The result is many successful first-time shoeing jobs and a sense of real accomplishment on the part of the student. One of the greatest rewards of being a farrier instructor is the look on the face of a student who has just been informed, "Those were his first shoes".
To end this segment, I want to emphasize the need for patience on the part of the shoer during these early jobs. It is a serious mistake to try and force first shoes on a horse, and allowing yourself to get angry is a one way ticket to creating a horse that may never be good to shoe. If the individual has not been properly prepared for the job at hand, decline to do it at this time. Discretion is truly, in this case, "the better part of valor". Work at it though, and don't give up too soon. Give it an honest effort. Editor's Note: Look for Part 2 in next month's issue.