by Andy Juell

Published in the January 1999 Issue of Anvil Magazine

Over the years, a great deal of discussion, oxygen and various forms of profanity have been exchanged in that tumultuous marriage known as veterinarian/farrier relations. Common ground has often been reached, only to be discarded in favor of either money or that perverse desire we hold to always be right. (Even if we’re wrong.) I used to think it was a “male thing,” until more and more women entered the field of farriery. Guess again. A “woman scorned” doesn’t necessarily involve dating. I can’t think of anything more deadly than a raging woman with a hammer and a bunch of sharp tools in her hands — unless it’s a man with a hammer and bunch of sharp tools in his hands.

What is rarely discussed is our relationship with trainers. Many of us have a desire in our business to climb the food chain. Roughly speaking, that equates to better clients, better horses, and more money and prestige, along with a whole lot less travel. It sounds like an idyllic world, where you show up in a white lab coat, babble a bunch of conformational-type terms and then have your staff do the actual work. And yes, you have to have a staff. That’s parts of the gestalt of the whole thing. No staff, no credibility. Even if you have to go down to the local Millionaire’s Club or draft your lazy brother-in-law, bring somebody along. Have them put on an apron and beat on the anvil occasionally. Nobody really knows what we’re doing, anyway. Besides, if something goes wrong, you just blame it on the brother-in-law. If it’s real serious, you fire him on the spot and then moan about how hard it is to get decent help. The client will be sympathetic, but the trainer...

Trainers occupy a different part of the solar system than mere mortals. They are cunning, manipulative, insincere, demanding, coy, and, on occasion, borderline dishonest. They are also dedicated, patient (beyond the call of duty), talented, hardworking, and gifted with the ability to teach—which is little more than sheer perseverance against incredible odds. They can watch the same blunder being made 500 times in a row and somehow find something positive to say about it. “Well, you only fell off twice in this class. That’s better than last week.”

Most people think that trainers make their living by training. In reality, they make money by buying and selling horses. They’re called commissions. Trainers live or die by that simple word. It’s a little like real estate with legs. The objective is to buy low, do a little product improvement, and then sell high, somehow keeping the client happy in the process. It’s a lot like the stock market, only less predictable. Why? Because of the infamous “vet check,” that process whereby a veterinarian performs an autopsy on a breathing corpse. Nine out of ten fail the check because no veterinarian wants to guarantee that the animal will even be alive the next day, much less suited to some equine task. It is no longer a pass/fail system, but instead a collection of qualifiers that would make Congress blush. One or two words from a vet can turn a $50,000 hunter into a can of Alpo in less than an hour.

That is one of the reasons why most trainers are certifiably insane on a regular basis. It also goes a long way to explain why stockbrokers jump off buildings every so often. One of the chief factors in buying horses is “suitability.” Never mind soundness, the trainer is simply looking for something that a rank amateur can ride. Things like navicular disease, ringbone, broken knees, multiple splints, random arthritis — all are traded in for a horse that, hopefully, won’t get the client killed. Clients who have met their demise can’t write checks. Trainers look at these horses as an investment in success. A year or so on this semi-crippled babysitter might lead to a $20,000 purchase of a decent horse. Commission!

Of course, this philosophy gives farriers a fair amount of grief. In most cases, it is up to the shoer to keep this urban renewal project somewhat sound. The owner is in the dark, which is where the trainer wants him or her to stay, and if a leg suddenly falls off, then it has to be somebody’s fault. Since “stuff” runs downhill, and trainers are perfect, then it is quite obviously a “shoeing problem.” This normally involves three or four different kinds of pads, numerous egg bars, squared toes and enough bute to paralyze a dinosaur. At some point the client corners you, because the shoeing bill has suddenly escalated to somewhere near the national debt. Naturally, the trainer isn’t talking, and if you divulge the real truth, then it’s off to the unemployment office. This is the point where a horseshoer’s brain begins to sweat from the inside. Clients love to ask questions: “Why does he need wedge pads?” “What does a bar shoe do?” “Is the frog edible?” “Should I invest in IBM or Microsoft?” Somehow they don’t question the drug bill, which looks steep even by Miami’s standards. They believe that anti-inflammatory medications are secret vitamins that only the best trainers know about. Meanwhile, the horse’s ankles are sprouting golf balls.

What do you do? You could move to Antarctica, though it’s bound to have a negative influence on your financial portfolio. My favorite defense is the deflection. “What bar shoe?” “Pads?” All the good horses wear pads.” “No, he’s not off, your girth is too tight.” When all else fails, I chicken out: “The trainer wanted to try bar shoes — maybe you should talk to him about that.” Trainers hate that, but they also hate mouthy horseshoers. Either way, the trainer makes a rare trip to the shoeing shed to pull your lungs out through your nose. They absolutely, positively do not like anything that makes their judgment suspect. And of course, clients are more than willing to jump into the middle. Over the years, I’ve had a number of customers who completely reveled in this sort of intellectual sword play. The off part was they really didn’t want the truth because, well, the truth was that their horse was like a 747 with three engines on fire over the North Atlantic. What they really wanted was a confirmation of their own unique theory, garnered from acupuncturists, chiropractors and horse psychologists. The latter was always saying something like, “Your horse doesn’t like oats, he wants to eat dead chickens.” Or, it’s one of those deals where you put wedge pads on diagonal feet, an aluminum shoe on the left front, and a door knob on the right rear. It isn’t a horse, it’s a hardware store.

In all fairness, trainers are stuck in this murky world, as well. Sure, they pass the buck, mostly because they can. Farriers really do not have that option. The best approach is to be professional at all times and develop a good working relationship with the trainer, based on reality instead of wishful thinking. Most importantly, remember that the client may pay the bill, but the trainer controls the barn. And lastly, if you think you are irreplaceable, think again. Even the President of the United States gets voted out of office. Save the ego for something really important, like barbecuing that perfect steak. At least you get to enjoy the results.

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