The Apprentice

by Matthew Taimuty, CJF

Published in the January 1999 Issue of Anvil Magazine

There comes a time in every farrier’s life when the urge strikes to take on an apprentice. The need to reproduce another farrier with one’s own stamp is very compelling. It comes on in the same manner that a woman feels the primordial call of her biological clock. I think it has something to do with hormones.

That happened to me not long ago. The clock ticked away and I found myself looking for that perfect reproduction of myself. To whom would I hand the knowledge and experience of a lifetime? It became a crusade. I wanted to snatch up every young person I saw a with a strong back and a wild look in their eye .

One day a friend of mine told me of a young lad who was interested in learning to shoe horses. My heart skipped a beat. Had I found the Holy Grail for which I searched?

My friend introduced me to this fine young man. He was clean cut and he called me Sir. I was impressed. His name was Fred. I hired him on the spot.

Fred wanted to learn and asked a great many questions.

“I’ve never seen a horseshoe. Can I see a horseshoe, Sir?” he asked.

Fred was an intelligent sort. Inquisitive is more like it. I remember when I opened up the back of my rig the first time he pointed intently and exclaimed “What is that, Sir?” pointing at my anvil.

That was the first indication I got that Fred might need a little extra nurturing if he were to make the fine farrier I was sure he was destined to become. I learned later that Fred was raised in the suburbs and the only horses he had been exposed to were the kind that ate nickels in front of Wal-Mart.

For the first week or two, Fred spent most of his time sitting on the bumper of my truck. I figured that was a safe place for him to watch and learn. After a while, he got to where he could hand me a tool now and then. Mostly it was the right tool. However, there is something discomforting about grabbing the business end of an open pair of nippers and having the jaws close neatly around your index finger.

When I felt he needed some responsibility, I gave him the job of cleaning my truck. He took his work very seriously. Everything had a place and was always in it. Periodically these places changed location without notice. I once reached for a box of nails and stuck my hand in an open can of pine tar. He explained that he left the lid off to save me time.

Soon Fred began to learn his way around a horse. I let him fetch horses for me by the end of the third month. One day I sent him off to bring me a pony for a trim. This pony was built like a mailbox with legs, and had a neck like a tree stump. He had never given me any problems, so I figured Fred could handle him.

A few moments later, I heard an awful ruckus. I looked up in time to see the pony gallop by with his nose on his chest. He was followed in short order by Fred, at end of the lead rope, water-skiing in the dust. They disappeared around the corner of the barn in a flurry of dust, hooves and assorted spicy words.

Several minutes went by before they reappeared. This time Fred was in the lead and the pony was dutifully in tow. Fred was red faced and trembling, but looked triumphant. “Here’s the pony you wanted, Sir.” was all he said.

Fred got very proficient at cleaning shoes for resets. He took pride in being able to clean the shoe and hand it back to me faster than I could trim and dress the foot. It got to be a friendly contest. I usually let him win because it was good for his confidence and I didn’t really want to work that hard. After a while he started to get cocky. I had to put him in his place.

We went to shoe a very nice mare with perfect feet. I knew I had Fred cold. I pulled a front shoe and trimmed the foot before he got the nails out of the shoe. “Where’s my shoe, slowpoke?” I harassed. He handed me the shoe a minute later. By the third foot I was three for three and Fred was getting flustered. When I handed him the fourth shoe, he was on a mission. I watched out of the corner of my eye. When the nails were out of the shoe, he grabbed the wire brush and tried to get all the dirt and rust in one swipe. The big butcher block brush snatched that shoe and sent it sailing across the barn aisle, right into that poor mare’s rump. The mare leaped in the air, sent me flying, pulled back and kicked my toolbox into the feed room. Fred spent the next half hour sorting nails from oats.

Time passed quickly. In three more months Fred was ready to start pulling shoes and finishing feet. One fine summer morning, I handed Fred a spare apron and told him to pull the shoes off an old Quarter horse.

Fred gathered up his tools and slipped under that old horse like a pro. He was a bit awkward with the clinch cutter, but got the job done. Then he picked up the pulloffs. He worked the jaws under the heel of the shoe, torqued himself into position to jerk off the shoe, gave a great grunt, and heaved on the handles with all his might. Nothing happened. Undaunted, he wound up and let go with an even louder groan bordering on a holler. Nothing.

Fred was getting red faced, his knees were shaking and sweat was pouring off him. He revved himself up for a third try, gave a great kung-fu yell “Hieeeeeee!!!” and bounced off the pullers like a basketball off a garage door. That shoe did not budge a millimeter.

The old quarter horse had his fill. He pulled his foot away and simply put it down. There was one small problem. Fred forgot to let go. The horse picked him up and planted him, face first in the dirt, with that hoof still between his legs. The horse looked down at Fred, then looked at me and rolled his eyes.

It took a few minutes to get Fred, his apron and the horse untangled. No harm done. Fred went and cleaned my truck.

Later that day I thought he should try to finish a foot. Apron and tools in hand, Fred gave it a try. A quiet little mare was his victim. He got a front foot up on his knee and balanced himself fairly well. He got the nails cut, then grabbed the rasp to clean out under the clinches. That is when the trouble started. He cocked his elbow and poked the mare right in the nose. She jumped and slammed her foot down, missing Fred’s toes by a whisker. It took him a minute to calm her enough to let him try again. He got the rasping done and picked up the clinchers. By this time, I couldn’t tell who was leaning harder on whom. Fred was turning purple and the mare was at the end of her lead rope, stretched tight against the hitch rail.

Fred finished up and then tried to put her foot down. He couldn’t. They were wedged together. He struggled and struggled to get out from under the mare. Meanwhile, she was beginning to sit down. Before I could help, the mare solved the problem. She pulled back, reared up and jumped over Fred, who fell flat as soon as his support system left him. She ended up straddle-legged over him with her front feet on one side of his apron and her hinds on the other. Fred was pretty well pinned. She looked down at him and then looked at me and rolled her eyes.

Again, it took a few minutes to get Fred, his apron and the horse untangled. No harm done. Fred went and cleaned my truck.

Two weeks later he tried again. This time Fred got the shoe pulled, with great effort, and used the hoof stand to finish a foot. All worked out fine. From then on he did both jobs with great pride.

At the end of that day he said, “Thank you Sir, for giving me a second chance.”

Other than that, Fred didn’t say much.

Several months went by before Fred was ready to work in the fire. In the meantime, Fred had grown a wisp of a mustache. He said it made him look older. I said it made his lip look dirty.

I showed Fred how to light the gas forge. I did it several times so he could see the need to move fast to avoid an explosion. Then he tried it. He turned on the gas and then fumbled with the spark ignitor. He pressed it several times to no avail. Then it caught. Boom! Fred jumped back, leaping about and flapping his arms. When he calmed down, I noticed that front of his sweater was smoking and his mustache and his eyebrows were gone.

Fred went and cleaned my truck.

When we got done that day, I lit the forge for Fred and showed him a few things about shaping shoes. He seemed excited. I handed him the tongs and a few old shoes and told him to give it a try. He pulled a hot shoe out of the forge and commenced whipping on it. The more he beat on it, the more excited he got until he was positively whaling on the shoe. Then it happened. His tongs got all whompeejawed. He swung from way back in the cheap seats and the shoe went flying. We both watched it sail over the truck and land on the driveway about twenty feet away. Fred went to pick it up.

I didn’t notice that he had set his tongs on the anvil before he went to fetch the shoe. He grabbed that hot shoe, froze for a moment, yelled a highly colorful word, and threw the shoe back over his head. It landed in a pile of old leaves. Fred was dancing and cussing and swinging his hand around like he had a rattlesnake attached to it. I ran over to see to his burns. He had a nice horseshoe imprint across his palm and fingers. I turned to get the hose to run some water on his hand when I noticed the inferno. The leaves had caught fire and were throwing flames ten feet in the air. I grabbed the hose and went after the fire. Fred was still jumping and cussing when I got the fire out.

The heat of the flames blistered the paint off part of Fred’s car. He saw it, stopped jumping and cussing, and stood there in amazement. With no eyebrows, his face looked all red and rubbery.

That was all she wrote. I doubled up with laughter. The more I laughed, the redder Fred’s face got. It was, puffy, red and hairless. I couldn’t stand it. I fell down on the driveway, howling helplessly.

I rolled around for fifteen minutes. When I got my composure back, caught my breath and sat up, the forge was off, the truck was clean and Fred was gone.

I ran into Fred a few years later. He looked quite elegant in his Italian suit and Gucci shoes.

“Fred!” I said, “Is that you?”

“Well, I’ll be darned!” he exclaimed, “If it isn’t that crusty old horseshoer!” He didn’t say Sir. I was dumbfounded.

Then he handed me a copy of Business Week Magazine. On the cover was Fred, leaning against the fender of a Ferrari—his Ferrari. The headline read: “Computer Whiz Kid Makes Millions!” Fred just smiled. The mustache looked good.

Return to the Anvil Farrier Articles listing page.

Return to the January 1999 Table of Contents