ANVIL Interview with Wesley Champagne
© Rob Edwards
published in ANVIL Magazine, May 1998
ANVIL: Wes, how long have you been shoeing at the track?
WESLEY: Since the early '80s. I have 18 years' experience as a farrier.
ANVIL: You just got through conducting one of the most informative clinics that I've been to in quite awhile. The secrets that you divulged are not secrets at all; they are very obvious, logical ways of doing things and what you've essentially done is found the way to glue on shoes.
WESLEY: That's correct.
ANVIL: How long have you been working on this glue-on shoe process?
WESLEY: About six years now. Many things about it are very simple, but there has been a lot of trial and error. I know most of it looks basic, but it took me a long time to come up with a simple technique such as not using iodine on the feet. That came about after years of not being able to figure out why shoes were falling off. I figured it out and passed that tip on to others. It sounds irrelevant, but you can't imagine the work I went through just discovering that one little factor.
ANVIL: What happens with iodine, as far as glue-on shoes go?
WESLEY: They don't like each another; it's just like oil and water -- they don't mix.
ANVIL: If someone is going to iodine a horse's feet, how many days prior do you need for there to be no iodine on the foot in order for the glue to adhere?
WESLEY: I like a minimum of five days, and that's washing the feet every day with alcohol and having the horse exercised so that the iodine is wearing away. Even though you trim away all the color of the iodine prior to gluing, you still have iodine in the foot. When you glue a shoe to the foot, you can smell the iodine coming up through the glue. Many times the horse won't even make it back to its stall without walking out of his shoes. Of all the chemicals I can think of, iodine is the one that
holds first place in making the shoe fall off. It won't adhere to anything saline. If I know I'm going to use glue-on shoes, I'll request that turpentine be used rather than iodine.
ANVIL: How much time can elapse between the time when turpentine has been applied to the foot and gluing on a shoe?
WESLEY: Three or four hours. It takes at least that long for the turpentine to evaporate. And then you're going to want to trim out and clean up the foot. You wouldn't want to use it as a solvent to prep the foot. But if they turpentined the foot that morning, you can come back and glue the shoes on that afternoon and it's not going to be any problem. I know turpentine has an oil base, but it's still compatible with glue-on shoes.
ANVIL: I notice that the 'big secret,' we'll call it, is to be incredibly clean. You used rubber gloves and you wrap the foot, three or four times in the process of putting the shoe on.
WESLEY: Well, I'm giving the horse a rest in between so he doesn't get the foot away from me and stick it in the dirt. So I'll give it a couple of wraps with Saran Wrap, set it down, and give him a break. If I hold that foot too long and try to do it all in one process, nine times out of ten he'll get that foot away from me and stick it in the dirt. So I'll give him those breaks. I can usually see it coming when he wants to get his foot away from me, so I'll begin giving him those little breaks. The main reason I use the gloves is because the glue is toxic and it irritates your skin so I keep it off my hands because I work with the glue every day. It saves my hands a little bit.
ANVIL: Do you always have the horse tranquilized when you work on them?
WESLEY: Not always, but I try to. Unless the horse is running or I know he's going to stand, then I don't. But most of the horses I do are sore. I would recommend the tranquilizing especially when you're first learning, because you are going to be a little slower so you're going to have to hold that foot up longer. You'll have a difficult time the longer you hold the foot up.
ANVIL: As far as the shoes go, I notice you happen to be using pacesetters; any aluminum shoe will work in this process, though, won't it?
WESLEY: Correct. But my choice of shoe is Thoro'Bred Pacesetter.
ANVIL: As far as the glue goes, is it really considered glue, or is it a fill-in epoxy?
WESLEY: It's a kind of glue filler, more like a high-tech Bondo. It has good peel resistance. You could call it an epoxy, yes.
ANVIL: I would imagine the shelf life of products like that is somewhat limited.
WESLEY: Yes, that's true. And that's been a lot of the problem.
ANVIL: When you are gluing these shoes on, I notice you end up with about 1/8 inch of material between the hoof wall and the shoe; is that ideal?
WESLEY: When I'm lining the bottom of the foot, yes, that's what I prefer. If I'm doing a rim glue that's fine, too. I can use less. You can even get down to the thickness of a matchbook cover. It doesn't have to be that thick. It's not going to wear out as long as you have enough material to fill the void between the shoe and the foot.
ANVIL: What is the difference between the rim glue and whatever other method you would use?
WESLEY: If I'm trying to get sole protection in the horse or if I'm trying to strengthen the dome inside of the foot, I'll add the glue to the sole. If the horse has thin soles or someone has pared away too much sole and the horse's foot is too short, I
try to replace what has been removed. I've had good luck with this because you have such a tight seal between the glue and the foot, it's just as if you replaced part of the foot.
ANVIL: So even though this material dries hard, there is no such thing as sole pressure, then.
WESLEY: No; this is like the horse's own foot, it's such a tight seal between the two. There is no vibration between them.
ANVIL: The sole is not dropping on down to the shoe; it's just right there.
WESLEY: It's similar to when you were a kid and you might have put Elmer's Glue on your hand, how it makes a tight seal, and what that feels like. It's the same principle, essentially.
ANVIL: Have you always been interested in chemicals?
WESLEY: I've always been innovative and tried to design different techniques and applications, and have invented some things, as well.
ANVIL: Do you have patents pending?
WESLEY: I did on an interchangeable shoe, it's a small web type that gets nailed onto the foot and you can adapt any kind of shoe you wish. I did this about eight years ago. I've had people come from England, Australia and Saudi Arabia to see the interchangeable shoe. They put diesel fuel on the racetracks in Saudi Arabia due to the lack of water, and it was eating away the frogs of the horses' feet. They were interested in it so that possibly they could put a hospital plate on and take it off to medicate the feet. We could slide a plate on, we could bolt on a bar shoe and all the bolts were flush with the shoe. It's not bulky, and nothing interferes with the shoe.
ANVIL: Is it in production right now?
WESLEY: No. Every shoe has to pretty much be custom made for each particular foot. I make them for a lot of the guys here for puncture wounds and I'll fly out of state to make them should there be a horse that steps on a nail.
ANVIL: I notice that you grind the hoof-bearing surface of the shoes before gluing them on.
WESLEY: Yes; I always try to get down to bare finish. Even if you've ground the shoe a couple days before.
ANVIL: So this thing is an incredibly labor-intensive operation; you have to, on the spot, make sure everything is absolutely clean -- the hoof, the shoe, everything.
WESLEY: You don't even want your fingerprints anywhere you've ground. You cannot have a bit of oil on your fingertips. If you have a fingerprint on the hoof, wherever you've ground the glue is not going to adhere there. When you pull the shoe off the next month, it will come off and there will be a thumbprint wherever you touched the material. The glue is real sensitive to oils.
ANVIL: We published an article by Dan Bradley who works for G.E. Forge. He was talking about the toxicity of certain chemicals we use in the industry. Do you have to be a somewhat wary of that?
WESLEY: Yes; I've been told it's very carcinogenic, a cancer-causing agent. I recommend that everyone who is using it contact the manufacturer and ask for one of their health and safety booklets. You are supposed to work in a ventilated area or wear a respirator. I think you should take all the precautions necessary.
ANVIL: You mentioned in your demonstration that you wanted to make sure that the horses didn't inhale the fumes.
WESLEY: Yes, I try to work with the wind so the horse's head is upwind from where I'm working so the fumes are blowing past us. If I work with the glue the day they race, they don't perform. I can't tell you why, if it affects the lungs or what the reason is, but they don't perform well. My theory is that it constricts the bronchials; they don't dilate, so the air flow isn't sufficient for the animal. So I don't glue shoes on a horse at least 24 hours prior to the race.
ANVIL: So you just don't do it at all during that time frame?
WESLEY: I won't do it. Sometimes I may have to perform a minor repair and I'll mix the glue 20 feet from the horse around the corner. I'll have the Saran Wrap all ready and a fan set up to dissipate any fumes or odor. I'll run up and put it on the horse and seal it off quickly, so the horse won't even get a whiff of glue. I definitely know they don't run as well if they have inhaled the fumes of the glue that day. It's happened too many times.
ANVIL: That's a good example right there, of why you say it took you six years to get all the 'bugs' worked out of this process. You must have really had to think a lot about certain instances and be really cognizant of what was going on to arrive at point.
WESLEY: When you put your heart and soul into something and then you see that the horse doesn't perform the way you know it should, you have to ask what happened. And then you do it again and again, then you try it instead two or three days ahead of time and the horse goes out there and just parks. And the ones that aren't performing are the ones you're doing the day of the race. So you come to that definite conclusion. There's no doubt there is a detrimental temporary effect.
ANVIL: You have a lot of clients here at the racetrack. You are their regular farrier, so you do a lot of nail-ons for them, too, obviously. And I understand you occasionally help out some of the other farriers when they have problems as far as doing the glue-on shoe. Do you do a lot of flying?
WESLEY: Yes, I go back to New York two to three times a month, either to Belmont or Saratoga. I go to Arkansas, San Francisco, Chicago, or wherever there happens to be a horse in need of help.
ANVIL: When you put a glue-on shoe on a horse versus nailing the shoe on, does the hoof grow the same length in the same amount of time?
WESLEY: They grow a little bit faster, and they grow a healthier hoof.
ANVIL: Why do you suppose that is?
WESLEY: I believe it's because you don't have the vibration between the shoe and the foot. I don't know if the nail-on shoe hoof is actually growing any faster, but it seems that some of the hoof is wearing away from the movement between the hoof and the shoe. And they will grow a more solid foot and the walls will be stronger and more solid.
ANVIL: I notice in the two horses that you did today you really made sure that the heels were well encased with the material.
WESLEY: Right -- about an inch and a half or two inches. I try to shoe them very full, I try to bring the shoe back a minimum of an eighth of an inch past the heel of the foot. I also try to wrap it around the heel into the bar to kind of lock in the heels. Seventy-five percent of the bonding strength is in the heel area and the quarters and the toe are about 25% of its bonding strength. Once the heels pop loose, it won't take long for the horse to lose a shoe. With less than 1% of my horses do I ever have to re-glue the shoe.
ANVIL: What is the average length of time that a racehorse wears its shoes?
WESLEY: Generally we change them every 21 to 30 days. In some of my barns I do it differently. If they have corrective shoes on, I change those every time they run, and replace the corrective shoes after the race. With the glue-on shoes I try to let them go six or seven weeks. Even though the horse has grown a longer foot, they are not breaking up and their foot is a little more solid.
ANVIL: It costs the owner a lot more to have you glue on the shoes, but in cases where the horse is worth a lot of money if the horse can't run, then the amount you charge is almost insignificant.
WESLEY: It is insignificant. Then other problems begin to compound. It's relatively inexpensive, the shoeing part, compared to having to send the horse out to the farm for a couple of months and then bringing the horse back to the racetrack and
spending more time getting him fit for a race. ANVIL: Is there a standard charge you have for glue-ons or does it vary with the horse or the client?
WESLEY: It's a standard charge. For a rim glue I charge $300; For insole to line the foot with the glue and form the shoe, I charge $350 -- that's for a pair.
ANVIL: Well, if the horse can't run otherwise, then that's a bargain.
WESLEY: Absolutely. It costs $65 or $80 a day to train a horse here. So if you have to send a horse home for a month, it's going to take you another month to get it back to the race, and then it's going to cost you several thousand dollars just to get him back to a race. So $300 for one month is minimal. The horse could get hurt in that time, so you do have to pay for the van to ship him back to the farm, and then to transport him back here.
ANVIL: What determines whether you do a rim or you cover the sole?
WESLEY: I prefer always to cover the sole. If there is a situation where I won't do the sole, it's because I have a lot of thrush or a lot of separation, or the bars are really rotted out or I see the possibility of an abscess. Usually those factors are what determines whether I cover the sole or not. All things being equal, if I can cover the sole, I will.
ANVIL: I notice you did a lot of drilling with a dremel tool through the hoof wall. And that was for venting areas that you thought might abscess, wasn't it?
WESLEY: That's right. If you seal off that bacteria, it's just going to grow and it's going to go to the point of least resistance; it is going to travel up the wall and break out the bulb.
ANVIL: I notice in all the feet that you were very careful to trim out the dark areas and fill it with Play-Dough.
WESLEY: Correct. I try to extract as much of the thrush bacteria in the area as possible. I don't want to see any black in there at all.
ANVIL: So you use the Play-Dough to make sure that nothing else gets in there?
WESLEY: No, to make sure I don't get any glue in there to seal in any bacteria. The reason I like the Play-Dough is because I can pull it back out and then if I do have a little Play-Dough there, it still has air going through it. The Play-Dough is going to dry out, but it still gets soft if there is any moisture. If there is any moisture under there, the Play-Dough will draw out that moisture.
ANVIL: You advocate that the trainers put turpentine into any hole that you've left in the wall.
WESLEY: Turpentine will help any of the bacteria or any thrush. It doesn't affect the foot in any way. I recommend no mud, no hoof grease -- grease will break down the shoes. If you have it on your hands and you can't get it off, a degreasing agent. ANVIL: You always wear gloves and that is primarily to keep that material off your hands, correct?
WESLEY: Yes. It can get up under your fingernails and it's uncomfortable, as well as a carcinogenic substance. That doesn't bother me too much now, but I don't know what's going to happen in 10 or 15 years.
ANVIL: Do you do most of the glue-ons here at Del Mar Racetrack?
WESLEY: Not now I don't. In the last year I've shown a lot of the guys here how to apply them. At first there was resistance to applying them and learning how to do it. But then they saw my horses using glue-on shoes were winning races, so they joined up.
ANVIL: Generally did they come to you and ask you to show them how to apply them?
WESLEY: Yes. It's getting passed down now to others, too.
ANVIL: There is probably more glue-on shoes here at Del Mar than at any other track, wouldn't you say?
WESLEY: Yes, at this racing circuit.
ANVIL: Is this spreading to different tracks now? Obviously it's something that works.
WESLEY: Yes, it is. I have a few guys now in New York that are doing it, and a trainer in France is using it.
ANVIL: Is two weeks sufficient time to train someone in the application of it?
WESLEY: I think so, if they are journeyman farriers.
ANVIL: How does water affect the glue-ons?
WESLEY: I try to keep as much water off as possible. They bathe the horses every day, and so the feet do get wet daily, and I have not noted any problems in the rainy seasons.
ANVIL: Why do they mud the bottom of a racehorse's feet?
WESLEY: Because they want them pliable.
ANVIL: Why is that?
WESLEY: The belief is that if the foot is too hard, it's like running on a wooden clog versus a rubber shoe, which is more elastic. If the foot gets too hard, they believe it doesn't have that give, something else is going to give. And it's tough on the suspensory ligaments.
ANVIL: Do you agree with that?
WESLEY: To a certain degree, yes. But you don't want it too soft, either, because the foot can get waterlogged and then crumble apart. You want the foot to be flexible, which makes a lot of sense to me. You want it to have a certain amount of give. ANVIL: On the other hand, isn't the foot rather rigid when you glue the bottom of it?
WESLEY: It is very rigid, yes; but at the same time, keep in mind that I've sealed a lot of moisture into that foot, as well. The blood circulating through the foot is bringing moisture into it. So even though the sole is real live when you take it off, it's not waterlogged, and it's very pliable.
ANVIL: I notice you are very, very careful not to get any glue on the frog.
WESLEY: Right. I try to keep it out of the commissars and off the frog. Once the glue starts to break away at one edge, then it starts traveling upwards and it will keep breaking away on you. So if you can get away from the edges of the frog and you have a good seal around the edges of it, it will hold.
ANVIL: For a seminar of this type, there should have been, in my opinion, a lot more participation. I don't know why more farriers don't take advantage of learning opportunities such as this. I don't know how many people you actually were hoping for, but there were 15. There should have been ten times that many attending, it seems to me.
WESLEY: Yes, I agree. I don't know why there weren't more. To be a farrier, it takes a certain amount of dedication and it has to be a large part of your life and overall thinking, with the thought in mind that you enjoy it and you want to work toward improving your skills constantly. You have to be innovative, and there are those who want to just slap shoes on and get home. There are those who want to shoe a horse in 20 minutes and don't care about helping the horse. They're making the same amount of money if they spend 20 minutes or if they spend 40 minutes. They make the same money if the horse is running in a $100,000 race as they do if the horse goes out there and finishes last. With me, it's the way I evaluate myself. I'm very competitive and how the horses do is a reflection of my work.
ANVIL: I've always found it rewarding personally to have horses in competition that were doing well; it was an ego thing, yes. I never made any bones about it. If my horses were doing well, I felt good about my work and good about myself.
Is there a reluctance on some people's part to race the horse in glue ons?
WESLEY: Not now there isn't. In the beginning there was skepticism, but now the clients feel more comfortable with the process. I would never recommend anything that the horse didn't need to my clients.
ANVIL: This glue-on method works only with aluminum, is that correct?
WESLEY: Yes. Nickel will adhere to it, as will other metals. But steel doesn't, because the steel will corrode and the corrosion between the steel and the glue will break away in a couple of weeks. They will always break away at the heel first. It's not to say you couldn't glue onto an aluminum egg bar shoe -- I'm sure it can be done. But I haven't had any luck.
ANVIL: So you could essentially put a wide-web aluminum shoe on a hunter, let's say, using this method with no problem?
WESLEY: Yes. I've put them on Thoroughbred race horses that needed extra width of shoe and extra elevation.
ANVIL: So for horses that are doing different types of things, like hunters or barrel racers or endurance horses or horses that are on various types of terrain, you wouldn't think that would make any difference?
WESLEY: I don't have a lot of experience doing those types of horses, but I wouldn't think so. Going 40 miles an hour into a turn and with the jockeys sometimes maneuvering them like a race car, produces a lot of torque, so there is a lot of pressure on
the feet. I haven't had any problems with those racehorses going from zero to 40 miles an hour right out of the gate, either.
ANVIL: So the configuration of the shoe makes little difference as to the effectiveness of the glue-on process and whether they are going to work or not for the horse. What reservations would you have in the application of this process?
WESLEY: If their feet have had iodine on them. Or if a trainer calls on me and I know he is looking for a cure all, but I also know the horse has other problems. Then it's just going to complicate things. I'm not going to seal in anything that is too diseased looking or too "thrushy." Generally, I'll pull off the shoes for a day or two and use a liquid turpentine to clean them out that first day. I use a little brush and apply it into the areas where I'm going to use the glue. And I haven't had any problems.
ANVIL: How many horses do you generally shoe in a day?
WESLEY: I try to keep it to eight a day. When I'm just doing regular nail-on shoes, I like to allow an hour for each horse. It generally takes me about 45 to 50 minutes to do a clean job. I can shoe horses in 15 minutes, but I'm not happy with the results in that amount of time. Sometimes I'll do 12 horses and I'll have a 12-hour or 15-hour day.
ANVIL: What's the normal going rate for shoeing at the racetrack here?
WESLEY: For just the basic shoeing, it's $100.
ANVIL: Do you have to have a state license to work on a racetrack in California?
ANVIL: Do you think that's a positive or negative in regard to the quality of work?
WESLEY: I think it's good, absolutely. It keeps the standard up.
ANVIL: It used to be that the standard was really tight and then it got really lax when the state took over licensing.
WESLEY: Yes; that created problems.
ANVIL: Is there a written and a practical test?
WESLEY: Yes. We take a state test from a state vet and a trainer, as well as two or three farriers. It's not as rigid as it used to be, but it's still a good test.
ANVIL: There used to be a lot of politics involved and a lot of good ole boy stuff at the tracks.
WESLEY: It's not that way anymore. Everybody is pretty much an individual entity nowadays, looking after their own particular business. The politics in it has disappeared. It's quite competitive.
ANVIL: You did mention you like to stay put as much as you can, but you do move up to Los Angeles when Hollywood Park and Santa Anita open up, don't you?
WESLEY: Right. The main circuit here is Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. That's where all the big races are. So we come to Del Mar for six weeks in the summer, and it's like a vacation for us, really. Most of us rent homes on the beach and everybody is more lax. Hollywood and Santa Anita are 30 miles apart. I live near the Santa Anita racetrack. I start there in the morning, then go to Hollywood, and then work my way back to Santa Anita.
ANVIL: When you say work your way back, you have other stops besides the racetrack?
WESLEY: No, just Santa Anita and Hollywood. I'll go up to Hollywood to check the horses' shoes and bonds to make sure everyone's shoes are on correctly so the horses can train that morning. Then I move on to Santa Anita and do the same thing.
ANVIL: What time do you start your day?
WESLEY: Usually around 5:00 am. The track opens at 5:00. During the last year, I was working from 6:00 am to 11:00 pm. I was doing that seven days a week. Now an average day's work for me is 5:00 am to 5:00 pm.
ANVIL: How did you begin shoeing at the track?
WESLEY: My father was a jockey and trainer, and my grandfather was a veterinarian. I grew up on a Thoroughbred farm near Ensenada, Mexico.
ANVIL: You're still relatively young, Wesley, and have a lot of years ahead of you. What do you see for your future?
WESLEY: I love what I do and can't see myself doing anything else.
ANVIL: It sounds like you have a lot of inventions you'd like to see come to fruition, too.
WESLEY: I'm always looking for a better mousetrap, that's true.
ANVIL: What do you see as the primary difference between a farrier on the racetrack and one shoeing on the outside?
WESLEY: Those who shoe outside of the track can look ahead somewhat better, at least to be able to schedule a vacation for a week or two. But at the racetrack, you can only schedule about a day in advance. Something always comes up. If you have a horse running in a race and something happens, that horse can't miss one day of training and you can't be sick. I've shod horses when I've had the flu, and even with a broken foot. There's just no free time. It's a seven day a week job. If a shoer takes even one day off, he can lose a number of clients over the absence of that one day. I try to figure out when my clients are taking a day off. That's when I try to take one, also. They want to see your face here every day. The clients know everything about you, from where you go at night to what you're doing each day. There's no privacy here, and I don't care for that. It's hard on a family, too - unless you're married to someone who works here at the track. Then, often, the marriage can work.
ANVIL: So it is kind of a gypsy existence, then.
ANVIL: Most of the shoers don't live right at the track, do they?
WESLEY: No, we live off the track nearby. There's a lot of this existence I do like, however. I like the crowds, the fast pace of the races, and the competition. There is pleasure in those aspects of it.
ANVIL: I would imagine so. Wesley, we appreciate your taking the time out from such a busy and pressured schedule to talk with us today.