ANVIL Interview with Rudi Kerckhaert
© Rob Edwards
published in ANVIL Magazine, July 1998
ANVIL: Rudi, you are president of Kerckhaert Horse Shoe Manufacturing Company, is that correct?
RUDI: Yes. It has been a family business for over 80 years - my grandfather started it in 1916. He was a local farrier in the village where we now have our factory now. There were many farriers then, because all the work was done by work horses at that time. He was not happy with the quality of the shoes in the country. So when he was about 25 years old, he began to play with the idea of starting his own production of horseshoes. He built the machines himself and, of course, it took him quite a few years to get it going. I think he started to make his first shoes when he was about 28 years old. There was little industry in Holland at that time. The horse was very, very important in the early part of the century in Holland. The difference, or separation of boundaries in all those countries in Europe at that time was enormous. People normally didn't even travel from country to country - not even from Holland to Belgium - and they are next-door neighbors! Belgium was a totally foreign country to the Dutch people. So my grandfather continued producing his horseshoes just for the local Dutch market. But he was very successful and the factory began to grow slowly.
ANVIL: Did World War I or II have any effect on his business?
RUDI: No, neither war had any effect, because there were still many farmers who needed the shoes all during that time.
ANVIL: There wasn't a shortage of steel or anything like that?
RUDI: There were shortages, yes. But I remember my father telling me that they remained in normal production during that period. The Germans forced the production because they understood that at that time the shoes were needed for transport in order to keep the country going and for work in the fields. It was absolutely necessary. So there was no big problem.
ANVIL: When your grandfather began making shoes, he obviously didn't have all these hydraulic presses; how did he make them?
RUDI: He developed his own mechanical presses and designed his unique bending system. His huge machines were driven by a central diesel machine. Today they make the machines much smaller and we use more speed now. At that time, they also made automobiles on presses. Now you have the same press not even half the size accomplishing the same task.
ANVIL: Was the manufacturing process similar to what it is today?
RUDI: The basic principles regarding the process are more or less the same today. When I came into the company in the late 1960s, there was first the question of whether we should even continue making the horseshoes, because after the war, the work of the horses was taken over by tractors and trucks. The Belgians and Percherons slowly disappeared from the farms, and so when I came into the company, we had already started to make agricultural machinery because there was almost no reason anymore to make horseshoes. At that time, we had no exports and no contact with other countries. We needed the space where we had always made the shoes to expand the manufacturing of the agricultural machinery. And I told my father that, before we made the final decision to end the horseshoe manufacturing altogether, maybe it would be better for us to look around in Belgium and in France, in order to get a better overview of the way the market was going. I went to Brussels; I had no connections there at all. I was an engineer by profession. I visited the racetrack and the riding stables and ended up with a completely different impression of what the market needed in those days. I also visited the racetrack in Paris and all the large horse stables there, and I saw a completely new world and new possibilities for the horseshoe market. I also realized that I had to start from the bottom again. So I went to visit the farriers myself for the first five or six years - I went into Belgium, first trying to sell the product, and learning a great deal in the meantime. I realized that all the farriers had differing ideas about horseshoes. And that is still the same today!
ANVIL: It certainly is.
RUDI: The final solution for me was to buy a horse myself. I began to work on my own horse's feet. So that is how I gained an understanding of the farriers over the years. I began to understand more about the shape of the hoof and all the possibilities in applying shoes: the long toe, the short toe, the rolled toe, the square toe, overhang, and so on. It helped us a great deal in developing all the various shoes for all the different markets. To be successful at that time we needed to sell our shoes in all the countries in Europe. As soon as we wanted to expand, however, we found out that the countries have different traditions and ideas about shoeing - not only regarding the size of the shoes or the metal they use, but above all, the shape of the shoe. For example, in Germany they use shoes with a little longer toe and slightly longer heels in the shoe. In France they shoe the same horse in a different way. They make a very short toe and also make it shorter in the heels. For this purpose, they need a more rounded shoe.
ANVIL: These are essentially for the same horses with the same natural foot?
ANVIL: Previously, had you received a degree in engineering from a school in Holland?
RUDI: Yes. The idea was to get a degree in order to help my father in the agricultural machinery business. But after my trips, I decided it would be to our benefit to continue making horseshoes, but on a different basis than we had in the past.
ANVIL: It sounds like it was a real challenge.
RUDI: Indeed it was, because I saw the market in front of me. In the late '60s the horseshoe market began to grow once more, so we could grow with the market. And I had the opportunity to be part of it. I saw a promising future for the horse again, but in a different way from what it had been in the past.
ANVIL: How did you ultimately figure out what shape to make the shoes? Did you have to compromise between all the different ideas?
RUDI: We did not make any compromise; we just made all different types for all the different countries.
ANVIL: So then you began exporting to France and to Belgium, and gradually the business grew and grew?
RUDI: That's right. We started to sell our horseshoes first in Belgium because our factory was located very close to the Belgian border. It made it very easy for me to go and visit the customers over there. For many years I have been visiting many customers in many countries. Nowadays we are very proud to have customers in over 40 countries. To allow us to make different shoes, we needed to make different machinery. So I started to build the new machinery, beginning with a new furnace. The furnace had to be built in a way that the metal could be transported through the furnace automatically - not only the flat steel, but the half-rounds sizes and concave material. A very important step forward was the developing of an automatic clipping machine integrated into the existing line.
ANVIL: How did you approach the furnace? Did you still want to have a gas-powered furnace or did you go to electric?
RUDI: No, the electric furnace is much too expensive in Europe. The gas furnace is completely automatic and works very well. And it is a lot cheaper. We also have a good supply of natural gas in Holland. We make about 32 shoes a minute on the machine, and, at that rate, you would have a very large electric bill! We heat the bar stock in the gas furnace and it comes out and is cut to length. The process is all automatic.
ANVIL: In the meantime, it has to go into some kind of a press?
RUDI: There are seven or eight operations altogether. What type of process is used depends on what type of shoe is scheduled in production. When I started to build the machines, I already had some experience in the market. I was aware of the fact that the first requirement was that the production unit had to be very flexible in order to be able to follow all the different demands of the market.
ANVIL: So you had to have the dies to be able to easily change the machine to make different shoes. You didn't begin exporting shoes to the United States until the early 1980s, did you?
RUDI: I think it was around that time.
ANVIL: In the late '80s, Americans began importing Warmblood horses from Europe. I think a lot of farriers saw the shoes that came with them and became very interested in using that type of shoe.
RUDI: That's right. So many things changed in American society from the '60s on. It's not only through the Warmbloods, but due to the fact that there is more cooperation between the countries. I think that is one of the main reasons.
ANVIL: Is it the global economy now that has given you the freedom to venture into other markets?
RUDI: Yes, I think that's a large part of it.
ANVIL: Do you still manufacture specific shoes for France and specific shoes for Belgium, and so on?
RUDI: Sure; that's why we make over 700 different styles of shoes now.
RUDI: We realized that the various countries want different shoes, so we needed to coordinate a program around that tradition.
ANVIL: You are currently the largest manufacturer of horseshoes in the world. Obviously you export to many countries in Europe and in the United States - are there others outside of those spheres?
RUDI: We sell shoes in many other countries, yes. I think we have been able to do that because we understand the basics of what the farrier needs. That's very, very important. It has allowed us to come into all the different markets. The decision to buy my first riding horse, I still feel, was my best decision. You cannot understand the farrier if you have never picked up a horse's foot yourself. If you know the business yourself - how to put the shoes on - it makes it so much easier to get a handle on the market. That was, for me, most valuable. Then you only need to make the machinery to create that idea and bring it into being.
ANVIL: So you needed to have both the combination of the engineering background and the feel for the horse's foot, then.
RUDI: Oh, absolutely.
ANVIL: This industry is based upon tradition, certainly.
RUDI: Yes it is; and if you understand the tradition and some basics about shoeing, that's a big step forward when you have to run the company.
ANVIL: You must have a worldwide distribution network at this point in time, don't you? Had you ever thought about manufacturing any other kinds of items for farriers?
RUDI: Not yet, no. We employ a total of 100 employees. We do some retail ourselves, which we began in the late '60s.
ANVIL: So you essentially retail in Holland, but wholesale to distributors in other parts of the world; is that the way it works?
RUDI: Yes. We have very loyal customers worldwide. The retail aspect in Holland and Belgium was very important when I first re-started the company.
ANVIL: You mentioned earlier that you thought we were very fortunate in the United States to have a common language and a common currency. What are some of the problems you have in Europe due to the fact you don't have those?
RUDI: I don't actually see the differences in language, from a business standpoint, as a large problem because we can communicate in the five most important European languages. On the other hand, I think it will be an advantage to have a common currency in Europe, called "Euro," from 1999 on. This will create much more stability in comparison with all the different exchange rates today.
ANVIL: For Europe to be competitive with the United States and Asian markets, it's probably necessary to have a common currency.
RUDI: Compared to the American situation, Europe has the same market size and about 300 million people - but the problem is the limitation due to all the languages, and the different currencies at the present time. For example, it may not occur to a farrier in Italy to purchase horseshoes directly from a company in Holland or Sweden. But in the United States, a farrier in New York doesn't think twice about picking up the phone and buying shoes from a company in Florida. There is a common language and a common currency in the U.S. which facilitates the process. In Europe it would be much easier with one language as well as one currency; it would be a much better situation and would enable all the countries in Europe to buy from each other with much greater ease.
ANVIL: What are some of the problems associated with developing the Eurodollar?
RUDI: The Dutch guilder, the German mark and the Belgium franc, for instance, are strong in comparison to the Italian lire or the Spanish peseta. So most Europeans don't understand how all these details are going to be worked out in order to make such a transition to a common Euro in 1999. There are a lot of questions about it all, but the people seem to understand that it will be to their benefit, ultimately. It's an enormous undertaking. At the moment, the exchange rates can change so very rapidly. For example, a customer in England may buy our products and he has to pay in Dutch guilders. He purchases the product and has to pay one month later. But the exchange rate can change in the meantime, and the customer may need to pay more - or pay less, if he is lucky. For this reason, everyone in business in Europe would like a more stable situation regarding those exchange rates - a common currency, or course, would provide that.
ANVIL: There seems to be a tremendous amount of national pride in Europe, as well. That results in a problem with farriers trying to get together to form a common standard. I think the World Farriers Association has been instrumental in trying to get the countries together, but somehow they find it very difficult to come to any agreement of standards as long as the countries remain so steadfast in their separateness from each other.
RUDI: As long as I have been in business, it's been my observation that most farriers are a one-man operation. It makes it very difficult to form a common standard. It has always been a very individual profession, not group-oriented. Maybe in another 25 years the circumstances will be created to allow more cooperation between the farriers from the different countries. One thing I have realized in all my years in business is that the profession of farriery, is, in most cases, a very difficult one. We also must realize, in view of all this, that the farrier is paid way too little. That is the biggest problem throughout our industry.
ANVIL: Throughout the world.
RUDI: Yes. I saw this 25 years ago in the market and today I still see the same thing. To solve this problem should, in my opinion, be the first goal of every farrier's organization.
ANVIL: I know you are a strong supporter of the Bluegrass Laminitis Symposium here in Louisville. You attend every year. Is there a similar symposium-type event in Europe?
RUDI: We have local trainings now and then. The main problem remains the same in Europe: we speak so many different languages that it makes it difficult for communication at a symposium. Over the last ten years during my trips to the United States, I have noticed in general an increasing quality in the farrier's work. The Laminitis Symposium is a good example of offering education for the farrier. It allows large numbers of people to learn together about their profession, and that is very important. Horse owners are expecting more and more from the farrier, that we know. It's a big help for the farriers to be able to talk about their problems in a group setting and to pick up valuable information.
ANVIL: Has the quality of shoeing increased in Europe as well?
RUDI: It's the educational system in Europe that has been an advantage for the European farrier. Our farriers have been able to go to good education centers. In many European countries, there are even national education centers which have a long and strong tradition, because they go back to the cavalry schools in the army.
ANVIL: You, as a manufacturer, have to be flexible to these changes in order to satisfy the needs and demands of the modern farrier.
RUDI: Yes, but also we must realize that the shoes we make today are not so different from the shoes we made 25 years ago. We also see that the shoes produced in other countries have changed much more than ours have.
ANVIL: The education in Europe seems to be a lot more extensive than in the U.S. In England they spend four years studying farriery with a combination of apprenticing and going into a scholastic environment. Is it the same in Holland?
RUDI: Yes. And that's a big help for the farrier. In the United States, the country is so large that the contact between farriers nationwide cannot be as close as in Europe, because European countries are much smaller and in closer proximity, relatively speaking, than here.
ANVIL: So the combination of much longer schooling and a tighter association in Europe provides the farrier there with a better support system.
RUDI: I think so, yes. But I see how many people in this country are interested in extra schooling. Many events like the Bluegrass Symposium and the local clinics can teach them a lot more about their craft.
ANVIL: In Europe they use e-head nails and in the United States we generally use city-head nails. Have you modified your shoes for export to the U.S. to accommodate that fact?
RUDI: Yes. As always, we try to meet the tradition. The big difference in the United States, as you say, is the nails you use. We started to make a lot of different shoes, as well, for the U.S. market, because it wasn't only the nails that were different, but also the nail placement. The horses in this country, as a rule, are a little bit lighter than ours, so we started using stronger and lighter steel, and doing a little bit finer punching. The first typical American style we introduced was the unclipped Series SX7 and SX8. These lightweight shoes are in front and hind shape and very popular now. They are also available in the clipped version and the first Rim Lite SX7 is coming very soon. We are proud and happy with all the support from the market for our program.
ANVIL: More and more farriers in this country are using e-head nails. But the vast majority of shoes that you ship over here are punched for city heads, it that correct?
RUDI: Yes, absolutely. I don't think we can expect a dramatic change in the nails in this country because there is no reason for a change. Maybe the city-head nail has an advantage in the fact that the head is in a different place, it's not in the middle of the shank. You can feel it much more easily, which way you have to put the nail in the shoe. In the e-head nail you have to look at the nail - every nail, again and again. In thicker shoes, the longer tapered e-head can be an advantage. So each product has an advantage.
ANVIL: How long have you been clipping your shoes?
RUDI: Oh, many, many years now.
ANVIL: I think it has been traditional in Europe to have clips on the shoes. That hasn't been the tradition in the United States. I notice more and more farriers are using clips now.
RUDI: We see a slow change in the market. I think it is better using the clips because there is less pressure on the nails, making the horse more comfortable. In Europe, tradition and experience have proven that clipped shoes give extra support, less twisting of the shoes and a more stable shoeing in general. If you are used to the clipped shoes, it enables you to put the shoes on more easily. If you have no clips on the shoes, it's more difficult to get them in the exact right place.
ANVIL: How long have you been manufacturing aluminum shoes?
RUDI: For many, many years.
ANVIL: Are more horses shod with aluminum in the U.S. than in Europe?
RUDI: That may be. In the United States, there is more diverse thinking regarding the weight of the shoe. Also the approach of the owner is different. My feeling is that it's more important to have a slightly heavier shoe on the horse, because the foot needs the support and stability. But in this society, everything seems like it has to be light. It's part of the general thinking. I think in general, I like steel under the horse rather than aluminum. That does not mean, however, that manufacturers today aren't making very good aluminum shoes. The new ones are very stable and there is a lot of strength to them. I just like the wider web shoes because of the stability, and the deeper punching.
ANVIL: Have you been able to export shoes to eastern Europe?
RUDI: Actually there is very small demand in countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Russia, for example. They are, however, horse-loving people from way back in history. The current economic situation has brought those countries to a level where they are no longer able to enjoy horse riding. The first option now is to survive. We all realize that there is a very small demand there now, but the possibilities for growth in our particular business are there. It will take time; it may be another 15 years. It depends on the country. I see it as a long way off.
ANVIL: Prior to World War II, did you have a lot more business in eastern Europe?
RUDI: No business at all.
ANVIL: I think there are many horse owners who are beginning to realize now that you get what you pay for and if you want your horse to stay sound and use it competitively, then you've got to have the best shoeing. And they're willing to pay for it. But they seem be the people who are a bit more knowledgeable about farriery. The average person doesn't appear to have enough knowledge about it to be willing to pay the farrier more.
RUDI: That's right, I most certainly agree. There will always be those horse owners who will be looking for the cheapest solution. Everybody knows there are those owners who easily pay $100,000 or more for a show jumper. When the farrier comes with the bill, that's a different story. Horse owners need to realize that shoeing is a difficult profession and not without danger and risk. Everybody knows that many farriers suffer from back problems, and that good insurance would be useful in many cases. To my knowledge, there are about 25% of farriers who make a very good living. The other 75% should be paid more so that they can make a reasonable living, as well.
ANVIL: Rudi, thank you for your insights on the status of the farrier business today, in Europe as well as in the United States.