The Man Had Real Class

a story from "Sunday on the Farm - Memoirs of a Horseshoer"

© Bruce B. Daniels

published in ANVIL Magazine, August 1996

It's really not fair, but every time you move up a step in life, you find yourself on the bottom of a new pile. At least that's the way it seemed to me that spring in 1958, when I left the farms and started shoeing on the race track. When fall came and the race meet was coming to a close, everyone was bragging about where they were going to spend the winter. The racing season used to start in April and finish in October. Then the barn area would be closed down, the water shut off, and all the horses had to be moved to a training track somewhere else.

That's when all the horses that weren't going to make it next year went to live with the Amish. It was also the time that the yearling sales took place and everyone started off with some new hopes and dreams. Those who could afford it went south to places like Little River Farm in Pinehurst, North Carolina, or Aiken, South Carolina. Some trainers hauled the entire stable all the way down to Florida, to training tracks like Ben White and Pompano. That way the owners could take a winter vacation and watch their horses train at the same time. Unfortunately, my first couple of years on pari-mutuel tracks saw me spending my winter right where I had always been - freezing my buns off. I was still shoeing on the training tracks in New Jersey. I even went all the way down to Mr. Glover's training facility in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, one fall to see about shoeing there. Ernie Christiansen had been working there before he died, and I knew they would be needing someone to do the shoeing. When I got there I soon found out that this wasn't the sunny South I had envisioned. The place was way up in the mountains and just as cold as New Jersey. To top it off, even with the small stable Gold Tooth Jones was training and a couple more two-horse outfits, there wasn't enough work there to support my family. I went back home, put on my Carhartts and insulated boots, and stayed on the bottom of the pile.

Then in the summer of 1960, things began to look up. I started shoeing for Bobby Camper and Don Larlee. These men were successful trainers, and they had some good horses - a definite step up in the world. Camper was training Adios Don and had just won the Messenger Stakes. Larlee had some high-priced trotters that always did well in feature races - I was impressed. They got their horses shod on a regular schedule and paid their bills promptly; but the best part was they wanted me to come south and shoe for them in Aiken that winter. I had finally made the big time!

That summer Jane and I bought a used 8'x37' Michigan Arrow house trailer, and just before Christmas I hauled it down to Aiken. I almost wiped out a row of oncoming cars on a bridge; I hit a big dip and upset the refrigerator, and damn near rolled back over a car at a red light. But we made it. Jane followed me, with the kids, in her Ford Falcon and kept telling me how great I was doing. A man would have told me to park the damned thing before I killed myself or someone else, but God bless the good women of the world - they only see the good things in their men. Somehow we managed to get to Aiken in one piece. I found a trailer park right off Whiskey Road and hooked up all the utilities. There were about six other trailers in the park and we were in between a family that traveled with a rock-and-roll show and an electrician who worked out at the Savannah River Project. We were camping out, but it was one of our great adventures. We still have some pleasant memories of that first winter in Aiken.

Between Bobby Camper, Don Larlee, Joe Eyler and Buck Minear, there were over 60 harness horses training in Aiken that winter, and very few of them had shoes on when I arrived. None of the babies had ever been shod before, so I put in some hard days in the beginning. Although the clay track was easy on shoes, it seemed I never caught up. Every time I'd get all of Buck Minear's horses shod, he would haul them back to a farm he had nearby and bring in a new batch. Someone said he had a stallion named Ranger Knight running with a herd of broodmares, like a bunch of cattle, and every fall he would give all of the yearlings a shot at being a racehorse. Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in awhile, and Buck always came up with one or two good racehorses.

Ray Widner took care of the four training tracks and the barns, and had the shop all cleaned out for me when I arrived. The horseshoer they had the year before skipped out on them, and they were taking good care of me - something I wasn't used to. It was a historic setting with big grey barns and a blacksmith shop surrounded by a grove of mature pecan trees. In the middle of winter, ripe pecans would cover the ground next to the shop. The grooms would gather a handful and toast them on the little pot-belly stove in the corner of the shop. It was a good winter, and I often wished I had taken some pictures of that shop. Aiken had become the winter home for quite a few wealthy horse people over the years. It was a real horse town, with 19 polo fields, a Thoroughbred training track, and the harness track - all within the city limits. After the cotton mills started closing and the work moved overseas, those wealthy people had become a viable industry for that small Southern town. Names like Hitchcock, Dupont, Bostwick and Clark were on mailboxes. F. Ambrose Clark brought his pair of grey Standardbred driving horses to me for shoeing. (The last I heard, the Clark estate was estimated to be worth $550 million - Ambrose Clark's grandfather helped Isaac Singer sell Singer sewing machines and ended up with forty percent of the company.) Several years earlier, he'd had a riding accident and broke his back jumping a fence. Now that he could no longer ride, he drove those two horses all over town.

Don Larlee was training some horses for Dunbar W. Bostwick that year, and occasionally Mr. Bostwick would come south to visit his high-goal, polo-playing brother, Pete. Mr. Bostwick was the chairman of the board of Standard Oil of New Jersey at that time, and unlike the rest of us, he could afford to travel south in style. He and his pilot would fly down from his home in Vermont in his private plane and return - all in a weekend.

One Friday, Mr. Bostwick flew down as far as Richmond, Virginia, and stopped to refuel, when the pilot noticed something wrong with the plane. Rather than take a chance, they decided the pilot would get the necessary repairs and return home; and Mr. Bostwick would get a car and travel on by himself.

It was after closing time when Mr. Bostwick called the Mercedes Benz dealer in Richmond and requested they get a salesman and a mechanic back to the showroom. He wanted to buy a new car. He bought the best model they had, and the next morning it was parked in front of Don Larlee's barn.

One of the two-year-olds Don trained for Mr. Bostwick had lots of speed but a lousy attitude when it came to checking her head up. You don't have to have a harness horse's head checked up so high that all they can see is the sky, but it's difficult to control them if they get their head down too low.

To control the head position, a small "mini-bit" is put in their mouth. This bit is suspended by a leather overcheck running over the nose, between the ears, down the neck, and is fastened to the saddle pad on their shoulders. After a horse has been bridled, harnessed, and hooked to a jog cart or race bike, the last step before going out on the track is to attach the overcheck to the þwater hookþ on the saddle pad. Mr. Bostwick's filly put up with the bridle, the harness, and the jog cart, but she wanted no part of the overcheck. Lots of two-year-olds fight the overcheck a few times, and they get over it; but it became a big issue with this filly.

For several weeks, I had been watching from my shop window as Don and his grooms went through the battle of hooking the overcheck on that filly. I've seen her go straight in the air and lunge forward - throwing Don out of the jog cart. He had been dumped off that cart several times, and by now it was just a matter of time before someone really got hurt. He even tried to go without the overcheck, but she was impossible to control. The best idea he came up with was to put her nose right into the wall at the end of the barn, and then check her head up. This gave her nowhere to go, and it worked - most of the time.

As I turned off the macadam road into the track that Saturday morning, my eyes went directly towards Don's long, low barn. They had that hard-to-hook filly headed into the end wall, and two or three people were helping Don put the overcheck on. The action had my total attention as I drove in. I was just coasting; couldn't have been doing more than five or ten miles an hour down that dirt road. Have you ever noticed how your car seems to drift towards something you are concentrating on? I knew I was about to witness one hell of a wreck, and didn't want to miss one second of it - when all of a sudden, one really happened. With a loud crash and the sound of crunching metal, I ran right into the back of Mr. Bostwick's brand new Mercedes Benz. I never saw it, and hadn't even touched my brakes. His bumper and right rear fender were folded into the tire so tight he couldn't move the car. My three-quarter-ton pickup bumper was pushed back a little, but didn't look too bad.

They got the overcheck on and Don got the filly out on the track - when Mr. Bostwick walked over to me and asked if I had learned how to drive on the wrong side of the road in England. That's all he said, nothing else. In my heart, I knew I would be making my last payment on that Mercedes Benz the same day pigs flew. My wife and I kept waiting for that repair bill every time the mailman came, but it never showed up. There must be a God in heaven, because Mr. Bostwick never said any more about it, and it was forgotten.

I said it was forgotten, but that's not entirely true. I currently shoe some real nice carriage horses for a Mr. John Seabrook of Salem, New Jersey. He has done well in life, and has a winter home in (guess where?) Aiken, South Carolina. He also has a summer home in Woodstock, Vermont. He spends the spring and fall in New Jersey, and ships everything south right after Christmas. He's a real horseman and loves to drive his horses; and where he goes, they go also. His home in Vermont is on the side of a mountain that he owns. A few mountains over is the estate of another wealthy man, Dunbar W. Bostwick.

I don't actually do the shoeing on the horses when they go to Vermont. What I do is make the shoes up out of bar stock in my forge and ship them up to his trainer. A top-notch, local horseshoer named Gardner Smith fits them up and nails them on. One summer Gardner wasn't available, and I had to go up and shoe the horses myself.

It's a long, hot, eight-hour drive from my home to Woodstock, and it took all day. After a good night's rest in the cool mountain air, I was ready to start shoeing the horses. Mr. Seabrook's trainer, Chris Higgins, brought the first horse out. The first of two long days began.

About mid-morning, Mr. Seabrook came out to check on things, when a big car pulled up in front of the barn. An elderly man stepped out, and Chris told me that it was Mr. Seabrook's neighbor, Dunbar W. Bostwick. My God, there's no place left to hide in this world! To cap it all off, Mr. Seabrook called Mr. Bostwick over and introduced him to me. "I want you to meet my farrier," he said. Mr. Bostwick looked at me, and even after 30 years, I could see that he remembered. In the back of his mind, he could see that day in Aiken, when a much younger horseshoer trashed his brand-new Mercedes Benz. He walked over and shook my hand and said, "We've met before, haven't we?" I said, "Yes, we have." Then, much to my relief, he never said another word about it. He knew and I knew and he knew that I knew, and that was good enough. The man had real class.

Bruce Daniels shares over 45 years of stories about shoeing horses. "Sunday on the Farm - Memoirs of a Horseshoer" includes 25 personal accounts. Some are humorous. Some are sad. All are true. Bruce can be contacted at P.O. Box 246, Harrisonville, New Jersey 08039 USA. Phone/Fax 609/478-2535

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