Hoof Care

What's Next (Tales from a Farrier)

by Tom Berningstall
One of the greatest mysteries in horse shoeing is that you never know what's going to happen next. Every step of the process of shoeing a horse holds a mystery that keeps the farrier on alert. From the time I leave for work in the morning until I get home at the end of the day, I consciously and unconsciously ask myself hundreds of times, "What's next?"

As I drive up to each farm I wonder: Will the customer be home? Will the horses be caught, clean, and dry? Will the customer have more or fewer horses than the last time I was here? Will they have new foals? Have the foals been worked with?

Is the next horse having a good day or a bad day? I've worked on more than one horse for years with never a problem, and then for whatever reason one day and he thinks it's a good idea to try to kill me. And the next time he's just fine again.

Trying to keep one thought ahead of the horse's thought helps keep farriers from getting hurt. And that, my friend, is not always easy. It's like driving in heavy traffic—you always have to think the other driver's going to do something stupid. Then you have to be able to react to the other driver's actions and keep yourself out of harm's way.

As each horse is an unknown new challenge, so is each foot I pick up. Some horses have trouble with just one leg, and the other three legs are fine to work with. As horses age they all develop soreness in some part of their bodies and legs. Horse owners now keep their old horses around for longer than the horses' useful age, and that's okay. Farriers need to work with these older horses to help make the shoeing or trimming process as painless as possible. Most older horses, and some young horses, too, act up for no other reason than trying to pull away from the pain they feel.

What I mean when I say the horse will pull away from pain is this: Have you ever seen a standing horse step on its own foot? The horse will always try to move the foot on the bottom, because that's the foot with the pain. The foot on top doesn't hurt, so why move it?

Determining the horse's reason for pulling its leg away is not always easy, and the more you fight the more the horse fights. If you work with the older horse and understand its pain, you will both be more comfortable.

As I pick up each foot I have found the strangest things packed into the sole. Besides mud, dirt, bedding and the other usual stuff that gets packed into the cup of the bottom of the hoof—that do more good than harm the health of the hoof—I sometimes find harmful things such as nails, nuts and bolts, glass, large rocks, pointed hard wooden sticks, a beer can once, and various unidentifiable pieces of metal. All these things may be harmful to the health of any horse's feet. Routinely cleaning debris from the feet is as important as feed and water to your horse's health.

To reduce to the chance of your horse picking up something ugly in its feet, walk your pastures once in a while, looking for previously unseen dangers. Old steel T posts, broken off at ground level, are always a problem. Such a post can puncture the hoof of a horse that steps on it, or stab a horse that rolls on it.

I had a customer who turned her horses out on a newly fenced pasture. After a couple of months she noticed a clattering noise as the horses ran up to the barn at feeding time. Upon investigating the source of the noise, she found several rooftops of cars that had worked their way to the surface of the pasture as the horses wore the top soil away. A previous owner had filled in a swamp with old cars and junk, then covered it over with top soil. To be able to use the pasture for horses, she had to pay to get the mess cleaned up and bring in new clean fill.

Quicking a horse's hoof occurs by cutting too deeply with a hoof knife, nippers, or rasp. Sometimes when you nail on a shoe you drive the nail into the quick, which is any sensitive structure inside the hoof. Any time you run into blood when working on a horse's hoof, you have quicked that horse. Nerves need blood and nerves transmit pain signals to the brain, and the horse reacts to the pain by trying to get away from the source of the pain. To the horse, the farrier is the source of pain. Maybe the word quick came from a farrier who had to get out of the way real quick after he had quicked a horse's foot.

Next is shaping the shoe and nailing it to the horse's hoof. No two hooves have the exact same shape, so the next shoe will be different from the last shoe for each hoof of each horse. Nailing a shoe to a horse's hoof is like doing surgery with a hammer and nail. The beveled end of the nail has to be to the inside of the hoof, so as you drive the nail into the hoof wall the end of the nail will turn out away from the quick. Also if you nail inside the white line (the border between the hard hoof wall and the soft sole, above which is the sensitive laminae) you will quick the hoof. So the next nail has to go where it well do no harm.

As I clinch over the last nails and finish rasping the clinches smooth, I start thinking about the next horse and what surprises might be in store for me and the horse. Sometimes during routine horse shoeing you let your guard down. About that time is when, from up in the rafters, a cat jumps onto the horse's back and the devil comes and takes you away.

Being a farrier is a tough job. I was told once that it's a young person's job, and that's likely true. But people like me, and some even older, have been shoeing for most of our lives and wouldn't enjoy any other job more. To see a horse grow and learn to do well at what it's trained to do is wonderful. To know we have had a part in that horse's health makes us proud of what we do. And just maybe never knowing what's going to happen next keeps us young. rh horse logo

F. Thomas Breningstall was a columnist whose work appeared regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Spring 2001 issue.

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