by Laura Crum
So last week I got some bad news. Maybe it wouldn’t seem like such bad news to most people, but I think you other horse people will understand my dismay. My farrier, R, is retiring. Before you point out that there are lots of farriers in the world, consider this: R is the only person who has ever shod or trimmed my horse, Plumber. And Plumber is twenty-five years old. I’ve owned him since he was three. R and I have been together a long time.
It’s not that I don’t understand. R will be seventy this year. As he says, he wants to retire while he is still (mostly) sound. His knees and back are giving him trouble. He’s right to give the job up. But…
But he has been doing my horses for over twenty years, and my horses have virtually always stayed sound (knocking on wood—literally—as I type this). I credit R a LOT for the fact that we have not had the ubiquitous “soft tissue” injuries that have been so common in some of my friends’ horses. Nor have we had sore soles or arthritic problems, in general. A good farrier cannot fix everything, but boy it sure helps.
The thing is, R doesn’t have the reputation of some sort of expert farrier. He’s known as more of a get-er-done cowboy shoer. I’m pretty sure my friends who are really into the barefoot trimming thing, AND my friends who are really into the fancy just-right shoeing thing would both look down on R’s work. R is really your classic ranch cowboy horseshoer.
He’s also gruff, taciturn and sometimes downright surly. I know a good many boarding stables that refuse to have him on the premises. Lots of horse people react with, “What? You use him?” when I respond to the “Who’s your shoer?” question. In short, he doesn’t have a particularly good reputation overall.
So why do I like him? Simple. I like things that work.
I didn’t start out admiring R as a farrier. He was a team roper and I knew him, but I used much more expensive highly-regarded horseshoers for my fancy horse, Gunner. The thing is, I wasn’t getting the results I hoped for. Gunner had shallow, thin soles and a tendency to get sore and I was having a hard time keeping him sound. I also was having a hard time scheduling farriers a month ahead and having them show up two hours late. In short, I wasn’t very happy with anyone I’d used as a shoer.
I forget why I fired the farrier previous to R, but I did. And since R was right there at a practice roping and Gunner needed shoes, I asked him if he’d shoe my horse. It was an eye opener.
At the time I was padding Gunner’s front feet, which was helping him. I asked R if he could do this and he said sure. I explained about Gunner’s thin, shallow soles and his tendency to be low in the heels. R listened, said nothing, and looked at the horse. Then he went to work.
He shod my horse in literally half the time it had taken the previous “fancy” shoer to do him. He slapped those pads on and squirted silica gel under them, wrapped some duct tape around them and nailed the shoes on and Bob’s your uncle. He did not endlessly fuss and measure, as the previous shoer had done. As I said, it took literally half the time. He also charged me half the price. When he was done I thought the horse’s feet looked about right. And that was that.
I wasn’t attached to keeping R as a shoer—like most people, I thought his attitude was a little grouchy. But Gunner went well and stayed sound and R was cheap—and hey—he arrived on time, every time. If I called for an appointment he was always available within a few days. And Gunner stayed sound and moved well. Let me repeat that—Gunner stayed sound and moved well.
This folks, is the bottom line. My horse stayed sound. I kept using R and I put up with his somewhat surly ways.
In the next year I bought a three-year-old unbroken colt. This was Plumber. When I bought Plumber, he’d been turned out in a pasture with a dozen other young horses. They all looked fine. Plumber could barely walk. His fragile, flare-y, brittle hooves were so broken up that he was sore on all four feet. I bought him for a variety of reasons—I’d known him since he was born—but good feet wasn’t one of them.
As soon as I bought Plumber I had R shoe him—and hey, presto, the colt was sound. And now I have a confession to make. I kept shoes on Plumber (applied 100% of the time by R) for seventeen years straight—without one break.
I know, it’s not the accepted way of doing things. Even those of us who don’t believe that shoes are evil and of the devil like to turn our horses out and let them go barefoot for part of the year, anyway. But I was literally afraid to do this with Plumber. When I bought him his feet were a terrible mess—due to being turned out barefoot. And his feet were still the same basic problem. He had a tendency to flare over the shoe and break off and he had to be shod every six weeks precisely. When he was first shod he was a little tender soled—even with shoes on he couldn’t walk comfortably on gravel roads. He just had lousy feet. To be frank, I never thought he would stay sound. I thought he’d end up with navicular or some other foot/hoof based lameness. Anyway, I kept shoes on him 100% of the time.
And guess what? I broke and trained Plumber and by the time he was eight years old he was a competitive team roping horse. He remained a competition horse until he was twenty, when we retired him. He wore shoes every single day of his working life. He was still sound when we retired him, but he didn’t like to run any more—nor did he like downhill bits on trails. He trotted perfectly sound on level ground. I had R pull his shoes, and in my hoof-friendly, sandy corrals Plumber has remained a sound, barefoot retired horse for the past five years. So that’s seventeen years of a riding horse life doing a fairly strenuous job, and five years of retirement—completely sound. I think that’s a pretty good success story for a horse with shitty feet. And I believe that I owe a lot of it to R.
Over time, I learned to trust my instincts more in very many ways when it came to horses. I could look at my own horses’ feet and see that they looked “right” to me—shod or barefoot—and I would look at horses shod or trimmed by other farriers—frequently much more highly regarded farriers—and see that they looked wrong to me. Often I could not explain why they looked wrong, though sometimes I could. The angle would be wrong—too steep or too shallow—the horse would look low in the heels or the toes would look dubbed off or the horse would be too stood up, or the heels looked too pinched in. I am no expert on shoeing/trimming. But I became a bit like that obnoxious guy in the art gallery. I knew what I liked.
And I also knew that my horses stayed sound. This was not at all true of some of our friends’ horses.
One guy in particular, who roped at the same practice arena where we roped, had an endless string of inexplicable soft tissue injuries. I never liked the way his horses’ feet looked—pinched in, toe dubbed off—and over time I became convinced that the constant injuries were the result of his farrier’s work.
There just was no other logical explanation. He was the only guy who roped with us that used that particular shoer, no one else was regularly plagued with these injuries, and the guy in question had literally ten different horses come up lame with soft issue injuries in the legs. The conditions were exactly the same for all of us; the horses that crippled up were not related to each other in any way. The guy didn’t overuse his horses. There simply was no other common denominator.
Anyway, I became ever more grateful and loyal to R. As Gunner has gotten older his feet have not plagued him, but he began to be very arthritic in the hocks and knees and had trouble holding his hooves up for trimming. R is patient with him, as he was always patient and matter-of-fact with my young horses, when I had them. No horse of mine ever had any issues being trimmed or shod after the first few times. Ron was skillful and strong and worked fast. He didn’t tolerate any crap, but he wasn’t harsh, either. He was always calm and confident. It took the colts very little time to settle down and be trimmed/shod like broke horses.
For the last few years I have run all my horses barefoot, and Ron trims them all and they stay sound. No, he’s not a “barefoot” trimmer, or whatever the buzz word is, but, again, they stay sound and move well. Henry is going great at 26, Sunny the same at 19 or so, and my two retirees have no foot problems despite the fact they both have lousy feet. How good is that?
And now R is retiring. I asked him if he’d like to just trim my gentle old horses to keep his hand in. He said no, it was time for him to give it up. And that is that. Just allow me a few minutes to whine and snivel, OK? Because I am really not looking forward to finding/working with another farrier. I’m sure many of you will understand. It’s a sad day.