How To Become A Farrier
The image of a farrier as a young, burly man able to nail on horseshoes using sheer strength has long given way to a more eclectic picture. Today's farrier can be almost any age and might just as easily be a woman as a man.
"We get a lot of women in their 30s who want a career with horses and something that allows them to work around their husbands' schedules and their kids in school," says Bob Smith, founder, owner, and head instructor of the Pacific Coast Horse-shoeing School in Plymouth, Calif. He and Chris Gregory of Heartland Horsehoeing School in Lamar, Mo., are two of the many who run schools for aspiring farriers.
Such students in the past apprenticed themselves to a journeyman to learn the trade. Now they are much more likely to attend one of the horseshoeing schools across the nation.
"An apprenticeship program really doesn't fit today's economy, what with things like minimum wage and workers' compensation," says Smith.
Often apprentices end up simply holding the shank while the journeyman shoes the horse.
"In an apprentice situation, a person spends a long time to do very little," says Gregory. "They also don't get a lot of anatomy and farrier theory in most situations. And, if you pick a master with substandard skills, that is the best you will end up with."
Instead, students can attend a school such as Pacific or Heartland, where they receive intense training over a shorter period of time. Pacific offers an eight-week course, with work divided into classroom teaching, forge work, and training with horses. Heartland offers a similar eight-week schedule, plus an additional eight-week advanced program, and a 24-week journeyman program.
These types of schools appeal to people of all ages and walks of life. Pacific's students average 32 years of age and have ranged from 18-year-olds trying to put themselves through college to a Swedish man with a PhD in mechanical engineering and a woman with an MBA from the University of California, Davis. Heartland's students have ranged in age from 14 to 68, with an average age of 25.
"A common theme is that these people are tired of working for someone else and want to be their own boss," says Smith.
However, becoming a farrier requires more than simply a desire to work with horses and attending school.
"The two major ingredients you need are horsemanship skills--an ability to handle horses--and self-discipline," says Smith.
Self-discipline is important because a farrier practice is a small business, and you need to run it as such. Keep meticulous financial records, advertise yourself, understand the tax ramifications of being self-employed, and schedule appointments.
"The No. 1 complaint about horseshoers is that they don't show up on time," says Smith. "We are very aggressive about (teaching) that from the very beginning."
As part of their course work, Pacific and Heartland include sessions on how to run your own business. The instructors emphasize organizational skills, and they teach students how to set up their own practices.
Anatomy and Gait Analysis
Every horse owner has probably had a bad horseshoeing experience. Farriers might trim the horse's feet too short or in a way that doesn't suit the horse's conformation. Perhaps they use a ready-made shoe that's handy instead of fashioning a shoe to fit that particular individual.
A good horseshoeing school should go far beyond showing someone how to nail on a shoe. At places like Pacific and Heartland, instructors teach about anatomy, conformation, and types of lamenesses. They demonstrate how to recognize conformation flaws and analyze a horse's gait. The proper shoeing job can sometimes help a horse overcome deficiencies in how he's built and the way he travels.
"We stress all of the typical theory, from anatomy and conformation to pathologies and gaits," says Gregory.
At Pacific, most of the classroom portion of the schedule revolves around these subjects.
"We teach people how to recognize problems, because farriers are often the first-line guys," notes Smith.
Farriers need to know whether trimming can help a limb deformity in a foal, if a pad will make a horse travel more soundly, or whether rolling the toe will help a horse's breakover (defined as the moment the heels lift off the ground).
Sometimes a farrier's work on the outer hoof, particularly when managing problems such as laminitis, can venture close to the veterinarian's territory inside the hoof. Schools for both professions emphasize teamwork between the two.
"The vet-farrier-owner team is essential to getting a horse through a lameness problem," stresses Gregory. "Each person plays a different role in different situations."
The more knowledge farriers have, the better they can advise their clients when a horse's lameness is beyond what shoeing can accomplish.
"As farriers we see the horse every eight weeks," says Smith. "We might see something that we can advise an owner to have a vet look at."
A farrier without proper knowledge of conformation and mode of travel can be detrimental to a horse.
"Shoeing a horse out of balance over and over can cause lameness," states Smith.
Schools provide large numbers of horses for students. This enables them to experience firsthand many types of conformational faults, lamenesses, and horses of different ages.
"We work with the Grace Foundation of Northern California," says Smith. "It's a rescue organization that at any time has about 135-140 horses. We're out there at least twice a week."
Pacific donates all its work to the foundation. Because rescue horses are typically older and some have been abused in previous situations, the students encounter all types of physical and behavioral problems.
Heartland offers the surrounding equine community bargain rates of $28 for shoeing and $14 for trimming, which provides a variety of horses for students. Four days a week instructors and students shoe at neighboring farms. One day a week they shoe at the school, where people with fewer than 12 horses come to them.
The schools also emphasize forge work, teaching students how to make a variety of shoes, many from scratch. Forge work is one of four areas a student must pass at Heartland to receive a certificate of completion. At Pacific, students must make 14 different types of shoes, turning in two every Friday for evaluation.
Although today more sizes and types of ready-made shoes are available than ever before, Gregory and Smith think a competent farrier must be able to design custom shoes with a forge.
"With that skill, a farrier can do any horse with any shoe in any situation," states Gregory. "So many farriers are limited by lack of skill and lack of inventory. If you look around this industry, what are the very best doing? For the most part they are hot shoeing, making shoes, and doing a very traditional job. If you want to be great at anything, figure out what those that are great are doing."
Smith agrees, noting that farriers without those skills tend to shoe "out of a box."
"If you don't have the proper shoe, you need to be able to adjust," he says. "Otherwise, you're cheating the horse. It's quality shoeing if they are not afraid to turn on the forge and make a shoe or adjust a shoe."
Specialties and Continuing Education
Once a person has received a basic education in shoeing, it is time to add experience. Smith and Gregory recommend students accompany a journeyman farrier at this stage of their careers.
"I encourage my students to ride along with other farriers when they leave school until they are busy enough on their own they don't need to anymore," says Gregory.
As a student develops a horseshoeing business, he or she can tailor it to a particular interest. Many farriers decide to specialize. Some simply fall into a specialty, perhaps because they begin shoeing a barn of hunter/jumpers or cutting horses. Different disciplines require different shoes. The shoes of a draft horse and a racehorse, for example, bear almost no resemblance to each other except for their basic shape.
As Smith's career progressed, he began shoeing many dressage horses.
"I found that I liked those kinds of horses," he says. "You're shoeing for movement and not as much for lameness."
Like most professions, farriery improves not only with practice, but with continuing education. Smith and Gregory earlier this year spoke at the International Hoof Care Summit in Ohio, a four-day collection of seminars that covered a multitude of shoeing topics. Speakers included renowned veterinarians who discussed foot-related health problems.
Smith is also president of the American Farriers Education Council (AFEC). The volunteer group's goal is to address minimum standards at farrier schools. Smith says that the AFEC has tried to create a standard exit exam for schools and develop minimum requirements for teaching such topics as anatomy and lameness.
Not all schools are alike. Smith recommends checking out a prospective school thoroughly and not choosing one based solely on geographic location.
Magazines, websites, and videos also can help farriers. For example, the American Farriers Journal publishes eight issues a year full of articles geared toward farriers. Its website, www.american farriers.org, includes videos on shoeing topics.
Continuing education can include keeping skills sharp and improving them via certification exams. Gregory is a Certified Journeyman Farrier, which means he has passed a series of exams given by the American Farrier's Association. To become an AFA CJF (American Farriers Association Certified Journeyman Farrier), a farrier must have at least two years of shoeing experience, pass written and practical tests, and forge a specific bar shoe within a certain time limit.
Although most American farriers stick with participating in exams and forging contests based in the United States, Gregory has pursued his education beyond this country. He has competed in Canadian contests, and he is a Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Farriers, a London-based organization established in 1356.
While it might seem that farrier work keeps you in shape, Smith warns that part of being a good farrier involves staying fit and healthy.
"You need to keep your abs and hamstrings in shape to support your back," says Smith. "A physical therapist once did a study that found that farriers' abs and hamstrings can get really loose. They are what support the small of your back."
Farriers whose backs don't remain strong might find themselves out of business. Staying fit will allow you to shoe horses for more years.
"Working with horses, you have to be an athlete," says Smith. "If you let yourself go physically, you're going to have more difficulty."
Becoming a farrier requires horsemanship skills and the self-discipline to run your own business. Although you can learn by apprenticing to a journeyman farrier, most people attend one of the many horseshoeing schools around the country. Once you have completed your training, strive to upgrade your skills through experience and continuing education, which can include seminars, exams, publications, and online resources. Staying physically fit will help you prolong your career.
About the Author
Tracy Gantz is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She is the Southern California correspondent for The Blood-Horse and a regular contributor to Paint Horse Journal, Paint Racing News, and Appaloosa Journal.