Shoeing horses isn't easy. To do the job correctly, a farrier has to have an understanding of equine leg and hoof anatomy; knowledge of the biomechanics of these structures; enough biology knowledge to understand how the horse's soft tissues grow, do their jobs, and heal from injury; metalworking skill to create or modify shoes as needed; and the practice necessary to combine all of this knowledge to produce properly shod, comfortable horses.
The farrier's trade isn't one that's learned overnight. A good farrier has put a lot of careful study, practice, and dedication into learning his trade, and that's the person you want to work on your horses.
But how can you tell if a farrier really knows his/her business? First, you need an understanding of what a good farrier needs to know, and what makes a good shoeing job (so you can recognize a bad one). Then, you can talk to your farrier about his training and his work. Ideally, you'll also be able to discuss what he's doing with your horse and why in order to further your own hoof care education.
Anatomy and Physiology
"The very most important thing is anatomy," says Chris Gregory, Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Farriers, Certified Journeyman Farrier (CJF), and owner of the Heartland Horseshoeing School in Lamar, Mo. "If you don't have a thorough understanding of the hoof and limb, your shoeing decisions will be flawed."
Mitch Taylor, CJF, owner of the Kentucky Horseshoeing School in Mt. Eden, Ky., head of the American Farrier's Association (AFA) Education Committee, and past president of the Registered Professional Farrier Educators organization, agrees with this principle. "It's really important that a farrier be someone who understands the biomechanics of the lower leg, because we're always adjusting angles, weights, etc.," he explains. "It's essential for every farrier to understand the function of the lower leg and foot. To understand biomechanics, you first have to learn anatomy. It's also important to know anatomy so you can understand just what's happening in a problem foot. And if you have a diagnosis of a problem from the veterinarian, you need to know what you can change to fix it."
Anatomy is thus the logical first portion of most farriery courses. For example, Taylor's students (in a four-month course) will do four or five leg dissections apiece and must know "all bones and joints from the knee/hock down, all tendons and ligaments, all soft tissues, and all cartilages so they know all structures of the foot inside and out." These necropsy specimens include normal feet and legs and those with a host of problems, from laminitis to underrun heels to fractures. Thus the students learn about many lower leg and foot problems from the inside as well as the outside.
As with horse owners, there is a mixture of horsemanship skills among farrier students. While some might be "horse whisperers," others might be a little less savvy about handling horses. Rather than having instructional time set aside for teaching horsemanship, most schools find that the students pick up the horsemanship skills they need through hands-on experience.
"We'll discuss behavioral characteristics of horses, how they learn, how they see, and talk a lot about instincts," says Taylor. "We'll also discuss specifics like how to tie a horse properly and release him quickly. But I've found it really hard to find books that teach horsemanship skills; they have to learn it hands-on. If I have a situation with a problem horse, I'll gather the students around and discuss it with them, and demonstrate how to best handle that kind of problem."
He adds that it isn't the farrier's job to risk his life to shoe a problem horse, nor is it his job to train a horse to stand for a farrier. That is the owner's job.
Many people still call farriers blacksmiths, referencing past times when the people who shod your horse specialized in metal work, not just horseshoeing. Today many farriers are horseshoers first and metalworkers second, but forge work is still an essential part of the trade even though machine-made shoes have reduced most farriers' time at the forge.
"Handmades are important in my mind, so you can deal with any foot on any horse," says Gregory. Making shoes from scratch (bar stock) is more difficult than modifying machine-made (or ready-made) shoes, but hand-making a shoe can provide a fully customized shoe for any individual foot. "My students spend about 20 hours a week outside of class in the forge learning to make shoes," he adds.
Taylor also emphasizes shoe-making skill. "We can pretty well modify keg shoes (factory shoes) to handle most situations, but some situations need custom-built shoes," he says. "In my four-month course, students will learn how to make, from bar stock, plain stamped shoes that fit the feet. In the final week a student will make about 20 different types of shoes, including shoes from bar stock and modified ready-made shoes. They have to test out with handmades to get a diploma."
Practicing on Horses
Once the basics of anatomy and forge work are learned, trimming and shoeing live horses begins. Demonstrations by instructors are the beginning, followed by supervised practice and more demonstrations as students' skills improve. Often, the horses are clients' horses which are brought to the school for low-cost shoeing jobs. In this manner, students are exposed to a wide variety of horses, feet, and clients.
Gregory's courses involve about 45 hours per week shoeing horses under his supervision. Taylor notes that shoeing clients' horses allows the students to experience real situations under supervision, thus helping them learn to handle clients and horses the right way.
"I had one owner who brought a pony in here and wanted a long foot on him," he recalls. "The students were afraid to tell her she was wrong, so I went over and nipped down the feet to where they should be, explaining to her why the length of foot she wanted was bad for the horse (the frogs were atrophied with severe thrush). So it ended up being a learning experience for both her and the students--she now saw why that foot length was bad, and the students learned that sometimes you need to educate the clients as to what's best for the horse rather than just doing what they think they want." As with many fields, farriers are taught that a more educated customer is a better customer.
Once farriers have graduated from a program, they can further prove their skills with farrier certification. Certification by the AFA (which is voluntary) has been held up by some as a credential one should require of a farrier in the United States. The certification program has been in place for about 25 years, and Taylor explains that the program recognizes "a standard level of skill, where a farrier is judged by peers to be able to shoe horses safely and balanced."
While certification recognizes that a farrier has demonstrated skill that holds up to peer review, that doesn't mean that non-certified farriers are bad; just that they haven't taken (not necessarily bad) or haven't passed (possibly a red flag) the certification test. The AFA Certified Farrier (CF) test is the first level of AFA certification, followed by the Certified Journeyman Farrier (CJF) test and the therapeutic endorsement. (Intern certification is available as an apprentice-level certification.)
Certification by the AFA isn't easy; the CF test has about a 15% initial pass rate, mainly from lack of preparation, says Taylor. The next step up, the CJF test, is a rigorous testing procedure that many don't pass on the first try. Beyond CJF certification, a farrier in the United States can work toward a therapeutic shoeing endorsement.
"All testing is voluntary, so if a farrier cares enough to do that--which won't make him any more money--it's because he has a desire to improve," says Gregory. "That desire is usually one of the most critical factors in determining whether someone will be a good shoer. Most bad shoeing is ignorance, not malice."
Rather than simply being a harsh examination agency, the AFA makes an effort to help farriers pass these exams and thereby improve the level of horseshoeing in the United States. "The mission of the AFA's educational committee is to educate farriers to be able to pass the certification exams," says Taylor, who now holds two-day courses that are designed to help farriers pass the certification exams.
"These are intensive two-day workshops, focusing on anatomy and plain balanced shoeing with an 80-page workbook, for which we're getting rave reviews," he says. "It's different than most clinics, which are basically just demonstrations. Our clinics are held to under 12 people with two instructors." Gregory's school also offers a five-day certification preparation course with certification testing following.
Taylor notes that owners can contact the AFA (or use their "Find a Farrier" tool online) and ask for a list of CFs and/or CJFs in their area if they choose. "If a farrier isn't a CJF, that doesn't mean he isn't a good farrier; but CJFs have demonstrated the highest U.S. level of competence," he says.
Certification via other associations (or membership when demonstrated skill is a membership requirement) is available, though less common. See the Further Resources section for information on the Guild of Professional Farriers and Brotherhood of Working Farriers.
All Schools Aren't Equal
Unfortunately, just because a farrier went to school doesn't mean that he's ready to shoe horses professionally. Gregory and Taylor both believe that there are more bad farrier schools (those that turn out farriers with what they consider inadequate skill) than good ones. "The longer the school, generally the better they are," opines Taylor. "In my opinion, a three- to four-month course is minimal.
"Some schools out there say they can produce a professional farrier in three weeks, who will shoe 50 horses during his training," he continues. "My four-month guys can shoe maybe three horses a day properly. In three weeks, my guys are just learning how to trim broodmares. There's no way they (students in a three-week course) can shoe all those horses and learn all the anatomy, too.
"You want to really be careful of a farrier who's gone to only a two-week course," warns Taylor. "I have one (at my school), but it's for owners to understand basic and emergency foot care such as pulling shoes and nailing back on a shoe when the farrier is unavailable. Some people tell clients they have graduated from horseshoeing school, but if they've only taken a short program, they haven't really learned enough. Then they're just learning on the job."
Also, some schools tend to pass all or nearly all of their students, earning a reputation in some circles as "diploma mills." As previously stated, it takes lots of knowledge and practice to become a good farrier; not every student will have what it takes to become a skilled farrier, so it would be expected that some would fail.
Remember, just because a farrier says he went to school doesn't mean he's fully proficient at shoeing, although it's certainly a step in the right direction. A diploma from one of the longer farriery programs, ideally from a school that is widely recognized as one that turns out good farriers, is preferable to one from a "short course."
Gregory's school offers programs that last two, four, and six months. "The only reason I have the two-month course is for people who can't afford more," he says. "The four-month course will be that much better, with students shoeing more horses, making more handmades, and handling a much harder project list, such as making heart-bar instead of straight-bar shoes. The six-month course is for training journeymen--those who want to be the best."
What to Look For
If you're not a farrier, then you likely don't know quite what to look for in a shoeing job. Why would you? It's not your profession, and you probably don't intend for it to be. However, there are a few ways you can help ensure that your horse gets top-quality farrier care.
Educate yourself on the horse's foot, lower limb, and hoof balance. An owner educated in podiatry has a much better idea of what a properly balanced foot should look like than one who never takes a critical look at his/her horse's feet. Knowing what is right, in general terms, can help you identify problems such as loose shoes or underrun heels so you can get farrier help as soon as possible. "People can get blinded by a pretty, polished shoeing job that's not even balanced," says Taylor. But pretty isn't necessarily what's good for the horse.
Several universities and farrier schools offer short courses and/or clinics tailored to non-farriers who want to better understand how the foot works. Some of these can be found in the Events section at www.The Horse.com. Additionally, "Owners should ride with a farrier for a day if they can, and attend owner clinics, because if you don't know what you're looking for, you can't judge it," says Gregory.
Another educational resource is the AFA's "Evaluating Horseshoeing" online at www.americanfarriers.org/horse_owners/evaluating_horseshoeing.aspx.
Pick your farrier's brain during his/her visits. What better resource can you find for hoof information? Your farrier can not only explain the structure and function of your horse's feet and shoes, but he can also show you, on your horse, just what he's talking about. Most farriers are happy to explain hoof and shoeing concepts to you because the better you know feet, the better you can take care of them, and the better feet the farrier will have to work with.
Ask your farrier about his/her training. If a farrier doesn't want to discuss his or her training, then that could be a serious red flag. Someone who is properly trained will have no reservations about discussing his or her education with you. If a farrier seems evasive about training, but mentions a school's name, then you can contact that school to verify that he or she received a diploma from that school.
Additionally, if your farrier is involved in continuing education, your questions might just spark a discussion of what he just learned.
Standardized training and certification are not absolute requirements for a person to be a good farrier. There are those who, entirely through informal training, have become masters of the trade. However, school education and certification are the only standard benchmarks by which most U.S. horse owners can estimate their farriers' skills. So, along with your own hoof care education, these benchmarks are good tools for getting the best possible hoof care for your horse.
About the Author
Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
POLL: University Equine Hospitals