Should Farriers be Licensed?

Horseshoers (farriers) in the United States have long practiced with no regulation and only voluntary certification, but some in the industry think that will--and should--change soon. An American Farrier's Association (AFA) task force presented a proposal to the AFA Board of Directors in late February on this issue, and that proposal has generated an explosion of controversy.

"Our charge was to evaluate the current status of farrier education in the United States and to look at the issue of farrier licensing or registration," stated an introductory note in the report. "These issues have suddenly become critical to the future of farrier work in the United States, due to the emergence of legal restrictions on farriers in several states."

The report cited as examples veterinary practice acts in Florida and Arizona that state or imply that professional health care work (including farriery) on animals is within the realm of veterinary medicine. This opens the door for legal action against farriers providing hoof care in those states, which understandably causes a lot of concern for farriers throughout the country.

What's the Problem?

Many have said that one of the strongest forces behind the legislation and the movement toward licensing is an increasing frequency of poor hoof care by inadequately educated or “bad” farriers and the resulting lameness and owner dissatisfaction. People on both sides of the issue agree that many farrier courses are too short and don't provide enough education and practice for a student to be a proficient, professional farrier immediately upon graduation. Another issue many agree on is that owners today often want more accountability for a professional's work than in years past.

"With many owners, when you talk about licensing, the first words out of their mouths are, 'What, they're not? They ought to be, they take care of my horse's most prized possession--his feet!' states AFA Executive Director Bryan Quinsey.

"This situation is largely the result of our own lack of uniform standards of education and practice and the loss of confidence in farriers, as a group, by much of the horse industry. We owe it to our profession to raise it once again," noted the task force report.

But not everyone thinks there is a problem with the farriery profession in the United States that needs fixing--just legal issues that need to be rectified. "I don't see more owners being upset at quality," says Henry Heymering, AFA Certified Journeyman Farrier, president of the Guild of Professional Farriers (GPF) and a Registered Master Farrier of the Guild. "Quality has continued to improve year by year. But I think (the laws including farriery under veterinary medicine) are outrageous.

"If we had licensing, it (farriery being considered veterinary medicine in some states) would still be the case unless the law changed," adds Heymering.

Ralph Casey, president of the Brotherhood of Working Farriers Association (BWFA), says, "This isn't the AFA's view, it's a handful of their leaders' view. They are trying to use a scare tactic. Licensing won't help anything, it will drive up prices and hurt horses and owners in the long run. You can't expect someone to protect everything. There's a lot of bad (farriery) that goes on, but a lot of good, too. You can still get ripped off by a licensed plumber or electrician just as easy as an unlicensed one."

Improving Farrier Education

The AFA task force found that there are currently at least 65 farrier schools in North America, with 11 associated with a university or community college. The first goal of the AFA proposal is to survey all North American farrier schools to document the quality of instruction, instructors, and facilities available; the survey (to be developed by a new task force responsible only for the survey, not licensing recommendations) is targeted to commence in July.

For now, however, there currently is no minimum standard for farrier education; schools range from distance learning to two-day short courses to full-time programs spanning up to six months. "Raising the minimum standard (of farriery practice) goes back to the educational component," states Quinsey.

Also, many farriers currently practicing didn't go to any farrier school, and a large percentage of those who did quit the business within a short period of time.

"Many practicing farriers have little (in terms of education)--they don't have to!" Quinsey says. "They can buy supplies, print business cards, and say, 'I'm a professional farrier.' "

"I hope (licensing) would give owners a better sense that they're working with a professional," says Quinsey. "When you get your hair cut or your teeth cleaned, those people are licensed. Why would you consider having work done on your horse, a valuable commodity, by someone with no credentials?"

"We can do a lot with schools to produce students that remain in the business," says Heymering. "There are lots of schools where 95-97% of graduates aren't practicing after six months. Out of my class with 63 students, to the best of my knowledge only three of us were still shoeing six months later.

"I would love to know the percentage of students staying in business (from different schools)," he continues. "Then find out why--curriculum, teachers, both, what? That would give you a reality-based thing for someone to decide which school to go to.

"I think the idea of accrediting schools is a good idea," he adds. "Any sort of certification for individuals or schools is good so the public has some idea of the standards a group or school has."

However, Heymering thinks this might not be the AFA's responsibility. "Education is good, but I don't know that it's the job of the association. The veterinary/medical associations, they don't--it's not their job to educate," he says.

He adds that one problem with some farrier certifications is that there is currently no continuing education (CE) requirement, but Quinsey notes that the AFA is already trying to increase education of their members by instituting a continuing education requirement of 24 hours in two years to maintain certification status, effective July 1.

"The AFA doesn’t believe licensing is the solution. Education is," says Quinsey. "Licensing just comes with it. A change in educational requirements is what's really going to make a difference.”

He said licensing can also encourage farriers to keep educating themselves to provide better service, such as by requiring continuing education. “Professionals need to invest in themselves," says Quinsey.

"If the owner has some means of knowing who has qualifications and who doesn't, that would be good," suggests Heymering.

Casey also believes that farrier education needs more study. "A lot of what we (farriers) do is just the same way our dads and mentors did it," he says. "We need to study the horse more, and the effects of shoeing, before we even think about regulating things."

Why License?

Licensing proponents claim that the goal of farrier education revamping and licensing/registration is to raise the level of professionalism and practice in the U.S. farrier industry by creating a minimum standard of practice that currently doesn't exist. They also claim that the main beneficiary of such an industry change is the horse, which will get a better standard of care. "Liability and insurance coverage might be easier for farriers to obtain under a licensing system," says Quinsey.

The problems with relying on individual farriers and owners for top hoof care, as is done now, are that not all farriers do good work (as in all professions), and not all owners (perhaps even very few) know how to evaluate that work to select a competent farrier. Licensing, or requiring a certain minimum standard of competence of every farrier, would give some proof of minimum competence before work is done on a horse. In an ideal world, it would avoid making the horse-owning public weed out bad farriers after poor work or even damage to their horses.

Why Not to License?

Licensing "may seem to be an attractive idea, but in fact I don't think it will do anything to improve quality," says Heymering. "There are lots of good things to do without getting government regulation and licensing."

"This is one of the few free trades left in America, and we want to see it stay that way," states Casey. "Licensing would only hurt the horse industry and farriers. It's one of the biggest mistakes we could make. It would be like trying to enforce people driving cars; there are lots of cops and still a whole lot of speeding and drunk driving. People will break the law regardless. Giving a person a license does not make him honest."

Many licensing opponents have argued that an AFA push for licensing or registration is nothing but an attempt to create a money-making bureaucracy to benefit the AFA. They also state that you can't legislate professional work; the responsibility for good hoof care lies with each individual farrier and horse owner, not a regulatory body.

Both opponents and proponents have questions about the licensing approach.  These include:

  • How it would be administered (i.e., by associations, state governments, or federal government);
  • How it would be enforced;
  • How much it would cost the farrier and subsequently the horse owner;
  • Whether the minimum standard would be truly indicative of competence, i.e., what minimum skills will be required;
  • Whether uniform testing will stifle innovation in farriery;
  • How examination will be administered and kept consistent; and
  • How the transition to the new system will be made (the grandfathering of existing farriers).

"Enforcement would be a huge challenge," says Heymering, noting that in some rural parts of Scotland, there is not enough work to require someone to have any particular skill level and owners in that region are "lucky to get anyone at all. Someone certified won't go there, they'll go to a thicker market. This is not a helpful thing to the owner.”

Another concern is market management. With licensing, Heymering notes, "Rather than the market controlling how many (farriers) are needed and sorting it out by supply and demand, you get schools producing X number, and they recently have produced too many. In the UK, they are now producing too few. It works much better when supply and demand run things.

"I think people get a false sense of security from licensing," he adds.

Testing Farriers

Regarding testing, "If you have a minimum skills test, certainly you have people that can pass it, but that doesn't mean they'll use that quality in daily work," says Heymering. He adds that even though testing is not designed to codify how each horse should be trimmed/shod in the future, "it becomes that, no matter how much they say that's not it. People practice for a year or years to pass the test, so it becomes their day-to-day practice. It's not the intention, but that's how it ends up."

He also believes that uniform testing will stifle innovation. For example, "The AFA test for certification is a perimeter fit; because of that the AFA as a whole has pretty well rejected natural balance type shoeing, and I think it's a big mistake," he states.

Who Would Do It?

Yet another wrinkle is that there are three different farrier organizations certifying ability in the United States (the AFA, the Brotherhood of Working Farriers Association, and the Guild of Professional Farriers Association). The number of U.S. farriers is unknown, but the task force report cited published estimates of 35,000-50,000.

The AFA is the only organization discussing enhanced farrier education requirements as a possible foundation for licensing. The other two oppose licensing. There are several thousand farriers who are unaffiliated with any organization and thus have no unified voice either way. And the argument over who would best administer farrier regulation and certification if it were to become reality is a hot one.

"I don't think any of the farrier organizations are qualified to regulate the industry (on a state or national basis)," Casey states. "I think we could regulate ourselves if we do it right. We just need to sit down together and check our egos at the door."

Another facet of the association issue is that some have claimed the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP, veterinarians) is pushing for licensing of farriers. However, the AAEP has stated unequivocally that as an organization it has not discussed getting involved with farrier licensing, and that it has no intention of doing so.

Regarding which farrier association(s) should handle the issue, Quinsey of the AFA says, "We want to bring as many players to the table as we can to even formulate the school survey. If no one else wants to lead this, we will. Both other organizations are clear that they don't want this, and obviously we differ.

"The key is to always do things for the benefit of the horse, not the organization," adds Quinsey. "Right now there are many unanswered questions. Every time you turn a corner and think you have an answer, another question pops up. Where the AFA is on this, we don't know. But we want to study the issue.

"No one is saying they know how regulation will occur, but this is something that a lot of guys expect is going to happen one way or another," he adds. "How it happens and comes together is the important factor. No one wants more government intervention. If it's going to happen, there needs to be input from the farrier industry."

What's Next?

The AFA will next select the new task force to create the farrier school survey for mailing in July. Survey results will be collected and released, and any additional action will be determined by the AFA Board of Directors.

To voice your opinions on this issue, e-mail the AFA at info@americanfarriers.org, and/or email The Horse at letters@TheHorse.com.

Further Reading

AFA Task Force Report: www.americanfarriers.org/FarrierEducation/PDFS/special_report_02233005.pdf
More information: www.americanfarriers.org

Discussion Forums:

See the Farrier Regulation topic at http://www.lesspub.com/cgi-bin/site.pl?431&cgBoard_boardID=1, and http://www.horseshoes.com/forums/showthread.php?t=880.

About the Author

Christy M. West

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.

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