I’m nearly ready to begin writing my new novel in which horses will figure prominently. To that end, I’m venturing back to the eighteen hundreds to see what I can learn about expert horse shoers or farriers as they are known. 

(Please enjoy this Wellspring Podcast of Shoeing Horses)

Because of the typical movie depiction of blacksmiths, I presumed that all blacksmiths shoed horses. Today, one individual is seldom both farrier and blacksmith. In earlier times, many (but not all) village blacksmiths took great pride in their ability to master both arts. Shoeing horses accounted for a large portion many blacksmiths’ businesses. In nearby Pickering Village, the 1800s blacksmith shop could produce 200 horse shoes in one day. edited horse foot collage Before veterinarians became more commonplace in the late eighteen hundreds, the farrier also diagnosed and treated horse disease and illness. He played a preventative role by watching for signs of lameness and intervening to halt their progress. His profession required a commanding knowledge of horse-limb anatomy, and the skill to craft corrective horseshoes that offset the effects of injury. A corrective horseshoe can also improve a horse’s gait, much like today’s orthotics for people. In the wild or in a grassy meadow, horse hooves in their natural state match the demands placed upon them. The use of horses on hard ground and cobblestone paving resulted in hoof damage such as erosion and cracking. Horses used primarily for road travel needed regularly scheduled reshoeing.

right sized Farrier_toolslabled
Farrier tools (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

The farrier first uses a pair of large pincers to remove the current shoes from the horse’s hooves. “Hygiene is extremely important, especially when animals are somewhat confined and continually walking over the same ground where they urinate and defecate,” says Walter Fuermann, a farrier certified by the American Farrier’s Association. Another important step, therefore, is to clean the feet and cut out excess hoof walls, dead sole and frog tissue.

After each foot is cleaned a searcher, paring knife, and rasp is used to trim the hoof. Horse hooves are constantly growing and in need of trimming and inspection.

The farrier fits the new shoe to the hoof, making necessary adjustments to the shoe by heating it in the forge and reshaping it at the anvil. He attaches the shoe by hammering nails through the nonsensitive part of the hoof. A miscalculation on his part can result in a nail jabbing into the tender portion of the foot and lameness will follow. Each nail, once in place, will protrude through the hoof. The farrier will trap the excess length of nail in the claw end of his hammer, and with a sharp twist, the end is bent back against the hoof to hold the shoe securely in place. The work is finished with a light rasping along the edges of the hoof. Shoeing was made easier when the horses were perfectly still. Some older workhorses, however, could develop “greasy leg”, a condition that resulted in excessive twitching and restlessness. The torment of buzzing flies were the bane of the farrier’s existance.

men outside backsmith shop
Men outside black smith shop: Ottawa, year unknown (Photo credit: William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada)

With these challenges in mind, I searched a list of era appropriate safety practices for farriers and their assistants.

  1. The farrier should work in an area spacious enough for himself, an assistant, and the horse (minimum 18x20ft). There should always be a route of escape open to the horse in case it gets upset.
  2. Always focus your attention on the horse and the shoeing process. Don’t call out to passersby or other people in the barn. Dogs should be kept away from the space.
  3. Be sure to use a property fitted halter. Maintain a firm grip on the lead rope, allowing just the right amount of slack so you can readily control the horse’s movements. If you hold too tightly, the horse will rebel against the restricted range of motion.
  4. Wear gloves to avoid rope burn if the horse yanks its head back and the rope slides through your hands.
  5. A horse should never be cross-tied for shoeing unless the horse has pulling issues and the farrier is in agreement with the strategy.
  6. It is important to keep the horse’s head up for a variety of reasons. First, when the head is down the farrier must bear more weight. Also, a lowered head is a signal that you don’t have a safe grip on the lead line. Lastly, a lowered head can result in a startled horse which increases the risk of injury to the horse and the farrier.
  7. Ask the farrier where he would like you to stand and never turn your back to the horse.
  8. If a horse is startled, it will tend to move away from its handler. For this reason, you should stand next to the horse’s shoulder and on the same side the farrier is working. Do not stand in front of the horse.
  9. Refrain from the temptation to groom the horse one the farrier has begun his work..
  10. Shoo flies away and discourage them from landing on the horse while the farrier is working.
  11. If the horse becomes anxious, soothe it with a gentle voice and a light touch.
  12. Placement of a companion in a neighbouring stall can have a calming influence. Also effective is another person holding a second force with in the view of your horse.
  13. Avoid shoeing a horse close to its usual feeding time. The horse’s distracted focus can make it challenging to work with.
  14. Unless the farrier asks you to distract the horse with food, don’t feed the horse while he is working.
  15. The farrier’s job will be made easier if the horse is standing squarely on the hooves not being shoed at that moment.
  16. Some horses will want to nuzzle or nibble at the farrier’s clothing, while others will nip and bite, so be sure to direct the horse’s mouth away from the farrier.
  17. Before the shoeing process begins, determine who will discipline the horse — yourself or the farrier. Otherwise, warn the farrier when you are about to scold the horse and he should do likewise. This will avoid injury to either party in the event that the horse jumps unexpectedly in reaction to the reprimand.
  18. Restrain the horse from running past the farrier because a kick could be deadly.

References: American Farriers Journal Old Horseshoes by Ivan G. Sparkes The Village Blacksmith by Jocelyn Bailey https://www.ecirhorse.org

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