Dear Friends and Partners:
We have horseshoes. Lots of them. There are buckets and random piles around the shop, barn, and equipment sheds. And I’m not even counting the countless ones left up in the alpine goat-rocks of the Hat Creek Ranges. Often, we’ll find hand-forged ones up there, nearly a hundred years old, left by cowboys long gone by.
We do have a few of the new gray ones like you’d find in a feed store. These are the ones from St. Croix Forge or another maker that are still unused; they are shelved by size for the different size feet of the horses we ride. But there’s not many of those. Most of the ones on the ranch look quite different.
Some show the shiny veneer of steel before it rusts. Some are mottled with rust or all the way red. Others are missing a quarter to half inch of their original thickness, worn by countless miles on the rocks and gravels of the Rocky Mountains. We keep them in buckets when we take them off the horses in the fall. Occasionally someone will want a bunch of them for a project.
I’ve taken many of these formerly stiff and unbendable except by hammer on anvil steel shoes and bent and broken them with my bare hands—so worn thin they are. Some still have a twisted stub of a nail in them—it is what remains of a City Head #5. Nails by that description are the preferred size to tap into the hardened hoof wall for our country—they are sized to fit perfectly, or nearly so in the pre-made hole on the horseshoe, making them unobtrusively countersunk.
Their conformation prevents us catching nails on rocks—or cobblestones of city streets from centuries of use in pre-automobile western societies from Europe to the New World. They are “City Head” by name only for us—a vestigial reminder of a horse and human culture that was ubiquitous just over a 100 years ago.
You want those nails to stay in. Otherwise, the shoe may be lost. And a barefoot horse can easily be rendered lame in the shale and shelf of the peaks and valleys we traverse horseback. There’s the old adage:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the battle was lost.
From loss of the battle, a war was lost.
We’re not quite fighting a war on the Hat Creek Ranges, but sometimes the adversity of living and working in a brittle and brutal natural environment can certainly feel like it. It’s why we literally have humans crack up there. I’ve seen both men and women cry on several occasions.
But the horses and cattle don’t cry. They, I think are more stoic about it all than we are. For instance, I don’t think they really care when the wolves howl all around camp in the middle of a pitch-black night.
But humans do.
Do people have it tougher than the cattle and horses? That may be. Think about it. Fact is that humans are “low slave” on the totem pole. Our job is to serve the beeves, the horses, and the land we live and work on with the very best of care. To leave the land better than when we came. And to have the horses and cattle be in better shape than the day before.
Humans not so much. Don’t get me wrong; I’m always monitoring to make sure everyone is happy in the backcountry on the range. The work is hard, unrelenting, and exhausting, but we always have fun (sometimes you don’t realize the adversity was fun until off the range back at headquarters, and the happy is deep—not flippantly superficial). If range riders are not having fun, or the humor becomes expensive, it’s time to intervene, and maybe encourage someone to leave if they don’t think the work is a fit.
So, horse trumps human. And their feet need cautious care. I found a horseshoe high up on the range in the rocks a few days ago. Its worn and thin frame was twisted, likely caught on a rock as the wearer lost it. It was a freshly lost shoe, probably over the last few days, and un-rusted. I think it might have been the one lost by Gatto, Melanie’s solid-as-a-rock gelding. She texted me via satellite phone a few days prior: “Gatto is missing a front. Can you buzz up on the dirt bike and put a new one on?”
Gatto is a peach to shoe. He used to be a completely recalcitrant butthead, but Melanie and I am realizing now that it was because the farrier (another word for horseshoer) we used on him several years ago was impatient and sent Gatto’s sensitive mind into predator vs prey panic mode.
Turns out that farrier may have been a recalcitrant butthead.
“SONOFABEECH!” he would often say while shoeing our many horses. We let him go, despite his being journeyman expert of 40 years of shoeing experience and his speed on getting the job done (speed is a huge factor in keeping horses comfortable and unstressed).
I can get by with horseshoeing, but physics enters in via a pain in my back generated by leverage over my entire six-foot six frame. The best farriers, or horseshoers are compact-framed guys and gals with tremendous upper leg, core, and arm strength. Pretty much iron—but wiry iron seems to be more conducive to the responsiveness needed in a good farrier than just pig iron.
What that means is that it can’t be dumb iron. The strength of a farrier must be reflexive, responsive to feeling the horse above them. With a combination of muscle memory, strength, and a keen understanding of equine mind, a good shoe wielder can get the job done quickly.
Even when lead rope is loosely looped over a tree branch in the backcountry on a steep sidehill above cow camp.
The seven City Head #5s are all in a row, ready for rapid deployment, slipped in between two layers of worn of weathered leather on my chaps. Number eight is inserted in my mouth, ready for quickdraw. The chaps do more than hold nails. Last time I shoed, I forgot my heavy leather chaps. Ouch. Horse pulls back before all eight emergent razor-sharp nail heads are properly clinched and tucked back into the sidewall of foot, and denim and flesh are both ripped wide open. More of my blood on these Hat Creek soils.
As I type this, I note several a long-healed grooves running all the way down the back of my hand. There’s a name of a horse associated with each of them. Sally; Shadow; Missy. The horses are long gone; some over 25 years so. But their marks remain where they pulled nail-studded hoof out of my hand.
Farriers have the same scars. It’s a coming-of-age bloodletting as they learn. Day after day, they shoe. They can make surprisingly good money for their risky, potentially body breaking ventures. A really good one can pull off 10 horses a day: that’s over $1000 in our country at $110 per head. But the question is, can they do it the next day? Or is there so much muscle and back fatigue and likely pain from getting kicked several times? Or are they still healing from being bitten in the back or butt while under a horse, tacking nails in while hoof rests between farrier’s bent legs?
I remember back a few decades. It was hot, and I was learning from Ron, former owner of the first ranch we took on. The sweat was stinging my eyes, and my back was pressed against the back of a gray mare. Ron was a patient teacher. The only problem was that the highly educated and matronly smart mare, Sally, was not. I was trying to clinch those nails before she pulled and was just barely learning to anticipate her jerking of leg by tightening my knee-grip on the foot I worked on in reflex to the start of a muscle twinge on her part.
Ron held her head by halter. He knew her mind better than I ever would and anticipated her rebellious thoughts. “Sally. You be good now.”
“How long you been shoeing, Ron?” I measured out between my sweat drip and breaths from work I was unused to and not physically designed and destined for.
“Long as I can remember. I first started shoeing when the going rate was a buck a horse…then, like back in the 40s, I thought I was makin’ really good money when I was getting a buck a foot! It just went from 2 bits [25 cents] a foot to 1 buck! I was a cuttin’ a fat hog, then, Glenn!”
I knew he was being facetious.
The reality was that even today’s good farriers don’t get paid enough.
I was working with Curtis Koeppen, our current farrier, holding a horse for him. It was Tari, son-in-law Ethan’s quarter horse mare. She had a little “pigeon toe” going on, a fault in her front leg confirmation, or bone structure that turned her toes in over her winter barefoot. In addition, she was missing a huge piece of sidewall on her hoof, caught and broken off like a sheared toenail on a rock or something.
“Can you correct her so she don’t go any farther south, Curtis?”
“I think I can. It’s gonna take a bit.”
I switched out with Linnaea and ran off to do some chores.
In another hour I was back, and he was finishing up with Tari. The front feet were perfect, turned slightly out just as if God had swept in and healed this mare completely. I bent down in the dirt, gravel, and foot trimmings to see what had transpired. And then I noticed that Curtis had built up a beautiful epoxy resin side of the foot and nailed the shoe to it. It was a perfect facsimile for a side of a perfectly formed equine foot. From more than 2 feet away, you couldn’t tell the difference.
Tari would crawl with that fake foot sidewall through canyons, crash her way through dead and down timber and climb her way to the top of mountain peaks over the summer that followed. She would walk at least 500 miles on that foot before shoe fell off or was replaced.
Curtis just might be worth quite a bit more than that $1000 per day. After all, he keeps our best partners alive and well. Dear reader, please don’t tell him that. It might get to his head.
And those new shiny iron shoes nailed to a freshly trimmed foot? What is a horse thinking? With many horses, I think they’ve figured it out. I know ours have.
I’m back in cow camp now, in deep Douglas-fir pine-needle duff under a big corky-barked tree, listening to the morning breeze caress the verdant rustling crown. As I touched the hair of Gatto’s lower leg with a tap of my finger, he artfully lifted leg and hoof and placed it perfectly into my waiting hand.
He knew he needed that shoe where he would be going.
And I was glad to nail one on.
As a young teenager attending a boy’s camp in the NC mountains I spent a lot of time on horseback during three or four of my summers there. I learned much about horses, how to work with the individual quirks of the 10 or 12 horses there, and even shoveled stalls. I remember the first time I watched a farrier as he spent a day pulling off old shoes, expertly trimming and rasping the hooves, custom shaping some of the new shoes, and nailing them to place. He shoed maybe 10 horses that day, and I stayed around for the whole thing. The guy was good, but it looked to me like hard work. That experience was quite memorable and has remained lodged in my brain for about 60 years now. I’m still amazed at how the horse can be coaxed to lift a leg and then stand there (usually) while that process, which surely must be annoying to the animal, is administered. So I truly enjoyed reading your wonderful account of caring for the feet of your mounts.
You don’t think of all of the details that go into all that you do. It’s not like machinery where you change out a few worn items and go, your live machinery requires much more tenderness and thought as to not stress the horses and I can’t imagine how hard it is on your own body to bend over to change a tire/ horseshoe and that’s if the horse is willing. I truly love hearing how all of it comes into play like a finely tuned instrument.