Medium 9781574414615

Confessions of a Horseshoer

By: Ron Tatum
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Confessions of a Horseshoer offers a close and personal look at the mind-set of a professional horseshoer (farrier) who also happens to be a college professor. The book, an ironic and playful view of the many unusual animals (and people) Ron Tatum has encountered over thirty-seven years, is nicely balanced between straightforward presentation, self-effacing humor, and lightly seasoned wisdom. It captures the day-to-day life of a somewhat cantankerous old guy, who has attitude and strong opinions. Throughout the book, Tatum ponders the causes that led him into the apparently opposing worlds of horseshoeing, with its mud, pain, and danger, and the bookish life of a college professor. He tells the reader that it is his hope that writing the book will help him understand this apparent paradox between the physical and the mental. Tatum provides a detailed description of the horseshoeing process, its history, and why horses need shoes in the first place. The reader will learn about the dangers of shoeing horses in "Injuries I Have Known," in which Tatum describes one particular self-inflicted injury that he claims no other horseshoer has ever, or will ever, experience. "Eight Week Syndrome" demonstrates the close, often therapeutic, relationship between the horseshoer and his or her customers. Tatum relates the story of an old Wyoming cowboy who could talk with horses, and consistently cure their injuries, lameness, and other physical problems after the veterinarians had given up. The humor in the chapters on chickens and rabbits will entertain any reader, as well as the sections on various dogs, ducks, llamas, goats, flies, and a sexually disoriented pig. Readers of western life and lovers of horses will find Confessions of a Horseshoer an informative, quirky, and delightful work full of humor, attitude, and off-beat insight.

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Reflections Before Charging Ahead

ePub

Reflections Before
Charging Ahead

That sentence about my daddy’s influence has got me to thinking. Maybe before I go any further, I should try to figure out exactly why I’ve taken the paths I have. What were the influences that drove me toward horses and hard physical work, while at the same time driving me toward a bunch of graduate degrees? I’m pretty sure my dad had a lot to say about all this, but his influence also had some subtle aspects to it.

He started me off doing pushups probably about the time I first opened my eyes. I could pound the stuffings out of all my little friends by the time I was six months old. No one messed with me!

When I got older, Daddy didn’t push me into sports even though he had been a professional football player, a boxer, an Olympic-caliber track man, etc. He was the complete athlete and had no insecurities on that score. I felt an unspoken push toward sports, but he who always talked with a loud and dominating voice never got on my case if I didn’t excel in a sport, or even if I dropped out of one in mid-season. He was always pleased with any athletic trophies or prizes I won, but never showed any disappointment in me if I failed. In fact one time when I only got second in a company picnic contest where I usually won everything, he blamed himself. That was an unusual event where my dad had to lie down on his back in the center of a circle of kids and whirl a big hawser rope around in a circle about a foot off the ground. The rope was 20 feet long and it must have been an incredible feat for him to swing it around as each kid tried to jump the rope as it swung by. If the kid tripped, he or she was eliminated. It finally came down to just me and another kid, and neither of us seemed to be tiring. Daddy told me to take off my jacket, and as I was doing that, I tripped on the rope as it came around. Afterwards my dad said it was his fault for asking me to take off my jacket. I was surprised.

 

The First Horse

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The First Horse

I put a shoe on my first horse at horseshoeing school. We students were all excited to finally get out of the classroom and put our hands on a live horse. We were working in pairs, each person required to put on one front and one hind shoe. The horses came from local skinflints who were willing to sacrifice the feet of their horses to inexperienced horseshoeing students in order to save the cost of a shoeing. The school charged nothing for this service, and, as I recall, that was the right price for our work.

Nervous students were working on the horses who had arrived, but my partner and I still waited for ours. We wandered around criticizing everyone’s work, occasionally joined others in trying to make the first cut on the mid-summer, stone-hard feet of these first clients. It was hot and discouraging. I wondered what had possessed me to get involved in this ridiculous way of life, and I hadn’t even started yet. Heat, fear, frustration, and a sense of hopelessness all mixed together.

 

Starting Out

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Starting Out

I remember clearly one of my first encounters with a customer’s horses. Just out of horseshoeing school, I had been an “official” horseshoer for about a week. The only dirt on my leather chaps was from dragging them around on the ground at the horseshoeing school. Everyone did this. It’s embarrassing when you’re a brand-new horseshoer. Customers watch you with skepticism and suspicion. But it’s even worse being a brand-new horseshoer with a spotless pair of chaps. On this first day, I was helping my new customer and his son round up six or seven horses for me to work with. It was a hot, dusty day in Northern California and the horses were racing in all directions around the corral. When they ran toward me, I took off for the fence. “Don’t run!” shouts the owner. “They won’t run into you. Just stand there and head them toward me.”

The owner told me to stand still with my arms outstretched. His 17-year-old son was doing the same thing about eight feet away from me. Horses everywhere. I watched the son who seemed to know how to do this correctly. As I watched in frozen fascination, two horses ran out of a cloud of dust right over the top of the son, wheeled around, and looked in my direction. I left the playing field.

 

What Do Horses in the Wild Do?

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What Do Horses in
the Wild Do?

This is a question I get all the time. People want to know how horses who aren’t privileged to have a visit by a horseshoer every eight weeks get along by themselves. I’ll try to shed light on that question, although, as with most questions about horses, there’s a variety of conflicting answers. An old cowboy pal once told me about what he called the “Golden Trim,” where, he claimed, shortly after the birth of the foal in the wild the mother chews off the excess growth of the new baby’s hoof to the exact proportions needed for that baby. From then on, he said, the baby’s foot would remain perfectly balanced in angle and length. (I couldn’t help but picture in my mind the baby extending its foot to be carefully examined and chewed to the exact angles by the mother who had learned this in some kind of instinctive equine birthing clinic . . . )Then, my friend said, the horse will run around on perfect feet that will never need any work until it is caught by a human and ruined by restricting the terrain available to the horse, and by putting iron shoes on its previously perfect feet.

 

Recalcitrant Horses

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Recalcitrant Horses

This is a big part of every horseshoer’s life. A whole book could be written on this subject. When shoers get together, the main topic of conversation, after the usual bragging about their famous horse customers, quickly gets to recalcitrant horses. We talk about our worst cases, about worst cases we’ve heard about, and we listen carefully to each other’s stories because some day we may have to shoe those same horses.

The attitudes of shoers are as diverse as are the stories. Some shoers relish working with these difficult horses, even specializing in them. I’ve never understood this completely. I think it must be an adrenaline addiction. I know it’s a real high to put the last, completed foot on the ground and step back from a crazy horse, but I’m sure as hell not going to seek out that kind of high. I can get my adrenaline highs from driving in freeway traffic or raising kids or suggesting to my wife that she seems to be putting on weight. I don’t need extra adrenaline.

 

A Wyoming Cowboy

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A Wyoming Cowboy

Recalcitrant horses can be tricked, outsmarted, manhandled, pushed, and shoved, but there is another way: listening to them.

All horseshoers talk to horses, but few horseshoers listen to what the horses have to say in return. One of those who listens is a tough old cowboy named Larry Swingle. At the time I knew him, he had spent twenty years as a horseshoer, during which time he began to study horse musculature and everything else he could find out about horses. He was friends with the right people so he had access to the bodies of dead horses, which he cut open and studied as closely as a first-year medical student working on a cadaver. He learned just about all there was to know about horse anatomy . . . more than the average veterinarian learned in school. During this process, he discovered that he could also communicate with horses. He could understand them. Eventually, he possessed the extraordinary ability to recognize a horse’s physical abnormalities, and the equally extraordinary ability to communicate directly with the horse. Over a period of one year, I was a personal witness to these abilities.

 

Druids, Celts, and Blacksmiths

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Druids, Celts, and
Blacksmiths

I’ve been a student and professor of Celtic culture and Welsh language and literature, even longer than I’ve been a horseshoer, and have always been interested in the status of the farrier/blacksmith in druidical societies in medieval times. Back then, one person did all the jobs we now associate with blacksmiths, farriers, and horseshoers. Today, a blacksmith primarily works with metal, and a farrier primarily works with horses’ feet. Horseshoer is just another more common name for farrier, although about half the time I tell someone I’m a horseshoer, they think I make my living playing horseshoes. “Farrier,” from the Latin ferrum for “iron,” isn’t much better, since few people have any idea what the word means. It does raise a few eyebrows, however. In this section, I use the terms blacksmith, farrier, and horseshoer to mean the same person.

According to the sources I’ve studied, the blacksmith’s position in the ancient tribes was equal to that of the doctor, just below that of the Druid, who was a rung below but occasionally equal to the king. The talents of the blacksmith in ancient Welsh and Irish societies were used to forge the weapons, armor, and general armaments for defending a kingdom or attacking other kingdoms; additionally, the blacksmith was responsible for the horses and war chariots. But beyond these fundamentals, there remained a mystique about the blacksmith, the man who could manipulate and persuade the strongest of all materials, iron, into the service of the people.

 

Horses and Marines

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Horses and Marines

Another experience I had with horses before I really understood them, was on active duty in the Marine Corps. The Marines don’t usually have a need for horses, but at one base I was the officer in charge of the stables at the Marine Corps mountain survival school, located high in the Sierra mountains of California. I was one of three officers and seven enlisted men who taught at the school. It was great duty. We taught skiing all winter long, often on skis for fifteen hours a day. And we taught rock climbing during the summer months. Our students were Marines from bases all over the world, many of whom had never seen snow, and some of them didn’t know they had a fear of heights until they took our summer course. I was the only officer up to that time who completed a tour of duty at that base and never ended up in the hospital.

I was assigned to be in charge of the horses before I even knew what their purpose was. Some of my friends and I used to race them across the rocky meadows at an insane full gallop, but what the hell, we were Marines, weren’t we? Besides, if we fell and injured ourselves we wouldn’t have to risk our necks climbing around on those 1000-foot cliffs where we held our classes.

 

Going It Alone

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Going It Alone

That experience on the mountain taught me a lesson that comes in handy as a horseshoer. Up there, hanging off the cliff, I was alone. No one was going to save me or get me out of that spot. Just me. Horseshoeing is a lot like that. I don’t mean that shoeing horses is facing death every day, but it’s an occupation that you do mostly by yourself. There is no one to bail you out when you get in trouble. If you run into a seemingly impossible task with no obvious way out, you need to find the way on your own. No one is going to rescue you.

Horseshoers choose to wear no one’s uniform but their own, and those who survive the first year of horseshoeing (70 percent of first-year shoers drop out), prefer it that way. We’re often called independent cusses.

In most occupations there is a continuous system of education, training, and what you might call “mentoring.” A plumber or an electrician will undergo a period of training or education and then will usually go to work in a job where there is ongoing supervision. Once in the field, most workers will learn from their contacts with the boss and from other workers.

 

The Job

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The Job

Sometimes I wonder about this job. I stand around in nasty stuff all day, wiping sweat and flies off my face, driving nails into the foot of an animal who could squash me if he hadn’t been tricked into thinking that people were stronger and smarter than he was. It’s a job that requires fast talking to get health insurance and a job that makes my wife ask me where I am bleeding when I get home. I think one reason I chose horseshoeing is that I had found little satisfaction in the other jobs I had been doing. I had been a juvenile probation officer, a minister, and an investment counselor, among other things, and at the end of a working day with those jobs, I never had a sense of accomplishment or completion. I had no way of measuring the value of my time. Did I help anyone, or not? I never knew for sure. I wanted something more concrete where I could look at my day and say, “This is what I did.” (At 41, I was probably just having a mid-life crisis.) Looking for answers, I took a vocational preference test at a local college, but before I got the results back, I saw an ad in the paper for a local horseshoeing school. “That’s it,” I cried. “I’ll become a horseshoer!” My wife at the time was not impressed. She threatened to take up belly dancing for revenge. I signed up for the school anyway.

 

The Tools of the Trade

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The Tools of the Trade

Horseshoeing tools haven’t changed much since horses first started wearing shoes. If a Roman or Celtic horseshoer of old were to find himself in this century, he would have no problem shoeing a horse with the tools of today. I’ll describe them.

The “shoeing box” holds most of the tools. It’s usually made of wood, and has various sections for nails and tools of different sizes. The problem with a wooden box is that it breaks apart when it inevitably gets stepped on by the horse. Usually you can repair the box, but after my box had been stepped on and repaired four times, my seventh-grade son got disgusted and made me a new one in shop class. He added a clever invention: a three-foot cord attached to the box that would allow me to pull the box toward me if I got separated from it by the movement of the horse. I was really pleased with that addition, but it does have its drawbacks. For one, to a nervous horse, the cord looks just like a snake. A second problem can appear when you pull the box to you. Watching a box apparently moving by itself is unsettling to a lot of horses, especially if the box is moving toward them. I’ve learned to be cautious whenever I pull the box by the cord, but I’m quite pleased with my son’s invention.

 

What the Well-Dressed Horseshoer Wears

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What the Well-Dressed Horseshoer Wears

Horseshoer’s clothes are not particularly distinguished, but there are some peculiarities. Steel-toed boots are usually a good idea for protecting the farrier’s foot from getting smashed, but there are always stories about some horseshoer or another getting his steel-toed boot stomped on by a heavy horse and having the steel plate trap his squashed toes in the boot. It would take a jaws-of-life (or jaws-of-foot) to get these squashed toes free from the boot. You would have to cut off the bottom of the boot to get them out. As gruesomely dangerous as this sounds, I’ve still always worn steel-toed boots. I haven’t had my foot stepped on much, but I suspect I would if I even thought about going out in tennis shoes. And horseshoers being what they are, there’s always someone who does wear tennis shoes. It’s so they can get away fast, they’ll say.

I never wear a ring while working with horses. I take off my wedding ring and put it somewhere safe in the truck, a long ways from the horse. I also put in the truck my wallet and everything else I don’t want lost in the dirt. My fear about my ring, more like a nightmare, is that a horse will step on my hand and squash the ring flat with my finger inside it. I don’t know anyone this has happened to, but it could happen.

 

Weather

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Weather

Shoeing horses is not a pleasant way to make a living, but when the weather is extreme, it is downright miserable. The extremes are heat, cold, and rain. It’s best to stay home when these conditions are severe, but when you have no food in the house, you have to do what you have to do.

Heat, without question, is the most troublesome for me. I’ll choose rain over heat, any day. In fact I will no longer shoe a horse on an extremely hot day unless there is a cool barn or some kind of shelter. I’m from the Northwest and we don’t quite know what to do on hot days. We don’t get a lot of them, so when it gets to be in the high eighties or nineties, everyone just stands around in confusion and complains. Air conditioners have arrived in most business offices and fastfood restaurants, but are seldom found in anyone’s home. I only recently got a truck with an air conditioner.

One hot day in California during my first year of shoeing when I usually took two hours to shoe a horse under normal conditions, I took almost five hours to shoe one horse. I drank a lot of water, but the heat got to me. I’d work for awhile, get dizzy, and go into the hay room and lie down on a bale of hay until the dizziness went away. I turned a hose on my head and upper body every now and then, but that didn’t stop the dizziness. That horse stood out there the whole time in the blazing sun, mostly asleep, and didn’t seem bothered at all by the heat. I probably suffered from heat stroke and didn’t have the sense to recognize it. No one was around to point it out to me.

 

Injuries I Have Known

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Injuries I Have Known

Injuries, and threats of injuries, are constant sources of fascination to a shoer. In the old days, horseshoers had a hard time getting life or medical insurance, so great was the risk of working with ill-mannered horses. Perhaps those old shoers had more macho pride or needed the money, but nowadays many horseshoers refuse to work with unmanageable horses. There are all kinds of restraining tricks and devices, but because these can prove dangerous to both the horse and the shoer, the best response is to tell the owner to get the horse some manners and then call. As one rusty old shoer told me, “I’m a horseshoer, not a horse trainer.” If horseshoers practice this attitude enough, word will get out to horse owners that it is their responsibility to train the horse to stand quietly during a shoeing. That way no one gets hurt.

The best time to start the horse’s training, of course, is shortly after birth. It’s easy to pick up a foal’s feet every day until it’s no longer traumatic. I always suggest owners increase the noise and the fuss around the baby so it gets used to it. You can even tap the foot gently with a hammer—anything to get baby used to someone messing with the feet. If this is done with consistency, she should stand nicely for her first trim. After all this training, if she doesn’t stand quietly, the owner might want to take a closer look at the shoer. Like children, horses sense fear, anger, and other emotions in people, and like children, they may try to get away from the source.

 

Exercise

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Exercise

After the operation on my arm, and a short period of physical therapy, I was briefly forced into a fitness center for what the doctor said was a “more thorough recovery.”

I had never been able to see the value of a fitness center, maybe because I’ve always been in pretty good shape, thanks to my dad who had me doing 100 pushups a day and other exercises from the third grade on. My boyhood room was a huge unfinished attic and at one end he had made a gym for me. The floor was bare boards that didn’t even reach the walls. There was a gap of about three inches where the floor tried to meet the wall, and if you ever dropped a toy down there, it was gone forever, into the bowels of the earth, I thought. Behind the darkened chimney in the corner was where the monsters lived. One did not even look in that direction come bedtime. The gym had weights, a wrestling mat, a huge body bag for punching, and a thick rope that rose to the unfinished rafters above the mat, crossed the entire room, and dropped down on the upper bunk where I slept in a tiny civilized section of the room. The bedroom part had a tiny rug, a tiny desk and chair, and my bunk bed. I was supposed to climb up the rope at the far end of the room, climb hand over hand to my upper bunk, and lower myself to bed at night. In the morning, I was to reverse the process, climb up from my bed, cross hand over hand to the other end, lower myself to the mat, go downstairs, eat breakfast, and go off to school, a splendid physical specimen of a third grader.

 

Photos Section

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On the fence.

Marine Corps Mountain School. 1958. I’m on lower right.

Fresh from active duty in the Corps.

In Tacoma after active duty and before entering Seminary. 1960.

Graduating from Seminary. 1963.

Official picture of smiling Marine Corps major in Reserves. 1967.

Dad, Mom, me, and Nicky, my faithful horseshoeing dog.

Nicky, eagerly waiting in back of my truck.

Working in the sun in California. 1975.

Typical customer’s view of a horseshoer.

Feeding hoof parings to wild turkeys. 1990.

Dog and turkeys eating hoof parings fresh off of horse, who couldn’t care less.

Lady apprentice watching me measure a shoe. 1978.

Rasping a foot. 2011.

Picture by David Beardsley.

Nipping for a field trim. 2011.

Picture by David Beardsley.

Cochise, my favorite customer. 2011.

Picture by David Beardsley.

Thinking about it all. 2011.

Picture by David Beardsley.

Rasping a left hind foot. 2011.

 

More Injuries and Violence

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More Injuries and Violence

(Why Horseshoers Are Always Late)

The horse owner told me she wouldn’t be able to meet me, but that the horse would be tied to the pasture fence. At this point, I should have been suspicious: this was a disasterprone customer. Her horse was well behaved and a delight to shoe, but the owner was dangerous to be around. She invariably knocked over things that scared hell out of every horse in the vicinity, or ran her car into a ditch, or left a gate open for all the horses to escape . . . things like that. One time she only hurt herself. She had forgotten to catch her horse for me, and we had to drive my truck up to the top of a hill where we caught him. She should have ridden him down the hill, but chose instead to pull him beside the truck, while she sat in the cab holding his lead rope in her hand. She hoped the horse would come with us. I recommended against this. All went well until the girl enthusiastically stuck her arm out the window to wave at someone. She waved it right in her horse’s face. The horse, of course, freaked out and pulled back. Instead of letting go of the rope, the girl held on as it sang through her hand. When the pain finally broke through to her disorganized mind, she let go. I stopped the truck and told her to open her hand so I could see the extent of the damage. She wouldn’t open it. Half an hour later, I was able to convince her to open it, both of us expecting a half-inch-deep bloody groove through the middle of her palm. The damage was minimal, however, and I patched it up with my ever-ready first aid kit. Not that it matters in the long run, but all of this cost me an extra hour and caused me to be an hour late to my next appointment where the owner petulantly asked me why it was that horseshoers were always late.

 

Ponies

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Ponies

Ponies, mostly because they are small, aren’t able to cause the kinds of wrecks that horses do, and they generally maintain a lower profile than horses, probably because they are smarter and don’t want anyone to know it. If you look closely at a pony you might notice that he or she is looking back at you just as closely, calculating just how much they can get away with. They are figuring out whether to fight or just give up and let you trim their feet or put on the inevitable shoes. But it’s never a good idea to turn your back on a pony. There are a lot of gentle little ponies, of course, but some ponies can hold a grudge for a long time and if of a vengeful mind will let fly a kick when least expected. I’ve seen a lot of this kind.

One pony I trimmed a few times was on the string of riding horses at a Boy Scout camp in the mountains of Northern California. This pony was a full-out fighter when it came time for his feet to be trimmed. I could do nothing with him unless I tied up each leg to be worked on. I used a big soft rope and even after the foot was safely off the ground he still jumped and bucked and twisted around until completely worn out. Somehow he always managed to keep enough balance to avoid falling, something a horse in similar circumstances would not be able to do. I would just watch until he had worn himself out. I took some pictures with my little camera, but you can hardly make anything out because of the clouds of dust he raised. I thought this was just a vicious animal who should be sent somewhere else, but the head wrangler, a feisty twenty-year-old kid, said the pony was always gentle with the boys on his back. He had never been anything but a model steed for his small riders.

 

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