Doug Neilson never set out to be an eventing farrier. He rode show hunters when growing up on Long Island, N.Y. After meeting his wife Ann in college, they married and lived in Delaware, where she came from. He did know he wanted to be a farrier, and attended Meredith Manor Horseshoeing School in Waverly, W.Va.

“Of course, I thought everyone would be beating down my door after I graduated so that I could shoe their horses,” he says. “I was wrong.”

While waiting for those clients to make their way to his door, Neilson went to a nearby state park that had stables to see if he could earn some money mucking stalls. Here, he met his first mentor, Darren Quaintance, whom he apprenticed under. Over time, as his skill grew and Quaintance wanted to stop driving so far, Neilson began picking up more accounts.

Farrier Takeaways

  • Doug Neilson summarizes the role of the farrier as addressing distortion and resulting problems.
  • Resist fads or using only one idea ­­— let the horse dictate what it needs.
  • Neilson prefers concave shoes for his eventing horses because they provides necessary traction, resulting in a confident horse.

By chance, he began shoeing for Bonnie Mooser, who eventually became a 4-star rider. He then began picking up more eventing clients.

“Then I met Phillip Dutton and worked for him, and the next thing you know I’m shoeing mostly eventing horses. I guess it just found me. It became what I knew and what I was good at,” he says.

And although he may be looked at as an eventing farrier, Neilson’s approach to farriery would work with any breed or discipline, as shown on this “Shoeing For A Living” day.

Doug Neilson has shod other breeds and disciplines over his 30-year career. Circumstance of his location and quality work with horses have helped him build a practice that primarily works with eventing horses.

All In The Family

Spring is starting to bloom in the Delaware Valley, as shown by the emerging tree buds and lush grass. I find Neilson on this warm May morning at his home forge in West Grove, Pa., making bar shoes for later that day. He uses a mixture of manufactured and handmade shoes in his practice. Neilson says he tends to spend more time at the shop of his son Andrew, who hosts forging nights for the Pennsylvania Professional Farriers Association (PPFA).

Neilson doesn’t use a lot of bar shoes, but he makes each one he nails on.

“That way I don’t have to carry too much inventory on the truck and can make it when I need it,” he says.

It is only a few minutes’ drive to the first stop — one of the other benefits of the majority of your work being in the Chester County hot spot of eventing. There is still enough time in the truck for Neilson to talk about how horseshoeing is a family trade. A father of four, Neilson’s sons Andrew and Billy followed him into the industry, and have since established strong practices of their own. Billy works with his father every Thursday, while Andrew travels with him to Aiken, S.C., during the winter show season and shoes 60-head over 3 days.

Andrew learned the trade in the traditional apprentice model under his father. Billy learned both as an apprentice, but also at the Heartland Horseshoeing School in Lamar, Mo. Neilson encouraged his son to attend because he liked some of the things he was seeing from the school on Facebook.

Neilson says that was a good experience because of the exposure to forge work that Billy gained and shared with his father and brother after returning home. And Neilson’s brother-in-law Jim Salve is also a farrier. They all have their own practices, but they can lean on each other when necessary.

“They learned about horseshoeing and the business from me, so we all tend to do things the same way,” he explains. “We are there for each other — and give each other help that we can trust. I can trust them to do that same thing I’m doing with the horse.”

It isn’t just family that Neilson says he can lean on. He says there are many quality farriers in the area who are reliable and skillful. He mentions several names, including Jeremy George and Justin Quaintance, the son of his mentor, as local farriers he can call on if he needs help. He says the helpfulness of farriers in this area is a credit to those who came before, including Dave Kumpf and Dean Pearson. He said that they set the example of how to behave professionally — especially not undercutting your competition to drive prices and devalue the trade.

When he uses a pad and urethane, Neilson likes to inject the material through two holes in the pad. He finds this helps him control the distribution of the urethane he wants with the foot.

Woodstock Eventing

We arrive at Woodstock Eventing, the home base of rider and trainer Ryan Wood. Andrew also shoes a few head here. Neilson likes working at a busy barn like this because they are always present working. At smaller barns with one horse, he says the demand is to be there at an exact time. Neilson notes that Wood’s operation is heavily influenced by Phillip Dutton.

“Ryan Wood and Boyd Martin (whose facility we will go to later today) apprenticed under Philip. Because Phillip is one of the best in the business, they were smart to make their practices similar to what he does.”

Neilson has a few to do here, the first being Cooley Titanium Blue, an Irish sport horse. Neilson hasn’t worked with this horse since it arrived at the barn from Ireland in mid-April. He notes that the horse has a decent foot, but the feet are a bit chippy from having the shoes pulled before being shipped overseas and not being reshod until today. He estimates that the horse hasn’t grown much foot since being shod last. If the feet were in worse condition, he might opt for a glue-on shoe, but it won’t be necessary today. In those cases, he tends to use Sound Horse options, but will let the individual case dictate what he does.

“I’ll put cuffed shoes on, direct glue with aluminum, direct glue with urethane,” he says. “I choose whatever I think will get me the results.”

Neilson prefers using a loop knife for his frog for comfort and safety. Being right-handed, he can better trim the left side of the frog.

“Some guys prefer using right- and left- hand knives so they can draw up the right side with a left-handed knife and the left side with a right-handed knife,” he says. “I prefer one tool that I can pull out and do the entire frog. You can get in trouble going away from you on a frog because the knife can dive in on the point and cause an accident on your hand holding the foot. Plus, the loop is nice for cleaning out the cleft area.”

In my mind, traction builds the horse’s confidence …

After trimming the left forefoot, Neilson says that he will use a St. Croix Eventer Plus, which is his go-to shoe for many of his eventing horses. He likes the thickness and the nail placement of the shoes. He admits that although he prefers drawing his own clips, the preclipped shoes do the trick.

Neilson takes the front shoes to drill and tap them. He prefers using the DeWalt drill with a handle to tap the shoe in a vise. He also keeps an older tap and hand drill to clean out resets that have dirt and debris built up in the hole. Neilson notes that he drills and taps all of his eventing horses, so he thinks a lot about drill bits. He recently started using a Distal Steel Countersink bit and has had good results.

“How well you countersink your stud hole will make it easier for your riders,” he says.

Being Efficient

Cooley is taken back to his stall and Neilson is presented with another horse new to the barn — a German-imported Thoroughbred. The student rider reports that the horse seems a bit sore-footed. He watches the horse trot away and back.

“The biggest thing you gain from experience is being able to evaluate the horse without realizing you are doing it,” he says.

Neilson takes time to show the student rider the conformation and notes how the horse has too much toe toward the lateral toe. He is hitting the toe, affecting his movement. Neilson says that there may be some soreness from the concrete and gravel because the gelding doesn’t have much sole.

“With a good trim, he will move much better, but if we shoe him, he will be a lot happier, but he may not have to have hind shoes today.”


  • Gain some insight from another day with Doug Neilson and his son Billy at Boyd Martin’s eventing farm.
  • Get some forging tips from a forge night at Andrew Neilson’s shop.

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For the early stage of this horse’s training, Neilson says that he doesn’t need concave yet. He likes the St. Croix SureFits for the width and nail punching, but they don’t come clipped.

“That’s good because I can draw them myself,” he says. “A young horse like this with a round foot that may never have been shod, I don’t want to hot fit him, so I made small clips. They can do what I want them to do with holding the shoe in place and it will be easier for me to fit cold.”

As he shapes the shoe, Neilson notes that he has a good memory for fitting on horses that he is familiar with, but with this horse being new to him, he’s taken an extra trip or two to the foot. He recalled a time efficiency tip that Billy brought home from Heartland.

“One of the things Cody Gregory taught Billy is to lay a knife or a ruler on the foot before you go to the anvil to get a width measurement,” he says. “If you get the right shape and size, you will cut down on time going back and forth to the foot trying to fit the shoe.”

Neilson drills and taps his eventing shoes so that it will be easy for clients to screw in studs.

Distortion Is The Enemy

Neilson moves on to work with Ben Nevis. Unlike the previous two, he is familiar with this horse, having worked with the Thoroughbred for years.

Ryan Wood stops by briefly and flags some distortion on the left forefoot. After they wrap up the conversation, Neilson notes that it helps having an in-tune, experienced horseman like Wood as a client and welcomes his insight.

“He’s not a farrier, but he can tell that there is too much toe after just 5 weeks,” he says. “Every trainer and rider is different, but most of the upper-level competitors are more hands-on. They see the horse a couple hours a day and I see them for an hour once a month.”

As he pulls the shoe, he notes there is distortion in the lateral toe quarter and medial heel quarter. How he dealt with distortion and shoe fit has changed a lot in the last 5 to 10 years.

“Distortion is the enemy, and all we are trying to do as farriers is control or get rid of distortion. It is that simple,” he says. “I find that theories on bringing the toe back will often help create distortion. If we support the hoof capsule and leave some foot, as long as there is no distortion, you’ll stay out of trouble. For example, in my younger days, I might have put a square toe on the foot and set it back. I think I did several horses a disservice years ago by putting square toes on them. Now I’m trimming much of the distortion out, supporting the hoof capsule with a shoe that fits and rolling the toe.”

After he trims the fronts, Neilson looks at the front shoes, noting he’ll get a reset out of these Kahn Forge concave shoes. He says that he finds concave is a good shoe for many of his horses. Not all eventing horse farriers agree, but under the right circumstances, Neilson feels concave will really help some horses.

“I think it is one of those things that goes unnoticed,” he says. “It is possible that they could go a little better than they could in a flat shoe. Primarily this is through traction. In my mind, traction builds the horse’s confidence. I have two stud holes in these shoes. If a horse is going into the fence and digs in, everything is good until he takes off. Then he lifts his heels off the ground. If it is a smooth, flat surface on the shoe, the horse will slip and lose confidence. But with concave, you gain a lot of traction and keep that horse’s confidence. The rider may not notice this difference because they already have a very good horse, but they will have a better horse because of it.”

Neilson adds that in England, concave is the popular selection for eventing horses. In cases in which he doesn’t use concave, such as a SureFit Extra, he’ll run his fuller across the toe to get extra traction. He says some dressage trainers feel concave may give them too much traction, so he won’t use concave on those horses. He adds that upper-level eventing horses aren’t doing the same level of dressage as the upper-level horses only doing dressage. For him, the traction for cross country and jumping in the arena is more concerning.

Neilson notes that he addressed the distortion with his trim, and he didn’t alter his shoe fit or add any modification. “I just needed to trim that toe back to where it should be,” he adds.

Packing up his truck, Neilson explains how he bills clients. He will handwrite a bill if a client requests, but mostly he will invoice through email using Quickbooks. Recently, he started using online payments, also using Quickbooks. Although this is a recent change for him, he likes it due to the swifter payments and being able to use a single program for invoicing and collecting from his smartphone.

Neilson says that his perspective on shoeing has changed quite a bit over the last 5 to 10 years. Influenced by his involvement in the World Championship Blacksmiths, he says trimming and shoeing the hinds has evolved.

A Foolproof Application

The next stop is a nearby barn where we meet 3-star rider Jordan Thompson, whose horse Frenchie has lost a shoe and pad. Neilson doesn’t typically use pads that often — maybe with 5 to 10% of his horses. That number climbs for the horses he shoes in Aiken.

“It is funny because it is rocky here, but it is sandy down in South Carolina,” he says. “But the sand seems to act like a big rock to the bottom of the foot. Basically, I only put them on when it is warranted, like when a horse is foot sore. I tend to go with a ‘less is more’ approach.”

Frenchie isn’t quite due to be trimmed and shod, so Neilson gives the foot a brushing and light rasping. He’ll reshape a DB Bold hind for the forefoot. He drills two holes into the pad to inject the urethane. Before he injects the Farrier’s Choice, he applies Allen’s Blue Powder into the holes.

“Occasionally you will go to a foot and the configuration of the foot, pad and shoe may not allow you to get the tip underneath in the heels,” he says. “It doesn’t happen that often, but with the two holes, you are guaranteed to put it in. Also, this is useful when I want to limit how much urethane gets into the toe and keep the material in the commissures of the frog.”

Making The Arch

We arrive at Boyd and Silva Martin’s Windurra, an expansive event training ground. Neilson has shod for Martin ever since the Australian opened his barn in the U.S. The first horse he’ll work on is Min, a semi-retired event horse.

Distortion is the enemy, and all we are trying to do as farriers is control or get rid of distortion. It is that simple …

After trimming the forefeet, he will use Kahn concaves and drawing toe clips. He doesn’t toe-clip a lot of his horses, but he is considering it with certain horses. “As long as you get rid of the distortion and support the foot. The toe clip will just add to it,” he says.

On the hinds, he will use DB Bold shoes that he got from California farrier Travis Koons, who brought the shoes when he judged a recent PPFA contest. He likes the wear he’s seen so far with the shoes after one cycle.

“I want to see what they look like after a reset,” he says. “I have had shoes I liked before, but then you come back to do the horse again and the shoes are wiped out. That is tough to deal with in one shoeing, especially at every 4 weeks.”

Like earlier in the day, he notes that he wants a section and fit that will give the horse purchase in the hinds.

“If you make that foot the same shape as the coffin bone, you’re going to better eliminate distortion,” he says. “By fitting a horse that way, you can address distortion and provide more traction.”

One of the big impacts on Neilson has been participating in the World Championship Blacksmiths (WCB). He says the WCB has probably had the biggest impact on changing his line of thinking, especially regarding distortion.

As he nails on the shoe, he shares some insight he gained from WCB founder and New Mexico shoer Craig Trnka.

“He drew a graph with hammer blows on one side and tong movement on the other,” recalls Neilson. “These are on the same line. As you move your tongs, the graph line moves, which will eventually look like the horn of an anvil. The point is when you hand make your shoe, if you are just hitting and not moving, you are changing the graph from the arch to a straight spot. As long as the cadence is move, hit, move, hit, the perfect arch will result. I’ve been told a million times that tong movement is important, but drawing that put it in perspective.”

Neilson has an interest in forge work and toolmaking. Here is a sampling of tools he’s made.

Stay Out Of The Horse’s Way

Capping off the day, a student rider fetches Neville Bardos, whose story is the stuff of horse world legend. Neville’s story started with Boyd and Silva Martin saving the Thoroughbred from the horse slaughter house by buying him at auction for $850.

Neville was also saved a second time when Martin risked his life to pull him from a devastating fire that killed six horses. The horse had suffered extensive throat damage from smoke inhalation and was given a grim diagnosis from doctors. Slowly but surely, though, the horse recovered and remarkably returned to competition and captured the United States Equestrian Federation’s 2011 Horse of the Year award. Today, the 19-year-old is semi-retired.

As Neilson takes a rasp to the front right, he discusses the challenges with managing Neville’s feet. Discussing the front right, he says the heels want to run forward and gets long in the toe. Also, like most eventing horses, he’s had injuries over time. Neville has worn bar shoes on and off. He switched to bar shoes continuously several cycles ago. He won’t be able to reset the bar shoes, but brings out the set he made this morning and heads to the forge and anvil to draw clips.

With the left hind on the Hoofjack, Neilson clinches the nails. For him, fitting the foot properly is crucial for staying out of the horse’s way. Sometimes this results in apparent problems like interference. In other cases, the issues are subtle.

“That traction you are robbing the horse of, it might mean that they get a little more tired or sore with each stride because the horse is slipping,” he says.

Neilson says recognition of these subtleties is a combination of learning from others and experience. After 30 years, maybe he didn’t intend to be an eventing farrier, but the riders and equine athletes he works with are happy he did.


July/August 2018 Issue Contents