Pictured Above: Kalam Blessing draws clips, boxes and safes his shoes at his home shop to improve his efficiency, as well as his fit, at the horse.
Since he was a young boy growing up in southern Pennsylvania, Kalam Blessing has had an affinity for horses. What started out as a child’s hope to score a few rides has blossomed into a career to help horses live more comfortably. Along the way, the Willseyville, N.Y., farrier has learned the importance of horsemanship and the need to improve his skills while owning his trade.
- Adding shoe modifications in the home shop improves Kalam Blessing’s efficiency and shoe fit.
- Carrying a smaller inventory and relying upon your forging skills will save you money and improve your productivity.
- Ditching his clinch box, Blessing has reduced the number of extra hammer blows by more than 1,000 in a week.
Today’s “Shoeing For A Living” will be spent trimming and shoeing horses at The William George Agency for Children’s Services in Freeville. The agency provides a therapeutic residential environment for at-risk youth. Blessing has been tending to the horses’ feet here for 7 years — the first 2 as an apprentice.
“They used to do more showing, but now they do a lot more trail riding,” he explains, noting there are 40 horses at the barn. “The kids like it. It’s pretty cool for them.”
Blessing does all of the horses here, save one.
“There’s one horse that they keep in a show package,” he says, “but I do all the rest of them.”
The size of the barn offers a variety of pathologies and hoof-care issues that keep the young farrier on his toes. The wet climate produces plenty of soft feet, and of course, there are conformational challenges
“There are all sorts of random things,” Blessing says. “Some of the horses that they’ve brought in, you just don’t know what kind of issues they’ve had in their previous lives, as far as injuries, handling and that kind of stuff. There are two today that have just super straight hocks. They could be put together better conformationally. I don’t have to work super hard, just keep them going comfortably.”
This foot’s poor hoof wall quality has almost grown down. Previously, Blessing used Super Fast to help keep nails in the toe quarters as the wall grew down.
An Eye on Efficiency
As Blessing opens up the clean and well-organized rig, one of the first things that are noticeable is his modest shoe inventory.
“I don’t use a whole lot of different shoes,” he says. “I can grow them from a size 1 to a 2, or a 2 to a 3 by using my fuller. I pretty much have Mustad Equi-Libriums and St. Croix Eventer Pluses. I can do a lot with mechanics with these shoes.”
In fact, Blessing doesn’t take a traditional view of keg shoes.
“Shoes to me are just blank bar stock,” he says. “People will ask me what size of a shoe does their horse wears. It might wear a size 3, but it’s 16 ¼ inches to me. That’s kind of how I go about looking at feet. I know general sizes, but that’s what I’m really using it for. I can make an asymmetrical shoe. I can widen or narrow a branch. I can fuller a branch. I don’t want hundreds of shoes. It’s pointless.”
Although Blessing is quick to point out that he’s not as efficient as he would like to be, it’s an obvious point of emphasis.
“I do make shoes for horses, but for efficiency purposes everyday, I use keg shoes,” says Blessing, who provides hoof care for horses, minis, donkeys and drafts. “I learned that drawing clips, putting in heel checks and pre-grinding shoes — boxing and safeing — commits me to my fit. I think it helps with shaping and doesn’t allow me to cheat myself. I’m not saying I’m perfect. I have improvements to make, for sure.”
It also improves his efficiency.
“Removing unwanted material from keg shoes before you get to the horse saves time fitting and can be done much quicker per shoe if you do a bunch at a time,” he says. “It’s already safed and boxed, so it’s just a little minor sweetening up.”
An Old Friend
The first horse of the day is Frosty, a mare that Blessing has been working on for 7 years. She gets her name from being born during a blizzard. She lost the tip of her ear to frostbite.
When he first started tending to Frosty’s feet, she was just a trim.
“We didn’t even need nippers,” Blessing recalls, “just run the rasp and get her flat.”
That changed one winter when it was decided that shoes would be necessary so she could pull a cart during the winter.
“After that, she wouldn’t come out of shoes,” he says. “She was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this feels so much better.’ I would have never believed it if I hadn’t been trimming her before. We tried taking them off and she just wouldn’t do it. She was uncomfortable. She was a little sore and her foot didn’t like going without shoes. She never showed signs of lameness before putting shoes on. This is just an example of what horses deal with.”
The barn manager has the horse on a foot supplement, which he believes has improved her hoof wall quality. Although it’s growing out, there is still a weak, crumbly spot in the toe quarters on the lateral and medial sides that make it difficult to hold a nail.
“I put some Super Fast on them to just fill it in a little bit,” he says. “I’ve used it a bunch of times and it works pretty well to get them by.”
The wet climate does no favors for these feet.
“I could just press the nails up in her hoof with my fingers,” Blessing says. “It’s been super wet, which made the feet really soft. The flies were terrible this year. So stomping with such a soft foot just destroys them.”
Blessing marks the lateral heel three times to help him see them while the shoe is hot. Cataracts have made it difficult for him to pick them up normally.
There are a couple of spots to shoe horses here — a wash bay or tied to the wall near the riding arena. Today, Blessing goes with the latter.
“She doesn’t like the wash bay much,” he says as he pulls her shoes. “Besides, I don’t like working in wash bays. They’re small and not safe.”
Working along the wall isn’t an ideal situation, but it’s better than the wash bay.
“It’s still kind of a walk back to the truck,” Blessing says. “Then the horses want to move parallel to the wall. So, it can be kind of a pain in the butt.”
After pulling the shoes and cleaning out Frosty’s feet, Blessing employs a conservative trim.
“When you just press on her foot, the sole flexes,” he says. “She doesn’t have any vertical depth in her foot. If you can press on it and flex the sole with your bare hands, that’s obviously not good for a horse.”
Blessing essentially cleans it up and balances the foot.
“I think horizontally and vertically while trimming,” he says. “I’m going to keep her in a two-thirds, one-third trim, based on the golden ratio.”
I don’t want hundreds of shoes. It’s pointless …
Blessing was taught the golden ratio as a student at Cornell University by International Horseshoeing Hall of Famer Steve Kraus (who detailed his technique in “Chalklines Help Determine Trim” on Page 42 of the January/February 2019 issue of American Farriers Journal).
“I think it’s a good marker to follow, and it’s consistently true,” Blessing says. “I’d rather give a horse some vertical depth and then roll a toe or rocker the toe. The feet are happier.”
Using calipers, Blessing wants two-thirds of the foot to be from the apex of the frog to the back of the frog, while the remaining one-third is from the apex of the frog to the toe.
“Keeping the foot underneath itself makes the whole foot happy,” he says. “It’s based on what the horse actually has.”
Unique Lateral Branch Marks
Blessing decides that he will reset the mare’s shoes. He returns to the rig, fires up his forge and prepares the shoes. Blessing retrieves a punch to mark the lateral branches. Rather than marking them once, he strikes them three times each — one above the other. The reason behind the unique marks is a remarkable story.
“I was struck by lightning while riding my motorcycle 10 years ago,” Blessing says. “I developed cataracts, so I can’t pick up the marks in the steel because they are so hot and bright. So, I mark it three times because I can usually pick up at least one of them.”
As one might imagine, being struck by lightning is bad enough. Doing so while riding a motorcycle presents another set of obstacles for survival.
“I was doing 85 mph on Route 30 heading into Lancaster, Pa.,” he recalls. “There was a big storm coming through and I was trying to avoid it. I was less than a quarter of a mile from this underpass. I was going to stop there and put my waterproof liner on, and then get going. I remember looking down and thinking, ‘Man, I’m doing 85. I’m going to get pulled over.’”
That’s when he was struck.
“That was it,” Blessing says. “I woke up with EMTs surrounding me.”
He immediately lost consciousness and he was separated from his bike, which was found 100 yards away.
“They say I was like a drunk man in a wreck — I didn’t break any bones,” Blessing says. “Luckily, there was a grass median and it was pretty tall. Before the median was all of those rumble strips.”
Another fortunate break was that he had a full gas tank. The lightning traveled into the air vent of his helmet, went down his chest and hit his gas cap.
“There were no fumes, otherwise it would have blown up,” he says. “I saw pictures of the bike. It looks like someone took an arc welder and were trying to start the stick on the gas cap.”
Blessing has had to endure multiple surgeries to his ears and eyes as a result.
“It’s why I try to wear earplugs because I can’t hear super good out of my right ear,” he says. “I’ve had multiple surgeries to where there’s still a hole in there, but I can hear direction.”
Blessing doesn’t carry a large inventory of shoes. Rather, he relies on his forging skills to modify keg shoes.
At one time, that wasn’t the case. While turkey hunting with his father, Blessing couldn’t tell from which direction the birds were calling.
“It was terrible,” he says. “I couldn’t tell that they were behind us.”
Blessing had to wear glasses for a time, but surgeries have improved his vision to 20/15.
“They put a prescription bifocal lens in my eye,” he says. “It’s still hard when I’m trying to see my steel during a heat.”
As he concludes his story, Blessing uses a fuller on the branches.
“I know just based on how her foot is coming that I want to fit her a little fuller,” he explains. “I just ran my fuller to widen my section.”
It takes very little time because of the amount of work he put into the shoes at his home shop.
“So with the heel check, boxing and safeing already in there, I’m committed to this section,” Blessing says. “I pulled 120 clips, so that’s 30 pairs of shoes. All I did at the horse was one heat and run my crease. I just have to knock a shape into it.”
It’s simply a drive to improve and be more efficient at the horse.
“I was doing pretty terrible with my cross-pein,” he says. “I just said to myself, ‘I have to learn.’ I’m in my shop forging and swinging a hammer — just trying to get better.”
Returning to Frosty, Blessing grabs a handful of nails and straps on a headlamp.
“I’ve been using it for quite a few years now,” he says. “I can’t see very well in low light with my cataracts. But, I also went to this barn to shoe this horse early in the morning. It was pitch black. I asked the client if she could turn on a light. She walks clear across the room and flicks on a 75-watt bulb. ‘How is this going to work?’ she asks. It’s not. I had an aluminum clip light in my truck at the time, but now a head lamp is more practical.”
Although Blessing uses safety glasses and earplugs as a result of his injuries, they have subsequently paid off.
“This probably won’t sound good about my clinching abilities, but I’ve had clinches bounce off my glasses and teeth,” he says. “So I try to wear them.”
He also carries a wrist magnet to hold nails after a conversation with Scottsville, Va., farrier Darren Owen.
“I used to keep nails in my mouth,” Blessing says. “Then Darren told me, ‘You don’t want to do that because the nails will put grooves in your teeth.’” (Read more about Owen’s footcare practice on Page 14 of the December 2014 issue of American Farriers Journal).
Frosty does well when the first shoe is nailed on, but the second is a bit more difficult as she tries to pull her leg away.
“Easy lady, hey, hey,” Blessing tries to reassure her. “Don’t do this now. We only have one nail in. Let me get a second one in. Hold it together. Easy Miss Frosty.”
He pauses his hammer blows to give her a break.
“She’s going to go back on me,” Blessing says, “I can feel her sitting.”
He nails the second one in quickly and then sets it down.
“There you go,” he says.
In situations such as this, Blessing checks whether the discomfort is a result of what he’s doing.
“Am I making the horse uncomfortable?” he says. “Is the concussion from nailing causing problems? Or did the horse get off balance by shifting its weight and just needs to readjust, like Frosty. Since I only had one nail in, I needed to make her as comfortable and balanced as I could until I could get to a point when I could safely put her foot down.”
After nailing on the rest of the shoe, Blessing moves onto the front right foot that had Super Fast applied previously. He nails the shoe on with no problem and decides against using the adhesive this time.
“I think it’ll hold,” he says. “Sometimes Super Fast allows it to grow down. As soon as I can get nails above it, I will. I’d like to keep it out if I can. I don’t think it’s as good for that, but when the situation comes up, it’ll get us by until it grows down.”
When using Super Fast in this manner, Blessing makes sure to clean it out properly to avoid water and debris getting behind it and further undermining the hoof wall.
“The adhesive can make it worse,” he says. “I haven’t had any fungus, but you could have problems if you don’t smooth it out with your rasp. It will just let dirt into it. I make sure there are no voids when I use Super Fast. But now, we can get the nails above it and it’s not necessary.”
Blessing uses the golden ratio when measuring feet. He aims for one-third of the foot to be from the apex of the frog to the toe and two-thirds to be from the apex of the frog to the end of the frog.
Blessing moves on to Spot after finishing Frosty. One thing is evident, Spot has rather straight hind legs.
“They’re like fence posts,” Blessing says. “There are two horses in here like this — him and Pepper. Spot was knuckling over and falling because his heels were so far up.”
To help Spot, Blessing balances and supports the foot the best he can.
“[Cornell University farrier instructor] Steve Kraus used to tell me that on hind feet, you just have shoe the crap out of them,” he says. “It’s true. In order to balance the digit, I need to put the shoe at the back of the foot, not necessarily at the end of the heel. But, then if you fit back there, you have a big shoe on the foot. So sometimes, especially with these types of hinds, I’ll just rocker the toe a little bit and I’ll fit them full. It just makes the shoe look like a normal shoe for that foot and it helps their mechanics a little bit. It follows the two-thirds, one-third concept of not trying to put on a bigger shoe than the foot will allow.”
Blessing examines Spot’s shoes and feet after his apprentice Nick Holt removed them and cleaned out the gelding’s feet.
“We’re going to graduate finally,” Blessing says. “The first time I shod him, I didn’t crease the shoe. I think he had a smaller shoe on. When he would run, he would just fall over his fetlocks on his behind.”
Spot is offset on the lateral side of all of his feet. Blessing had creased the shoes and fit him full in his previous shoeing. Now, Spot’s feet continue to grow.
“He doesn’t have a huge foot,” he says. “If I try to go up to a size 1, it’s too big. Instead, I’ll get roughly the same size shoe or a little shorter. I’ll get a thinner section with this shoe and I’ll just make it bigger by creasing it.”
Blessing fires up the forge, selects a new set of shoes for Spot and sets his hammer and fuller on the anvil. He makes many of his own tools, not only for cost savings, but also as a means of learning.
“Building tools is a huge advantage,” Blessing says. “Learning how to make tools teaches you a lot. Why are you tuning it this way? Because I need it to do this. You understand the function of it.”
He frequently hosts forging nights and uses those opportunities to help and motivate others such as Holt to get in the forge and improve their skills, as well as his own.
“I start him off drawing straight lines,” Blessing says. “It really teaches you how to move steel. It allows you to swing a hammer before you have to start worrying about making radiuses. I started Nick with a piece of coil spring to make a center punch. The biggest challenge is making it straight. If you mess it up, you can just fix it with your grinder. Next is a pritchel. If it gets messed up and you over forge it, you can hack it off and you still have a good tool. Then punches get smaller and you have to not over forge and keep it square. Then you move onto tongs, fullers, etc.”
It’s helped him improve, as well. He recently placed second behind world champion farrier Steven Beane in the 2019 International Hoof-Care Summit Mail-in Forging Exercise (see related article).
“You’re going to see better lines, draw better lines and shape your foot,” Blessing says. “Whatever you put on this poor critter has to deal with your inaccuracies for the next 6 weeks. It’s not fair to them. Not everyone has to build tools, but you always hear about farriers owning their craft. I think you should own your craft. You can take all of my tools from me, but I can build new ones.”
It has also helped him progress toward achieving a goal of becoming a tester in the American Farrier’s Association (AFA) Certification Program.
“I’ve passed all of my requirements to become a tester,” says Blessing, who is an AFA certified journeyman farrier. “I’m provisional right now, but my year will be up at the 2019 convention.”
With the left hind shoe ready, he heads back to Spot to burn it on. As the shoe begins to sizzle, the horse pulls away and the cross-ties release.
Gain more hoof-care insight by:
- Reading about the golden ratio method taught by Steve Kraus at Cornell University.
- Reading advice from Virginia farrier Darren Owen about the use of magnets and shoeing in wet climates.
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“We’ve done this before,” Blessing says reassuringly to Spot as Nick takes the lead rope to hold him. “He says, ‘Not here we haven’t.’”
The horse snorts in response.
“All the rest of the horses have been on this wall,” he says, “but I don’t think I’ve ever shod him on this wall.”
After giving Spot a second to calm down, Blessing tries again to burn on the shoe.
“We’ve done this, we’ve done this,” he says as Spot stands well while snorting. “Good boy, Mr. Spot.”
The gelding continues snorting as Blessing sets the shoe on the floor and pares a high spot from the foot. He brings the hot shoe back to the foot. Spot is quiet for a bit and then starts snorting again.
“Oh, I know,” Blessing talks gently to the horse. “Good boy, Mr. Spot.”
He retreats to the rig and hangs the shoe on the edge of his quenching bucket, cooling one branch.
“I feel like when you put a shoe into the water toe first, you have a lot higher chance of your shoe tweaking on you and going unlevel,” Blessing says. “Maybe it’s not true and it’s superstition, but I do know that when your steel is too hot when you quench it, it’ll actually move your shoe.”
Blessing repeats the process with the right hind shoe.
“All right, Mr. Spot,” he says as he walks to the horse.
As he burns the shoe one, Blessing continues talking to the horse in a quiet by upbeat tone.
“Horses can sense you much better than you can sense them,” he says. “I would go to certifications and walk up to a horse as calm as I could be and that horse could tell my brain was flipping out. Just talking in a normal voice while shoeing the horse can help the horse relax, especially when they are nervous.”
As Blessing finishes the burn, the horse exhales hard. He returns to his rig and widens the heel branch.
“It just needs to be a little wider to fit his heel properly,” he says, applying a set of vise grips to hold onto the shoe.
After burning on the shoe, he notes the change in shoe size.
He’s gobbling that shoe up,” he says, studying the shoe. “He’s a whole size bigger. We’re just shoeing little hermit crabs. They just need a bigger shell to grow. I’m not fitting him differently. His foot is just growing and changing, especially in his hinds, and his heels are dropping down.”
It’s not unusual for Blessing to see this, he says. Another horse he has on his client list started in a size 1, only to see it eventually grow two more sizes.
“His frog was all smashed in,” Blessing says. “I fit him full. The next time I came back, he was exploding out of his shoe. I creased it out and fit him full again. He exploded through that one. I jumped him up to a size 2. When I came back, he exploded out of that one. I creased it out. Finally, I took him to a size 3. He finally stayed in it. His frog was just a little dinky thing. Now, it’s like this big monster. It’s grown a total of about 1 ½ inches as his foot improved with each shoeing.”
As he nails on the right front shoe, Blessing wants to avoid a compression ring in Spot’s lateral hoof wall.
“I just want to go right behind it,” he says. “I’m trying to get just above it. I could drive a nail in there and it would be OK. I just prefer to have a higher nail.”
Blessing nips off the nails and proceeds to clinch them.
“I stopped clinch blocking horses last year,” he says. “I noticed that no farriers at contests were clinch blocking. So I asked this one guy. He told me about an English farrier who had never clinched with a block. I figure if he can clinch without a block for 30 years, I don’t need to do it.”
As Blessing thought more about it, he started counting.
“Everyone who uses a clinch box probably hits it at least three times,” he says. “Let’s think about it if they do it two times. With one shoe that’s 12 times. On a whole horse, it’s 50 swings with your hammer. When you get to two or three horses, now you’re up to about 150. Four full sets in a day and you’re up to 250 extra swings in a day. Multiply that by a week and now you’re up to over 1,000 extra hammer swings in a week. Not only that, but then your horse doesn’t have to sit there and have its foot pounded on 50 extra times in a day for no reason. It obviously will make a difference.”
Blessing assembles a package to protect Pepper, a gelding with thin soles. He drilled holes in the pad to help avoid mud and dirt from balling up between the foot and the pad.
Value of Horsemanship
Blessing has worked with horses from a young age. Although he didn’t own horses, he worked at a couple of different barns, including a Standardbred breeding farm for 10 years beginning as a 12-year-old. While he entered the job with the hope of riding, the experience he gained handling horses now pays dividends for him as a farrier.
As evidenced with Spot, Blessing understands that the gelding was reacting out of fear. Therefore, correction wasn’t necessary. Rather, communicating with the horse was the best course of action. There are times when correction is necessary.
“I think a level of correction varies,” he says. “I’m not the type of person who lets a horse get away with things. I live by the theory of unemotional correction. We respect each other and if a horse needs correction, it’s unemotional. We go right back to work. I don’t want to pick a fight. I’m just trying to do the best job that I can and put shoes on the horse.”
When Spot is finished, Blessing moves on to Jester. The gelding is shod on the fronts and barefoot behind. After he prepares the feet and is ready to burn on a front shoe, Blessing finds Jester facing away from him and parallel with the wall on his left side. In his best air ground crew impersonation, Blessing holds out his left arm, bending his elbow so his arm is up like a stop sign. While holding that pose, he points his right hand away from the wall and clicks his cheek to get the horse’s attention. Without any hesitation, Jester moves his hind end away from the wall. It’s a technique that works with all of his clients’ horses.
“If you do it with one hand and ask the horse to move, they won’t,” he says, noting this was a spontaneous act. The horses were not trained to respond to this. “As soon as you put the opposite hand up and point, they’ll start moving.”
Blessing tries various techniques, some work and some don’t.
“I’ve failed at it a lot of times,” he says. “When I find something that works, I’ll keep doing it.”
His time at the breeding farm taught him a great deal about communicating with horses.
“The manager told me I needed to get all of the yearlings to stand square for a sale,” he says. “I told him, ‘OK, I’m not an expert.’ I just did what I thought would work. I worked with them and got to the point where if they weren’t square, I could touch the shoulder and they’d move the foot back to where I wanted it.”
Blessing describes it as drawing lines through horses.
“When a horse acts up,” he says, “if you draw a line through that horse and push it through them, they’ll just go wherever you want them to.”
It takes some trial and error.
“I just do stuff that I feel might work,” Blessing says. “I have a couple of horses with shivers that I work on. When they crack up that foot, if you press it down and toward their hock, you’ll feel it let go and release. I don’t know why it works, but it does.”
Sometimes, just doing the opposite of what wasn’t working will get the job done.
“I was working on this draft horse that kept sitting down on me,” he says. “When you’re holding a foot and they push down and away, that’s the worst. He kept doing it and I couldn’t hold him up. Finally, he kept sitting down and I pushed it down and sat on his leg. That scared him a little and he picked it up. I don’t hold horses up. They can hold themselves up.”
A Straight Line
After shoeing Jester, Holt clinches and finishes while Blessing moves on to Pepper — the other horse with straight hind limbs.
“It’s just coming back in a straight line,” he says. “I’m sure that’s why he’s uncomfortable.”
Pepper’s hocks aren’t his only problems. The gelding was placing a great deal of pressure on his hind heels, causing distortion. Blessing essentially floated the heel to ease the pressure.
“Over time, shoeing him back has allowed the foot to come back,” Blessing says. “If you fit the back of the foot and take the stress off that heel that’s being smashed forward, it transitions the weight to where it should be. It’s not miracle work. It’s just balancing the foot.”
Is there a chance that the horse will pull the shoe?
“I’d rather have support under the horse’s limb and lose a shoe for a day than be undershod for 6 weeks for the rest of his life,” he says. “Besides, you’d be surprised at how little this horse doesn’t throw his shoes. I think it makes him feel better and he starts moving more correctly.”
In addition, Pepper has thin soles on his forefeet. To protect them, Blessing applies a Castle Plastics flat pad. However, pads — both flat and pour-ins — aren’t lasting long.
“Mud and dirt have been ripping out pour-in pads,” he says. “And mud has been balling up between the hoof and flat pad.”
To solve this problem, Blessing drills holes in the pads.
“The dirt just works in and out of the foot,” he says. “The pad stays flat and doesn’t make the balls like they were before.”
As Blessing drives home the last nail in the shoeing package, it’s a fitting conclusion to another day of “Shoeing For A Living” in which the comfort of the horse for the next 6 weeks and beyond is the priority of a farrier who is owning his trade.