Farrier George Fitzgerald is “trying to be semi-retired.” A staple in the farrier industry, Fitzgerald splits his time between Sandy Hook, Conn., and Wellington, Fla., while operating a rodeo rough stock business on the side. To listen to Fitzgerald share his journey in the farrier industry, retirement doesn’t seem like a word in his vocabulary and he concedes, “I won’t ever completely stop.”
Today, Fitzgerald Horseshoeing provides farrier services to hunter-jumper competitors, servicing four stables a week. Still learning and sharing his knowledge, the experience he has gained throughout a tenacious career made him a go-to for young and seasoned farriers, industry professionals and academics alike.
In a recent interview, George reflects on his career and the changes the industry has undergone, and offers his insight and advice to his colleagues in the industry.
Q. What interested you in being a farrier?
FITZGERALD: I grew up in a poor family, and when I got to the age that I could leave the house, I would ride my bicycle to a local farm owned by Leman Rogers; a lot of the local kids would. We would help him pick up hay and, in return, he would let us ride his horses. That was my first connection with horses and Mr. Rogers became like a second father to me.
When I was about 16, I got a job at White Stallion Dude Ranch in Hillsdale, N.Y. We would take out riders, people who came from New York City and other guests at the ranch. There was an older gentleman from Sheffield, Mass., that used to come in to shoe the horses. I got interested in watching him work — he worked so quietly around a horse. When I didn’t have any other work to do, I would go down and help him; I would pass him tools, sweep the floor, whatever I had to do to give the man a hand. As time went on, he asked me to come to his farm on my day off and ride around with him. His shoeing rig was a 1932 Ford and he had a shoeing box and anvil in the back — just essentials, nothing like today. That’s how I really got interested in shoeing horses.
Q. How did you get started in the farrier business?
FITZGERALD: I eventually left the ranch and began shoeing horses on my own. Back then there weren’t that many horses in Great Barrington, Mass. I was doing OK — thinking that I could shoe horses, but really didn’t know what I was doing — like many young farriers just starting out.
I was at the Great Barrington Horse Show, a big show that catered to all breeds: long-toed horses, Hackney ponies, Walking horses … all of the breeds. I ran across a farrier named Johnny Kriz, and he offered me a job working with him and his brother. I guess that’s when my career as a farrier really began. I worked with Johnny and his brother Joe for 5 or 6 years as their helper, until I was drafted. I served in the military for a couple of years and then went back to helping the Kriz brothers for another 4 years until I got married and started a family. I wanted to get better at what I was doing and to do that I had to learn more. That was when I started Fitzgerald Horseshoeing.
In the late 1960s, I was offered the opportunity to work the Madison Square Garden Horse Show. Back then, you didn’t just “do” the horse show. You had to be asked and there was a process.
Two representatives from the show came to a stable where I was working. They interviewed me and watched me shoe a horse, and then they offered me the job. I stayed with the show for 30 years.
Q. You say that you wanted to learn more. What resources were available at that time to help a young farrier learn more about the craft?
FITZGERALD: Horseshoeing is all knowledge and working the Madison Square Garden Horse Show was quite an education.
But back then you didn’t have all of the educational opportunities that you do today. You had to learn on your own, or from the person that you were working for. Most of the time, though, they would turn their back when they were doing something important because they didn’t want you to see. It was a completely different game than what it is today. It was very secretive.
The best book that was available, back when I was interested in reading books about horseshoeing, was Doug Butler’s “Principles of Horseshoeing.” Every horseshoer should have that book, even today. I studied that book and others. I am a collector of old horseshoeing books and have learned a lot from them.
The biggest challenge at that time, as it is today, was how to shoe a horse with laminitis. We just didn’t know what we do now — like the difference between a sinker and a horse that just has rotation. We would try different things and some of the horses would get better and some wouldn’t. We really didn’t know a lot about navicular and what to do for it until Dr. James Rooney came out with a book on the subject. It was like that with so many of the issues, and things got better with more knowledge. As more and more people and universities got involved with laminitis, we were able to do a better job for those horses.
We also started an association in Connecticut — Connecticut Horseshoer’s Association — around the same time the American Farrier’s Association was formed. We were doing a lot of things pretty similarly to what they are doing today. The process was almost like a certification: you could shoe your horse in front of a couple of the directors and they would give you advice and help you get better. This went on for about 4 or 5 years.
Q. What does your practice look like today and how does it differ from years past with retirement on the horizon?
FITZGERALD: One of the greatest differences in my practice today is the void left by the passing of my business partner, Mike Weaver. Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Our partnership started out as a weeklong ride-along and turned into a business partnership that lasted until he was diagnosed with cancer in his early 60s.
I have slowed down in the last 10 or 12 years. Since I got into the rodeo circuit, I have started to take more time off. For the first 40 years, I never took a vacation; I would shoe 6 days a week and then come home and shoe in the barn. I always felt guilty if I wasn’t shoeing a horse. I didn’t have any “Hall Of Fame” goals; it was just the way I set up my standard of work. You can Google a lot, but you still have to have an eye and hands for it. You can’t shoe one horse and then not shoe another for 3 weeks and expect to do a good job.
I am beginning the process of retiring, but don’t plan to completely stop. I still have a lot to learn. The thing about horseshoeing is you will never learn it all. You can go through your whole life, work at it every day, and never know it all. I don’t think anyone in the business would disagree with that.
Q. How did you become involved with the Summit and why have you kept returning year after year?
FITZGERALD: Things today are so much easier for farriers than they were in the ’60s and ’70s, and the Summit and different organizations have a lot to do with that. The first Summit I attended was in 2012; it is still the best thing going for farriers. The Summit has the best trade show in the world.
The people who attend are open to exchanging information, which is great because the whole industry has become very technical — to the point that you really have to be able to speak a veterinarian’s language to talk about the different terminology.
If you want to be a good horseshoer, you have to keep up with what is happening — and the Summit is the best place to do that.
Q. As you prepare to scale back in your farrier business, what advice do you have for other farriers, especially those just getting started?
FITZGERALD: If you want to be a good horseshoer, you need to be a horse person first, not a horseman — and there’s a difference. You have to like horses, know how to handle them and be comfortable around them.
The other thing is to find somebody to ride along with. The guys who are willing to trade a little money for knowledge — those are the ones who make it.