While at the 2014 Cornell Farrier Conference, American Farriers Journal sat down with four farriers, each running a distinctly different practice, ranging from backyard clients to a veterinary clinic to high-end athletes:

  • Kalam Blessing — A 2012 graduate of the Cornell Farrier Program, his fledgling practice covers the Finger Lakes area of New York.
  • Dave Farley — The main focus of Farley’s practice is sport horses that compete in Wellington, Fla., Kentucky and in international competitions. His first professional year as a farrier was 1967.
  • Steve Kraus — The head of Farrier Services and a lecturer at the Large Animal Hospital at Cornell University, Kraus became a professional farrier in 1971.
  • Jack Millman — A farrier and clinician for nearly 40 years, Millman’s practice is based in Worthington, Mass., but he has traveled throughout the United States shoeing horses.

During this session, we talked about a variety of equine footcare topics. However, a popular theme throughout the discussion was issues affecting modern farriery. Here are some thoughts from these four farriers.

Dave, you’ve discussed seeing horses with the wrong type of shoeing. What do you see as the horses come down to Florida?

Dave Farley: It’s not as much a balance issue these days. I think the industry has become so much better, especially with medial-lateral balance.

Instead, with the horses that I see, their problems are more related to the incorrect shoe choice. I see the tendencies of not just one horse, but collectively of the farrier who shoes that horse before they come down. If a dressage horse arrives and it is wearing concave all the way around, I know that all the rest of them from that barn are going to be set up the same way.

In many cases, it immediately becomes an issue with the veterinarian and the trainer, who then react by wanting to let this qualified farrier go. It’s quite sad. I try to talk with that farrier privately and discuss it, because otherwise that’s going to be that way with every horse that they send.

Do you see this too, Steve, but in the different setting of the veterinary clinic?

Steve Kraus: I agree with Dave, but I’ll take it a step further. He’s seeing the better horses for the most part, so it’s just a bad shoe choice because they don’t realize what these horses need to do where they are.

The wrong shoe choice can be in different directions. In one version I see, a farrier carries only one type of shoe in the truck — usually a light shoe because it’s cheap and easily shaped cold. And that goes on everything, trying to make that one type of shoe work on all horses. That’s coupled with a poor trim leaving the foot too stubby and too short.

When the foot’s trimmed properly, not only is that shoe too light for the horse to begin with, but also one or two sizes too small. And the worst part is the shoe’s not worn out, the horse comes into the hospital for radiographs and then the owner wants the shoe put back on. I can’t do it because I’m just throwing fuel on the fire. Sometimes horses come in for exams just because of this situation and there’s nothing clinically wrong with it — yet.

The owner wants to know why the horse is sore. In some cases, the horse is not moving right. Maybe it’s tripping and falling down. And all this is easily corrected by trimming the foot properly and putting on the right shoe for that horse. We can’t get it all the way with the trim, so the shoe takes it the rest of the way. And that’s one of the fallacies of barefoot horses — the shoe should enhance the trim.

And you said poor shoeing goes in other directions. What is another problem that you come across in your setting?

Kraus: The other version that I see is really well-shod horses wearing handmade shoes, most often with concave. It’s the wrong shoe choice for what this horse is doing, because the concave is a traction-oriented shoe and the horse doesn’t need to be biting into the ground. The horse needs to be on top of what it’s doing. And maybe that farrier knocks the toe back and says, “Well, I put a rolled toe on it.”

But concave is so stylized — it’s some of the British influence. There are some really good farriers out there who are working on horses and all they use is concave. That approach works for those shoers, so many others want to copy them. That’s great if you can copy them and make the horses come out right. But avoid style-driven shoeing rather than what’s correct for the horse or its job — I don’t care what the job, you do it correctly. But if you don’t get there, then it’s no different than somebody who puts a 1/2-inch by 1-inch roadster shoe on the hinds of a barrel racing horse. Sorry, but if you want to practice for contests, buy your own horses and do it — don’t do it to your clients.

Jack Millman: That’s a common problem — there is no consideration for what the horse needs. I’ve tried to put some of the older jumpers into concaves, but that is just way too aggressive for those older horses. The shoe really sticks into the ground and the horse doesn’t slide. The horse doesn’t get comfort out of it. I’ve moved away from concave on a lot of those horses simply because of the need to think about what each horse is going to do on different surfaces.

There is a danger of falling into trends. Part of what we were talking about before. For example, with reiners there were several years where whoever won the nationals, that’s how you shod and how the trainer wanted it. Aluminum bar shoes were the fad for 2 years — I put them on all my reiners.

How much is that a problem for horses when different farriers from different areas handle the footcare throughout the year?

Millman: For me, that has everything to do with consistency. When our horses would return home from being down south, I would have a terrible time. It’s like Dave’s experience, they weren’t bad shoers — there was a nuance to their style.

In one case, I let the owner know that if she covered my expenses, I’d fly down to Florida and shoe her horses. At least we would have the consistency for those eight horses she took there. And the consistency really makes the difference.

What is another trend that you see?

Kraus: Too many farriers have learned how to shoe generically, not specifically. That’s a problem — too much generic shoeing. Generic shoeing, I would say, is just trimming to a flat foot, reasonable balance, short toe and then sticking a very cheap, basic shoe on the horse.

As young farriers improve with the craft — if they survive — they begin realizing, “Oh, I need these kinds of shoes for these kinds of horses. I need a wider web punched in more shoes. Or I need something lighter.” Then they start thinking, “OK, these feet need this type of shoe in this environment.” As opposed to generic shoeing.

Kalam Blessing: That is why learning at a place like Cornell benefited me. I received the experience of seeing different horses and different problems.

I learned why we’re doing what we do, and how it would benefit a particular horse for a particular situation. You must be able to explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing things instead of settling for, “I do this because that’s what everybody does.”

I think that’s why generic shoeing exists. It’s a fear to push the limits, to put that shoe where it needs to be.

Now that you are out of school, what are you seeing with your practice on a regular basis that negatively affects your horses?

Blessing: The biggest thing is there are too few horsemen through the equine industry. I see this a lot with rescued Thoroughbreds. The horses are turned out in a field that might have gone 2 weeks without rain. Then all of a sudden, it rains for a week and the weather goes back and forth.

Their walls are thin, the foot hasn’t been balanced and the sole is sitting flat because it’s flared up. If the horses are shod, the shoes are too small to support the horse. So when the horses get turned out in those conditions, they develop lameness issues.

Farley: You’re absolutely right about horsemanship. Many horse owners, because they either don’t ride many horses or they have just one horse that they’re comfortable with, they don’t know what a good horse really is.

I often find this true when it comes to people who are managing the barefoot horse — they get used to mediocrity. The horse isn’t lame, but it’s not as good as it can be. But that’s OK for them because they don’t know how a top horse should be.

If you want to be a horse trainer or really go after showing horses, you better have ridden more than 50 horses. If not, then you haven’t ridden enough horses to know what’s going on. And so you’re satisfied with mediocrity.

If the horse is sort of doing its job, the inexperienced trainer doesn’t know the difference between a good shoeing job or not. You don’t know that maybe this horse can be improved with better shoeing. The horse is just doing a job and it’s just not a winner, it’s not a loser. Being comfortable results in accepting mediocrity.

Can the farrier be in danger of being too comfortable in his or her work too? How do you identify that pitfall?

Farley: Everyone is in danger of becoming too comfortable in their work. Unfortunately, you often don’t realize that until it’s so late that we start defending it — whatever you’re comfortable doing.

Being defensive permeates from somebody asking the question about your comfort zone. And rather than replying, “Well, that’s interesting, I’ve never heard of that shoe, I’d like to try it,” your defensive mechanism is triggered. The classic defensive response is something like, “Listen, this has worked for me for 30 years.” That’s the farrier who’s going to defend that comfort zone so they don’t have to change.

How does the farrier overcome that client’s lack of horsemanship?

Farley: At times, you have to shoe better than the rider can ride. You have to help that horse and help yourself because that rider is going to be the cause of your shoe loss.

Kraus: Riding a variety of horses is important. As a polo player, I’ve ridden many other types of horses — hundreds of horses. I know the horses, I know how they’re supposed to go and I know what a good horse feels like underneath me.

I can do that from a rider’s point of view. But most people who we are working for have only ridden two or three horses and they can’t give you the feedback because they don’t know anything else.

You can set up the horse to perform well for one rider, but then another rider gets on. Then the horse can’t get it up underneath itself. Where is that fine line?

Most of the horses that I shoe that are at home or in training tend to pull shoes because of the wrong shoe on the hind end. It’s the back end that has either not enough purchase or whatever to push the front end away.

I don’t have to deal with losing them in the pasture and all that, so I have to think, “Is this horse staying with the trainer or is it going home?” Because if it is going home, I have to change the shoeing plan.

There is a responsibility of educating the client, like about how the horse should be turned out. What’s your role
in that?

Farley: My responsibility is not my shoeing skill but just to communicate with everyone else. And you need to communicate often. It is about communicating with everyone on the team — the vet, trainer, the rider.

What is the key to that teamwork?

Millman: Trust. You have to first earn that trust. If I go into a client situation and that trust has eroded, I can’t work. I have to believe in what I’m doing, but I’ve got to have the people who I’m working with believe in what I’m doing and believe in what they’re doing. Talk with your clients as much as possible.

Kraus: Once you fit into that team and they trust you, then the team depends on each other — we look to each other for help. It’s an amazing thing that happens. When you’re dealing with a veterinarian who’s really willing to work with you and you get the radiographs that you need and do the exams that you need, it’s great. The owner is willing to look at that horse and talk about what you need to do —
that’s golden.

Blessing: Communication is how I build trust with the client. If I see a problem, I tell my clients. I tell my clients anything I see about the foot. We discuss what we should do about it. If they have questions, I answer them. But if I don’t know the answer, I try to find it for them and not have them try and find the answer.

Farley: Not only does that build confidence, but trust builds business. It builds a lot of business.

Millman: I was a first responder with the ambulance and fire department for 30 years. As an EMT, when you walk into a situation, you do a scene survey. You first do this for safety — you don’t go anywhere dangerous.

The second thing is you must be innovative and creative with the situation you’ve received.

It is the exact same thing when we walk into a horse situation. You’ve got to be able to think innovatively. You’ve got to be able to think, “What am I going to do with this?”

You look at the horse, gather the information, make a plan and be willing to change your plan — period. And if you can’t do that, then you’re in trouble.

Don’t do anything that you don’t understand the consequences of. You don’t want unintended consequences on these horses. And like you said, when we’re in a competition, the job is to get those horses into the show ring and keep them sound and do their jumping.