December 4, 2012

If none of the 254 horses in the Rose Parade slips and falls on the five-mile route Jan. 1, equestrians can thank renowned farrier Ada Gates Patton.

The New York socialite/model/dancer/actress/cook/Bob Dylan-Janis Joplin roadie became the first and only woman licensed to shoe thoroughbred racehorses in the U.S. in 1978. And, for the last decade she's been the expert who checks the 1,000 or so shod hooves that pound Orange Grove and Colorado boulevards on New Year's Day.

Ada Gates Patton, a former New York debutante, Broadway dancer and fashion model, holding a horseshoe at her business, Harry Patton Horseshoeing Supplies in Monrovia on Wednesday, November 28, 2012. (SGVN/Photo by Walt Mancini)

"I like to say I started at the top and worked all the way to the bottom," Gates Patton joked, looking back on her trail-blazing journey.

It took her from Foxcroft School in Virginia, via Briarcliffe and Columbia colleges, majoring in dance and English, to the Broadway stage (including "Sabrina Fair" with Candice and Edgar Bergen) en route to the stables at Santa Anita Park racetrack.

"I was born with a silver spoon dripping out of my mouth," she said. But, "I was a wild and crazy guy."

Gates Patton said she took up horse-shoeing in Colorado, where she stayed after her car broke down on a 1971 road-trip from New York with a girlfriend.

"I'd never been further west than Hoboken, New Jersey," she said, laughing.

The friend went back to New York to become a stockbroker. Gates Patton liked Colorado. She stayed, bought a horse and couldn't find anyone to properly shoe it.

That's when she enrolled in Oklahoma Farriers College.

"I thought I'd do horses for myself, maybe my neighbors, and I used what was left of my college trust fund," she said. "Then it just got bigger."

She was the only woman student "of course."

"There was me and 49 boys, 15 or 16, and I was in my 20s," she said. "We were all there suffering - it's very hard to learn to turn iron ... Blacksmithing is finesse. Getting under a horse is all physical strength."

She shod horses and taught dancing - not such a strange combination, she said. "All my muscles came from pli s."

But when she tried to break into the horse-racing world back on the east coast, Gates Patton said she found the doors firmly closed, and in 1976 she moved to California.

"That's when I came to Santa Anita and started doing big-time horses. I was the only woman - of course," she said. "I presented myself to Harry Patton, head of the union, and I said, teach me what I need to pass the test. Every other man said no to me. Harry said yes."

Gates Patton said she failed the six-hour test the first time.

"It was five hours on the fire, no stopping, no breaks, then one hour under the horse," she said. She passed on the second try and built a reputation on her skill in fixing "hitting" horses whose running gait made their hooves hit their legs. "That's how I got work."

She and Harry Patton married and were together for 23 years in the Pasadena home where she still lives, until his death from cancer 12 years ago.

Ada Gates Patton, a former New York debutante, Broadway dancer and fashion model, standing next to a rack of horseshoes at her business, Harry Patton Horseshoeing Supplies in Monrovia on Wednesday, November 28, 2012. (SGVN/Photo by Walt Mancini)

Now she runs their business, Patton Horseshoeing and Farrier Supplies in Monrovia, and is generous with her expertise.

"She is really a huge resource to all equestrians" in the parade, said Pam Knapp, chairwoman of the Tournament of Roses equestrian committee. "Horses have shoeing issues and she is there to manage them."

Gates Patton always went to "the pit" horse staging area about 4 a.m. on parade day, Knapp said. But last year she began checks earlier at the pre-parade EquestFest.

Some horses are allowed to go "barefoot" on the route, Knapp said, but it's vital for horses to have shoes that give proper traction in slippery conditions.

"It's one thing to have a person fall down, you pick them up put them in a van and cart them away," she said. "If a horse falls it's a much bigger issue to get them back up. Ada is one of our unsung heroes."

Unsung, maybe, but Gates Patton has had her share of fame and honors in her 35-year career - she was farrier liaison for the 1984 Olympics and was recently inducted into the American Farriers Hall of Fame.

Not to mention the stories in People and Time magazines, appearances on "Today," "What's My Line" and "To Tell the Truth" - and her effort, immortalized on YouTube, to teach David Letterman to shoe a horse.

Her family had mixed reactions to her chosen career, Gates Patton said.

"My father was proud of me - he was an architect and vice president of Steuben Glass," she said. "But my mother was shocked. She was a `grande dame' from New York, and where she came from farriers were servants. She never expected her daughter to drop so low."

But it could all have been in the genes.

She recently found out that in 1835 her great-great-grandfather Henry Burden got the first patent for a horse-shoe machine - pretty lucky for the family fortunes.

"I had no idea, none," she said. "But Henry was a machinist, not a horse-shoer - he invented steel puddling and the machines that made railroad spikes, that's the one that made him all the money. And he had the Union Army contract for all the horse-shoeing in the Civil War. In 1869 he was making $3 million a year."

Gates Patton hasn't done the hard physical work of shoeing for a few years, but her business still has a forge and anvil, they customize and make therapy shoes, and make hoof stands for farriers' use.

She doesn't downplay how hard the job is.

She's been injured "of course," knocked out, hit on the head.

"But I happen to love horses," she said. "I was not good right away. It was a struggle, I didn't feel I was any good, major low self-esteem. But I worked hard to be good. It takes two or three years just to be facile, 10 years to get good, and 20 years to be on top. It's a journey."