Crouched beside Sunny’s dappled belly, Hilary Cloos, a 1996 graduate of Harvard, holds his hoof in her lap, digging out the dirt and nipping down the hoof wall, as any good pedicurist would.

“Come on, good boy,” she murmurs as the teenage palomino shifts uncomfortably. “You are fine, fine. Yes, you are a fine specimen.”

Hilary Cloos, a New Paltz, N.Y., farrier checks the burn marks on Willoughby at Weatogue Stables in Salisbury, Conn.

The patter calms the horse, which has stood patiently in the barn at the Weatogue Stables, in Salisbury, Conn., for more than an hour letting Cloos do her job. Horses generally compete well into their 20s, but Sunny has weak tendons and was retired from dressage work in 2013.

She grabs a new aluminum shoe, a hammer and nails
and heads back inside, patting Sunny’s neck, then runs her strong, square hands through his coat.“Now we have him in therapeutic shoes only in the front, so he can keep going outside and ambling around comfortably,” Cloos explains while walking out to her truck, a portable blacksmith shop.

“We’re almost done, good boy.”

Taking up the hoof, Cloos nails on the shoe, mindful of the “white line,” 1/8 of an inch of keratin protein separating the insensitive hoof wall and live sole tissue.

“It took years,” she says, “to get the feel of where that is.”

Released, Sunny saunters back to the rolling pastures along the Housatonic River that are his home.

Equal parts vet, mechanic and blacksmith — and all horse-whisperer — Cloos is based in New Paltz, N.Y., and cares for about 180 horses throughout western Connecticut and the Hudson Valley. Weatogue was a dilapidated former breeding farm for Arabian horses when Roxanne and Scott Bok (a Park Avenue investment banker), who also own the farm across the road, bought the 60-acre property to prevent the land from being developed. They overhauled the facilities and opened Weatogue as a training barn for dressage and eventing that now draws a mix of hobbyists and competitors among regional riders and weekenders from Manhattan.

“A horse’s hoof, as you probably know from hanging around Hilary, is super-complicated,” says Roxanne Bok, author of Horsekeeping. “It’s true, that saying: ‘No hoof, no horse.’ Hilary has a huge position of responsibility, it’s very hard work — and you need brains.”

Bok and Cloos, like many horse-lovers, are energized by the sensory nature of equine life. Barn work is earthy work: full of hay dust, flies, and the smells of sweat, manure, grain bins, saddle soaps, and oils, the sounds of running water, and, Cloos notes, “lots of rope and leather”: bridles, halters, lariats and girths.

“It’s all so tactile,” she adds. “I also like just touching the horses and their feet and hammering the metal. I love being outside and moving from barn to barn. And the physical contact; I’m pushed up against these warm, powerful creatures all day.”

Cloos focused on women’s studies’ courses at Harvard until realizing “my papers were on viewpoints and analysis.” Physics gratified a preference for “more concrete answers: either you understand how something works, or you don’t.” The advanced math was always a struggle, but worth it for courses like “Widely Applied Physics,” where “we took apart everything,” she says, “from how high insects can jump to how a nuclear reactor works.”

Harvard Magazine photo

She never discussed horses with her adviser, Mallinckrodt professor of physics Howard Georgi, until her senior year, when he asked about post-graduation plans.

“I sort of shamefacedly said I was hoping to be a working student for an event rider — train under a rider and do their barn chores,” she recalls. “Georgi brightened up and said, ‘Oh! My wife has a horse she doesn’t have time to ride.’”

Cloos was soon exercising Ann Georgi’s Selle Français, Max, on Boston’s North Shore, and after she graduated, the Georgis sent Max out to her for caretaking once she’d settled in the Hudson Valley.

By then Cloos was riding regularly, but would soon cycle through two “extremely boring” barn jobs. She had long ago nixed a veterinary career “because I didn’t have the stomach for it: during a college internship at an equine clinic,” she explains, “a horse came in with a stick in its eye, and I just wanted to leave.” A mentor suggested shoeing, so in the spring of 1997 Cloos started the highly regarded, four-month farrier program affiliated with Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Farriers in Britain are licensed professionals, but in the United States the field is unregulated, even though many programs, like Cornell’s, award certificates. The American Farriers’ Association has about 2,000 members, says executive director Beth Daniels, but cannot track how many more farriers there are around the country. She does know that “women farriers are still pretty darn unique,” despite the fact that most horse owners, trainers, riders, and vets — except in the racing industry — are women.

“It’s tough, physical work. You have to be very strong,” she points out. “Farriers get right in underneath horses and when horses get spooked or fall down, which they sometimes do, it’s dangerous.”

Six years after completing the Cornell program — four spent apprenticing with farriers in the Hudson Valley and another two building a practice from word-of-mouth referrals—Cloos became an independent farrier. The job requires skills in “art and craft,” but also science. Horses’ legs and feet, it turns out, epitomize classical mechanics, her favorite school of physics.

“They are all levers (the bones) and pulleys (the tendons) and pendulums,” she explains. “My job is finding the weaknesses of a horse — how those affect the whole system — and figuring out what’s interfering in what way, and how I can change the ground-to-foot-surface interaction and weight on the foot to improve that horse’s performance, protect its legs, and make it comfortable.”

Horses essentially walk on tiptoe; as they evolved they lost most of their digits, and the middle one became today’s tough, keratin-packed hoof. Each year, a horse typically grows an entire new hoof capsule, from the hairline to the toe, Cloos says, like a “tubular version of a human toenail.” That capsule must be trimmed and filed every four to six weeks to prevent it from interfering with walking, trotting, and cantering, much less with the rigors of dressage, jumping, and hunting.

Farriers focus on the distal limb: the part of the leg below the knee and hock that contains nine bones and virtually no muscle. Pivotal are two tendons, the extensor and the deep digital flexor, that run down and attach to the top and bottom of the coffin bone, respectively.

“The coffin bone sits in the front of the hoof capsule,” just above the sole, Cloos explains, in front of the tender V-shaped tissue called the “frog.” The aim is to keep the toe of the hoof from extending too far beyond the tip of the coffin bone, because that can cause excess pressure on the tendon, resulting in tears, falls, or other injuries.

The laminae are the “coolest” part of the foot, she thinks: “interdigitating folds of tissue in the hoof wall” that create a surface area strong enough to carry a horse’s weight when the perimeter of a hoof alone is insufficient. Emergencies occur when the live tissue of the laminae starts sliding through the insensitive tissue and the coffin bone rotates, or the whole mass pushes through the sole of the foot, she says, “That’s when you have blood and pain.”

Injuries do happen, which is why Cloos favors shoeing long-term-performance horses like her clients. Farriers get heated over topics like letting horses run barefoot, she reports: “It’s akin to people who think human runners should run without sneakers. Some can, and there are those who can’t. We haven’t genetically selected for good feet with domesticated horses: we’ve selected for good breeding, we’ve chosen for pretty, fast, or jumps high, and those are not necessarily paired with good feet. In the wild, horses are selected for good feet: the fleet-footed stallions catch the babes and the good-footed mares can carry the babies to term.”

Cloos aims to work with clients throughout their lives; some have been with her for more than 12 years. Horse-racing is more short-term.

“The horses are treated as more expendable,” she says. “It may not be fair for me to say that, because I have not spent time on a track,” but in apprenticing at breeding farms, she found the priority was “just about bringing them to sale.”

Cloos, on the other hand, spends a significant part of every day nurturing relationships with horses.

“Like any animal,” she adds, “they are really responsive to your moods.”

The “spooky or flighty” ones make her more nervous, so “I talk to them more, just to remind myself to keep breathing — because if you stop breathing and stiffen up, then they think there is really a problem,” she adds. “They can sense fear, and if you are in a rush with the work, you are really doomed.”

Occasionally, even her sure hands and patient patter don’t work. She has been kicked a few times, though never hurt — “Usually you are so close to the horse that, if they do kick you, it’s more of a shove out of the way; at the end of the blow is when they have the momentum on it.”

There are horses that “for whatever reason, don’t like me, or I don’t like them,” she says.

“It’s like with any person you have to work with: you acknowledge that there is a certain level of discomfort and you try to adapt.”

Recently, a horse that had just been brought in from a nearby farm was skittish in the new barn; he “got so upset when I was working on him that he finally just tore away from the person holding him and ran back to the field he had come from,” she says. “That was a bad day.”

But for most horses, shoeing is like going to the dentist, she says: “It’s not how you would choose to spend your time, but you put up with it because you need to.”

Sunny is cold-shod, which means his shoes are hammered into shape and attached without being heated (because aluminum melts too easily). His stable-mate Jade is hot-shod, which requires more training, time and skill, and therefore can be more expensive. Horseshoes range widely in size, materials, and weight; farriers custom-fit each horse depending on its needs, by widening and narrowing the shoe, and by using pads and other add-ons that protect weak points and fill in the gaps to improve how fluidly the foot moves. For teenage riders who might “go hooliganing” around a trail, Cloos screws “caulks,” akin to cleats, onto their horses’ shoes to enhance traction. For Jade, Cloos adds “pour pads” as protection under the shoe because his soles are thin and his coffin bone is easily bruised.

“The goal is to fit them so well it’s like they are wearing nothing,” she says, turning on the propane-fired forge in her truck and using tongs to hold a steel shoe in the flames until it is “orange-hot.” Then she applies it to Jade’s hoof for about 5 seconds. The billowing smoke smells like burning hair, but her client doesn’t blink because Cloos has trimmed the foot to leave a layer of insensitive tissue. The burns show where she needs to further file down the hoof wall. Then Cloos re-heats the shoe to pound it into shape on the anvil.

Brawn doesn’t count much in the process, but Cloos is compact and athletic.

“Our instructor at Cornell used to say that farriers went to hell for two reasons: one was not charging enough for their work, and the other was for striking cold metal,” she says. “You just make so much more work for yourself that way. Certainly it’s a strong surface and you are working with iron, but you’re supposed to use the forge to shape the metal — ‘to strike while the iron is hot.’”

She cuts the pads to fit over the horse’s sole, and then, once the new shoe is shaped and cooled, sets the pads and nails the shoe against them onto Jade’s hoof. Nipping off any sharp edges and using a “clincher” to tuck remaining metal into the hoof wall, she then refiles the hoof and the shoe for a final smooth finish.

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