The month of May is drawing to a close and spring has come to the Montana mountain country — and it’s easy to see where the state got its Big Sky Country nickname.

Snow had disappeared from all but the highest peaks in the Garnet Mountain range, an hour or so east of Missoula by car. Meadows and pasture lands have come to life. At the Montana guest ranches scattered through this area, that means the summer season’s guests will soon be arriving — and when they arrive, they’ll want to ride horses.

That means there’s a lot of horseshoeing that’s going to need to be done in a hurry. Many horses on these ranches spend the winter months going barefoot. And between the end of the winter and the arrival of guests, there isn’t a lot of time to see to the horses’ footcare needs.

One guest ranch in the area has come up with a program that gets its horses shod in time for guests and also provides an educational “practicum” for students at a horseshoeing school.

The ranch has about 120 horses that have just spent the winter running free on the range — free, but kept close to home by some fencing as well as natural boundaries formed by steep hills and ravines and the attraction of feed and hay put out for them during the cold months when natural forage is buried under snow. But their winter “vacation” is over. They’ve been rounded up and herded back into the corral area where on this Thursday afternoon, there is the sound of hammers ringing on steel — a lot of hammers. And a lot of steel.

Andy Erickson, elder son of one of the families that has run this ranch for more than a century, is a pretty good horseshoer. So is one of the top wranglers, Ethan Landis. But getting everything else ready for the guests to arrive is a big job and there’s no way the two of them can find time to shoe more than 100 horses — so they’ve come up with an alternative method.

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RIDERS COMING IN. Andy Erickson leads a group of riders back toward the corral after a morning trail ride at a Montana guest ranch. The horses are shod with an eye toward keeping them sure-footed as they carry riders across a variety of terrain.

2 p.m. Thursday. In the corral, the horseshoeing students from Montana State University in Bozeman have set up a half-dozen or so farrier workstations. They’ve made the 4-hour drive with their instructor, Tom Wolfe. Under his watchful eyes, the students are undergoing a sort of practical exam on what they’ve been studying for most of a semester. Wolfe thinks it can be a real eye-opener for his students.

“This is like the real world,” says Wolfe, who has been bringing his students to the ranch for several years. “You get up in the morning, shoe all day, go to bed and get up and do it again.”

The ranch feeds the students and also provides them with housing during the 3 days they spend shoeing the ranch’s string of horses. Wolfe says he also believes it’s good for the students to experience what’s its like to work for a real client, away from the classroom environment.

“This lets them get the feel for working for someone else,” he says. “They’re used to shoeing for me. They know what I expect and want. Here, Juanita looks their work over and they have to shoe the horses the way she wants them.”

Juanita is the ranch’s head wrangler. She grew up working on the ranch with her father, who preceded her in the job. She knows the horses and also knows what will be expected of them during the summer’s work.

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FINISHED PRODUCT. One of the heart bar shoes Jay Evans made, after it has been fitted and nailed into place.

2:13 p.m. There’s more to getting the horses ready for the season than just trimming and shoeing. A local veterinarian is on hand, making his way through the neighboring holding pen, vaccinating the horses for West Nile virus and strangles as well as any other shots or medication they may be due for.

In addition to the practical experience of shoeing the horses, the students are getting some added expert tutelage. On hand is George Platt, the Eagle, Colo., equine veterinarian who — with the late Burney Chapman — helped re-introduce the heart bar shoe. With Platt is Jay Evans, an experienced farrier from Minturn, Colo., who frequently works with Platt. The two are on hand to deal with any lameness cases as well as any specialized shoeing that horses in the ranch herd may require.

Platt is also scheduled to deliver an anatomy lecture Friday morning, while he and Evans will take time later this afternoon to show the students how to build and use a heart bar shoe.

Platt’s daughter, Connie is married to Erickson. These trips to the ranch with Evans have become a sort of working vacation for both the Platt and Evans families. Evans’s wife, Claire has accompanied him along with their daughter, Tala, and son, Keeler. Platt’s wife, Cornelia, is along as well as his youngest granddaughter, Erin and another daughter and her family are due to arrive later in the day.

Evans says he’ll stay busy shoeing horses for much of the stay, but he’ll also have time to enjoy the activities available at the ranch. He says in many ways, the days he spends at the ranch are his favorite shoeing job of the year.

“And I don’t get paid for this,” he adds with a laugh.

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SCHOOL’S OUT.  The ranch’s horses gallop out into the pasture at the end of a long day in the corral.

2:32 p.m. It’s the second day this horseshoeing assembly line has been operating. Several workstations are lined up down the center of one corral. Horses are selected and led into this corral from a larger holding pen and are tethered to the corral down either side.

One student does the shoeing on all four feet of each horse. Other students — who are between horses of their own — serve as handlers for horses that won’t stand quietly while being worked on.

Students also join ranch wranglers in bringing horses from the holding pen as well as helping catch them for the vet who’s handling the vaccinations.

Wolfe says that this class is fairly typical of what he’s seen in recent years. The class of a dozen students includes three women. The average age is 31. He does mention that this particular group has less experience with horses than some. He says he sees that more and more in horseshoeing students recently.

“The biggest drawback with students I’m seeing is a lack of horse sense,” he says, emphasizing that he’s referring to the horse-handling variety as opposed to common sense. “That’s one of the things we try to give them some experience with.”

In this class, the level of experience in horse handling as well as actual horse shoeing varies broadly. Some students, Wolfe says, knew next to nothing when they started the class. But another student had been shoeing as an apprentice for a couple of years before he signed on for Wolfe’s 3-month program. He’ll actually be leaving the ranch a day early to head for an American Farrier’s Association certified farrier certification test in Washington state.

A couple of the other students have worked as trainers. Their experience comes in handy with some of the horses that require a lot of care in handling. They’ve become used to months of relative freedom on the range. Most don’t seem too happy about being in the corral when they know all that open pasture and spring mountain grass are just beyond the fence, and some are downright hostile to the concept of being shod. They might not exactly be wild mustangs, but some of them are acting a bit like mustang wannabes.

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EXPERT ADVICE. George Platt uses a rasp to touch up the shoeing job done by a Montana State University farrier student.

2:42 p.m. When one or another of the horses becomes too uncooperative to be shod, the more experienced horse handlers among the students take it into a round training pen, where they’ll work with it until it becomes more docile. This may involve something as simple as lunging the horse until it becomes tired out, or – in extreme cases – strapping up a leg for a few minutes. Landis, one of the ranch’s veteran wranglers, and Wolfe also help with this.

2:53 p.m. Wolfe also oversees the shoeing work, moving from horse to horse, watching shoers, making suggestions and giving a final inspection to each shoeing job before the horse is OK’d and turned back into the inner corral.

If Juanita or Erickson have made any special requests regarding a particular horse, Wolfe will also see to it that they examine the shoeing job as well, before the horse is released.

3:13 p.m. Evans works with Platt to shoe any horses that are showing lameness issues and he also shoes some of the horses that will be used for more than guest trail riding. He’ll handle the shoeing of most of the horses used by the ranch’s wranglers, for instance, as well as some that are used for events like barrel racing or other rodeo competitions.

“I do most of the performance horses that need to be set up and organized special,” he says. “There are also a couple of horses that we know from experience have chronic lameness issues. If you don’t handle them right, they’ll come up lame halfway through the season.

Evans is sort of a “born again” horseshoer. He grew up on ranches in Montana and first shod horses in neighboring Wyoming when he was in his teens. But after a number of years away from the trade — much of it spent as a member, coach and trainer with the U.S. Ski Team — he decided to get back into horseshoeing.

“This time I decided I really wanted to learn to do it right. Before, I knew just enough to be dangerous,” he says. “I went to a short course — sort of fast track — since I already had some experience and knew how to do the basics. But then I went out to work with guys who could teach me the skills I needed to do the kind of work I’m doing now. I went to New Mexico and worked with Jim Keith for a while. I guess I can say I’ve been learning about shoeing pretty much all over.”

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CHECKING THE FIT. Jay Evans gestures as he shows the fit of a heart bar shoe to Montana State University farrier students.

Evans believes his skiing background is helpful in shoeing. As a coach and trainer, he became a student of the effects of motion, movement and stress on skiers. While equine anatomy is clearly much different than that of humans, the analytical skills he developed in working with skiers are very useful in his work with horses.

Evans has been shoeing full time since 1999 now. He’s one of those farriers who clearly believes that being a horseshoer is a continual learning process.

3:19 p.m. His shoeing rig and workstation is set up outside the corral where the school shoers are working. He’s set up close enough to a small gate that he can get easily from the area where he’s shoeing the horse to his forge.

Evans says the ranch horses are shod with the work they’ll be doing in mind.

“This is sort of what they call a hunter fit back East,” he says. “Out here, we call it an everyday fit. The shoes are fit tight to make sure they stay on.”

Evans says he doesn’t want horses losing a shoe while they’re several miles away from the ranch’s main buildings on a trail ride. He also wants to keep the horses upright.

“I won’t chop down the heels. I want surefooted horses,” he says. “They’re going to be ridden up and down steep trails, through downed timber and in loose shale. They’re also going to be under some inexperienced riders.”

Evans says the biggest emphasis in his shoeing is alignment.

“What rules our world is getting P1, P2 and P3 in a straight axis,” he says. “George (Platt) likes to see the growth lines on the hoof matching the way the fetlock lines up.”

Evans is using keg shoes in his work, but modifies each one hot, using his forge and anvil.

“You can’t flatten a cold shoe,” Evans tells a couple of the students who are watching him work. “Try and do that and you’re just connecting kinks.”

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IF THE SHOE FITS. Jay Evans slips a steel ruler between his heart bar shoe and the pad material he’s using. He wants the ruler to slide in and out easily when the leg is unloaded, but to be held securely when it is loaded.

3:32 p.m. Wolfe’s students get a break from their shoeing now, as they’re about to get a lesson from Platt and Evans about forging and applying heart bar shoes. The horse involved is one of those that has had chronic lameness issues in the past. Evans says that a few seasons ago, the horse was only able to work 15 days that summer, but since Evans has been shoeing him with heart bars, he has been working 43 to 47 days.

But Evans also makes the point that helping the horse wasn’t simply a matter of slapping on heart bar shoes. It also involved analyzing what the horse was having a problem with and how the shoeing job could be used to help it.

“The heart bar shoe is a great tool, but you need to think about how you’re using it,” Evans explains. “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. The same thing is true of a heart bar. You need to know what you want to accomplish with your heart bar and you fit it to help you achieve that.”

As Evans makes sure his rig is set up for forging and welding the heart bars, Platt takes advantage of the momentary pause to make a few points with the students about using heart bars. He shows them several past X-rays of the horse and tells them he believes being able to look at and read an X-ray is an important ability for farriers.

He also stresses that heart bars aren’t used in founder cases to “push” the coffin bone into place.

“We’re supporting the coffin bone,” he says. “We’re not trying to push anything.”

The key to getting that support comes from proper placement of the shoe, he says. He takes a moment to take a shot at one scientific study that concluded that there was not evidence that heart bars were effective in treating laminitis cases.

“All that told me was they didn’t have anyone in their study that knew how to properly apply a heart bar shoe,” he says. “I know what a heart bar that’s put on the right way can do.”

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HEEL PROBLEM. George Platt examines an underrun heel with a farrier student.

3:42 p.m. Using his hoof knife, Evans cleans out the sulcus and commissures of the hoof. He doesn’t want to take too much off the frog, but for applying heart bars, explains, “I want a consistent, pliable frog.”

Evans wants to get this horse’s angles up a little and also does some trimming to correct an uneven heel. Once he feels he has the horse where he wants him, he goes to his anvil.

“I’ll trim him, then go work on my shoe,” he says. “Then I’ll come back and look at the trim again and make sure I still like it.”

Evans also addresses sole pressure three different times in his shoeing.

“First, I’ll address it in my initial trimming,” he says. “Then I’ll hot fit him and trim the ridge around the burn pattern. Finally, I’ll grind just a little more off the lip of the shoe.”

3:58 p.m. Evans makes his heart bars from old shoes that he saves. He normally uses his shop time to forge frog inserts, so he’ll have plenty of different sizes available when he arrives at a shoeing job. But today, as part of a demonstration, he cuts and forges the bar from an old shoe so the students can see how it’s done.

Evans and Platt both stress that placement of the heart bar is key. One of the first steps Evans takes is to measure from the tip of P3 to the heels, to determine the length of his heart bar insert.

“We used to be much more exact on this,” he explains. “Our initial thinking was that we wanted to start the pressure no further forward than 37 percent of the length of P3. I used to take very exact measurements using the X-ray. Now we feel if we can keep the pressure on the back third to half of P3, we’ll be OK.”

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FINAL SHAPING. Jay Evans displays the heart bar shoe after the insert has been welded in place. He then uses a cutoff grinder to take off the excess from the insert and uses a drill to put holes in the insert, so that the pad material can flow through it.

4:13 p.m. Evans has already shaped clipped and hot-fit the keg shoe he’ll be welding the insert to. He doesn’t like to hot fit the shoe with the insert, because he doesn’t want to harden the frog. He goes to work heating the old shoe in his forge and shaping the heart bar insert in his forge. Once he has it forged to the right size, he welds it in place on the shoe.

4:24 p.m. Evans says he’s found out it works best if he heats both the shoe and the insert to a very high heat in the forge before he starts welding. After he’s finished welding, he uses a cutoff grinder to remove the excess lengths of the heart bar insert. He then uses a flap grinder to clean up the finished shoe, paying particular attention to cleaning up the splatter from the welding off the foot surface of the shoe.

“You don’t want to leave something on the surface that could irritate the sole,” he says.

Evans typically uses three different “fits” for a heart bar; a passive fit, an active fit and an orthopedic or therapeutic fit.

“A passive fit is when you’re just trying to provide a little protection for the frog,” he explains. “You may even have a little space between the bar and the frog. With an active fit, you’ll probably have contact between the bar and the frog, but you may not have much pressure. With an orthopedic fit, you’re really trying to give some added support and put some pressure on the back third of the frog.”

4:36 p.m. “A steel heart bar on a hard frog is painful,” Evans tells the students. “You need to pare the frog down until it’s soft. Then use Vettec’s Super Fast or a similar substance to provide an accurately fit pad between the frog and the shoe.”

He’ll then use Vettec’s Equi-Pak or a similar softer material to fill the commissures in the area between the hoof and frog support to keep out pebbles and other debris. To help the acrylic lock onto the shoe, he drills a couple of holes in the heart bar insert.

4:44 p.m. Evans is very particular about getting the shoe fitted. He asks Platt to come over and check the fit and — at the veterinarian’s suggestions — takes the shoe back to the forge and anvil to thin the heart bar just a bit.

“If it takes 15 minutes to get that fit exactly right, take the 15 minutes,” Platt tells the students as Evans works. “Take the time — and charge more.”

“We’re talking about millimeters here,” Evans says. “I’m trying to be exact in my shoe placement. If there is any question, I’ll go with less pressure rather than more. I’ll decide to take a little more off the bar.”

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PUTTING IT TOGETHER. Jay Evans first measures the horse’s foot to determine the length of his heart bar, and then marks where he wants to trim his shoe. He uses a cut-off grinder to cut off the excess heels, then sets the heart bar insert he’s forged inside it, ready for welding.

4:53 p.m. Once he’s satisfied with the fit, Evans checks it again, using a thin metal ruler. He says you have to do this before you fill the commissures with the softer material.

While holding the foot up, he slips the ruler between the acrylic and the frog. With the foot unloaded, he can slide the ruler in and out easily. But when the horse puts his foot down and loads the leg, the ruler might as well be welded to the shoe.

“That’s what we’re looking for in an orthopedic fit,” he explains. “If you could move that ruler around when the hoof is loaded, the shoe wouldn’t be fit as tightly as we want.”

Evans says, though, that it is also possible to have an orthopedic fit that’s too tight.

“That’s much more difficult to determine,” he says. “You may develop a pretty good feel for it after awhile, but you also need to watch the horse and see if he’s uncomfortable.”

Platt and Evans encourage all the students to come up and feel the difference between trying to move the ruler with the hoof loaded and unloaded.

“The only way to understand how much support for the foot you need is to come up and feel it,” Platt says, also repeating his point about what the heart bar is supposed to accomplish. “We’re stabilizing the base of the foot, not pushing anything back. That’s one of the reasons we’re trying to get the pressure on the back third of the frog and foot.”

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ANOTHER USE FOR DUCT TAPE. Jay Evans uses duct tape to contain the flow of Equi-Pak that he uses to keep the heart bar from being in direct contact with the frog.

5:07 p.m. Platt says he’s come to believe that too many horseshoers who try to work with heart bars haven’t taken the time to learn to build and apply them properly.

“I’ve done clinics where I’ll have a classroom to talk about heart bars, followed by a hammer-in with someone like Jay here who will show guys how to build them. We have too many guys standing around watching the other guys work and not enough getting into the fire themselves.”

Platt says his experience leads him to believe that the vast majority of farriers need some hands-on training to be able to forge and apply a heart bar correctly.

“Burney (Chapman) learned more about how to make and use heart bars through using them,” says Platt. “You’re not going to learn how to put them on properly by just watching someone else do it.”

5:13 p.m. After he finished shoeing the horse, Evans takes a moment to show the students some spider plates he’s started carrying from Grand Circuit.

“These can give you a way to provide some orthopedic pressure without having to forge and weld,” he explains. “You fit these to a shoe and rivet them in place. You can also use them with some acrylic, like you do a heart bar. If you’re not real good at forging and welding, these can really be helpful.

5:30 p.m. The day’s shoeing is wrapping up, as it’s time for the students to head for the kitchen, where they’ll eat with the regular ranch staff. But before they go, they help the wranglers turn the horses out into the open pasture west of the corral for the evening. The farrier students join some of the wranglers forming a funnel from the corral gate across a ranch road and to the gate of the main pasture. The gates are open and a couple of mounted wranglers start swinging their ropes and shouting, but the horses need little encouragement. They gallop out across the road and hundreds of yards into the pasture with the traditional “thunder of hooves and cloud of dust” that Erickson says is one of the sights many of the ranch’s guests try to be sure to watch every night.

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CHECKING THE JOB. Tom Wolfe, head instructor at Montana State’s University’s horseshoeing school, checks the hoof of a horse after a student has trimmed it.

8 a.m. Friday. The final day on the ranch actually starts out in the main house’s big comfortable living room, where Platt gives a lecture and slide show on anatomy, drawing on his own experiences, in addition to textbook theory. He says he has come to believe that many hoof problems are related to an interruption in the blood flow.

Among the points he makes are:

  • “Hemorrage in the white line comes from the laminae. That’s the only place in the area that can bleed.”
  • “Arc-shaped bruises in the sole are the result of P3 pounding on the sole from the inside. You’ll hear it called a stone bruise, but it’s not.”
  • “Abscesses have to be opened or they’re going to go somewhere.”
  • “I want farriers to be able to read an X-ray as well as I can.”
  • “Club feet can’t be made the same size because the bones are different sized.”
  • “When you have to nail heart bars on sore horses, use the smallest nail you can and put two in on each side.”
  • “Never give a foundered horse bute.” (See “Hall Of Fame Vet Says Hold The Bute” on Page 23.)

10 a.m. Once Platt has finished his presentation, the shoers head back out to the corral. The horses have already been rounded up and brought in (although at a considerably slower speed than when they high-tailed it out from the corral the evening before.

The day is a warm one — much warmer than the previous 2 days — and some of the students shoers admit they’re feeling a little worn out from the workload of the previous 2 days. But they quickly get back to work and soon the corral is once again echoing to the ring of hammers on steel.

10:32 a.m. Evans returns to the horse he had finished up with the night before and rechecks the fit on the heart bars. He’s still satisfied.

“One thing to keep in mind with heart bars is that you do need to reset them earlier than regular shoes,” he says. “I’ve gone over how I do this with Ethan (Landis, the ranch’s wrangler/farrier). He’s pretty sharp. He’ll keep an eye on these and reset them in about 4 weeks.”

11:02 a.m. Throughout the day, Platt and Wolfe patrol the shoeing corral, offering advice, pointing out potential hoof problems and sharing techniques. Platt makes a point of pointing out how the hoof tubules are growing forward on some horses that have long toe/low heel syndrome and recommends getting more support back under the heels. He also demonstrates how to properly site down a leg to check a trim for balance, as well as ways to get an uncooperative horse to give its leg to the shoer.

Platt has also found that heart bar shoes can be effective for navicular problems — particularly when the navicular problem may have more to do with the impar ligament.

“I’m starting to believe that a lot of so-called navicular syndrome may be more of a soreness problem with the impar ligament,” he says.

Platt says he’s come across navicular bones that X-rays reveal are displaced, remodeling, or growing spurs. He’s used heart bar shoes to support the rear of the frog, taking stress off the impar ligament and returning the horse to soundness. Evans says that in such cases, he’s found a very short heart bar is often all that’s needed.

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OPEN-AIR CLASSROOM. Students from Montana State University’s horseshoeing program spent 3 days shoeing horses at this guest ranch.

12:30 p.m. After a lunch break, the shoers return to finish the last few horses. It’s gotten still hotter and shoers as well as horses are suffering in the heat. A few of the students have to leave the ranch early, meaning that those who are left have even more shoeing to do.

1:11 p.m. Evans is shoeing a paint mare that he feels was trimmed a little too short by another farrier at its previous shoeing. He clips the shoes and demonstrates a tool he’s found handy for settling the clips in place — a four-in-hand carpenter’s rasp.

“I use the half-round coarse side for cleaning up the notch after I’ve burned in the clips,” he says. “It seems to help the clips settle into the hoof wall and it’s easier to use than the hoof knife.”

1:47 p.m. As the afternoon continues, the shoers become more creative in keeping the horses calmed down. Erickson says most of the riding on the ranch horses is scheduled for the early morning, so they don’t have to work as much in the hot afternoon sun. Horses that aren’t being worked on quickly find their way to shady spots.

When one gelding begins to act up, Juanita suggests bringing over a particular mare and tying her next to him.

“That’s his girlfriend,” she says with a smile. “He’ll feel better if she’s close by.”

Juanita is right about the calming effect of the mare. Once she’s next to him, the gelding settles downs.

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OLD SHOE, NEW USE. Jay Evans shapes a heart bar insert that he forged from a used horseshoe.

2:37 p.m. One horse is three-quarter shod when he apparently decides the process has gone on long enough. He continually pulls away from the student who’s trying to finish the job. Finally, Evans brings out a Noavel Headstall that he’s been using for a while. He puts the bridle-like device on the horse and keeps him under control while the shoeing job is finished. (For more on the Noavel Headstall, see Page 52 to 56.)

4:12 p.m. As the shadows lengthen, the horses sense that they’ll soon be released back into the lush pasture. In the neighboring corral, many of the horses have already moved toward the gate that leads to freedom. Seeing this, some of the horses that are still being shod become even less cooperative.

Wolfe finally recommends that the shoeing for one or two horses that seem particularly high strung be put off until the next morning. He says the students can finish those jobs before they pack up and head back to Bozeman.

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COMING OR GOING? Tom Wolfe shows one of his students how to fit a horse with a reverse shoe, to provide additional heel support.

5 p.m. After 3 days of work, the ranch’s horses are almost all shod. It’s been a big job, but they’re ready for a summer’s work. At the end of July and through the beginning of August, Landis will begin systematically resetting or reshoeing five or six horses a day until all of the horses have had their second shoeing of the summer.

“Once that starts, I stop being a wrangler and go back to being a horseshoer,” he says with a laugh. Ranch boss Erickson will chip in on the shoeing as needed.

“I don’t really call myself a horseshoer, but I have shod probably 20 horses a year for a lot of years,” he says.

Evans says Erickson is selling his abilities a little short.

“I’ve seem him shoe and he’s really pretty good,” says Evans. “He knows what he’s doing under a horse. He just doesn’t have time to spend under there.”

That mid-summer shoeing will be the last time most of the ranch horses will be shod this year. As fall begins to fade and the guest season winds down, their shoes will be removed and they’ll spend another winter barefoot on the range — until Tom Wolfe’s next class shows up in the spring.