If you threw Billy Huffman into a time machine and sent him 200 years into the past he’d be just fine.
That’s because Huffman has spent a lifetime mastering a trade whose technology and tools haven’t changed much in the last 2,000 years.
Unless you’d rather do it yourself.
Just grab the horse’s leg, bend his knee, straddle his hoof, lock it between your knees, grab your rasp and get to work. You’ll be crouched and tense. Your thigh muscles will burn like you’re skiing moguls for the first time and your aching back will join the chorus. Horses bite. They kick. They weigh about five times more than you do. Some of them are cantankerous and don’t mind throwing that weight around. If you’re not in control you’re probably going to get hurt.
But if you’d rather have an expert with a gentle touch, Huffman might have time to work your horses into his schedule. He’s been doing the work for 46 years, and he has a long list of clients.
“I’ll keep doing this job as long as my arthritis lets me,” Huffman says.
It’s not just his trade that suits Huffman for the cowboy days – he has the look too. It took Huffman about a year to grow his luxurious handlebar moustache. And when he’s feeling fine he waxes it up and shapes it into loops at the corners of his mouth like a western hero – a hero who knows his way around a horse.
Terry Hutchison and his wife, Jen, own three Walking Horses: Honey, Blue and Sunshine. And they only trust one man to shoe them – Huffman.
“He is very experienced and his knowledge of horses, especially their hooves and their legs, is probably more than most vets around,” Terry Hutchison says.
Once Honey, 9, is put in the cross ties, the first thing Huffman does is run his hands down her legs looking for wounds, cuts or any signs of a problem while speaking to her in low, nearly inaudible tones to keep her calm and relaxed.
“She’s a good horse, very cooperative,” says the 60-year-old Huffman. “Some will jerk away. They’ll kick. Bite. Generally just act like an unruly child.”
It will take him about an hour to put four new shoes on her, but it’s time well spent because she needs her hooves to be in top shape for today’s trail ride. It’s a big one and is at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee.
The Hutchisons are bringing Honey and Blue. They’ll ride 6 to 8 hours per day and will camp out at night. The horses’ feet will have to be prepared for anything they might encounter along the trail.
Horseshoes come pre-shaped, but every horse’s hoof is unique. That means Huffman prepares the hoof then holds the shoe against it to judge how much cold steel shaping he needs to do at the anvil mounted in his trailer. He works the steel until it matches the hoof’s contours perfectly. He wouldn’t do it any other way.
“I consider it cheating to nail the shoe on and then shape the hoof to fit the shoe – that’s cheating,” Huffman says.
Huffman had plenty of time to build his skills – he’s been a farrier for nearly half a century. It’s a career he got started in out of necessity.
“When I was growing up there were only two farriers and you had to call them and hope they had the time,” Huffman says.
He couldn’t always afford to have his horses shod, so he learned from the old masters. Then, in 1979, he attended the Oklahoma Horseshoeing School.
Honey’s back hoof is perched on a hoof stand when her muscles twitch. Huffman grips her pastern, just above her hoof, and speaks in a low tone. It’s stern, but inaudible from 5 feet away. And it’s enough to calm her down and keep her cooperative.
“I know why she’s jerking; those black flies are getting her,” Huffman says. “She’s just like a child. If she jerks away from you and gets away with it she’ll keep on trying it.”
Huffman pries off the worn steel shoe. He grabs his hoof nippers and trims a wedge of hoof off in a crescent. He pulls his hoof knife out of a pocket in his brown leather chaps and starts trimming, evening the hoof slice-by-slice while cleaning out the sole and making sure the leathery part in the middle of the hoof, known as the frog, looks good.
Once he’s customized the shoe into the perfect shape it goes from the anvil to the hoof. Huffman pulls a nail from between his lips and taps the slender nail into place until its stout head is nestled into the gleaming silver shoe.
It’s like balancing a tire and throwing in a front-end alignment.
And it’s the work that keeps America’s horses healthy and ready for the trail.