Bob Marshall holds a shoe up to the light and checks the toe after a couple of quick blows.

“Pretty close,” he says, then quickly strikes the steel twice more.

“There you are,” he says, holding up the shoe for inspection. “Now do you really think you need to buy blunt-toe keg shoes?”

It took Marshall less than 30 seconds to put the blunt toe on the shoe, once he’d pulled it from a propane forge.

No big deal? Then consider this: He didn’t use a hammer; just his tongs and the anvil. The entire operation was done by striking the shoe at varying angles against the anvil’s face.

Sure, it’s probably more a gimmick than anything else, but it shows what Marshall is capable of — and helps explain why even veteran farriers known for their forging skills seek out his clinics and tutoring.

Analytical Ability

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MENTOR AT THE ANVIL.  Bob Marshall, right, corrects Terry Holst’s tong grip during a clinic in Minnesota. Holst, a member of the American Farrier’s Team, says there is still a lot he can learn from working with Marshall.

Marshall’s legendary forging abilities arise largely from hours and years spent at the anvil, but his strengths as a teacher and instructor were also on display at a recent clinic in eastern Minnesota. Those skills include a keen ability to analyze his students varying levels of ability, his attention to minute details and an uncanny knack for breaking down complex ideas and procedures into more manageable components. He’s a genius at reducing problems to their simplest dimensions.

“Forging mistakes come down to two things,” he says, in one example, “It’s either too bent or it’s too straight. There’s nothing else.”

He takes that same concept a bit further when analyzing why a shoe doesn’t fit a hoof properly.

“If a shoe doesn’t fit, it’s too tight, too full, too long or too short,” he explains, ticking off each point on his fingers. “There are only four.”

That doesn’t mean that Marshall sees forging as a simple task. On the contrary, he constantly stresses the need for practice and continuing education as the only path to forging excellence. But he sees the first step on that path as a need to master the basics. He sees evidence of this at many of his clinics, which often start with him wandering among the farriers in attendance, watching them build a simple front shoe.

Build From The Basics

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START WITH THE BASICS. Bob Marshall teaches the complexities of forging, but he starts with the basics. Here he demonstrates proper anvil height.

“What I constantly see with guys is a need to go over the basics,” he says while watching students work at their anvils. “It’s the same every year. No one has even shown some of them how to hold a hammer.”

But Marshall also knows there’s little use to trying to get everyone to forge in exactly the same way.

“Farriers are just like cats,” he says with a laugh. “You can’t herd ’em.”

Instead, Marshall offers students a system that will work, but can be adapted.

“What I’m trying to show you is a simple method that you can follow,” he tells those at the clinic. “Once you’ve learned how, you can do this anyway you want, because you’ll understand how the steel moves.”

It’s an understanding that can only come through practice, according to Marshall. He emphasizes understanding how the steel moves and feels under hammer blows.

Forging Senses

To Marshall, forging is a multi-sensory experience. He talks about developing a soft touch and a “feel” for the steel. The sound made by the steel being struck also carries a message for the farrier, who must also be able to see what he’s working on.

“To hit the center of the stock, you’ve got to be able to see it,” he tells his students. “So turn your steel so that you can see it.”

Marshall didn’t mention smell on this day, but it’s easy to imagine him picking up some minute piece of information from the odor of hot steel as he works.

Efficiency, Not Speed

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VISUAL AID. Bob Marshall emphasizes finding the center of the steel and working over it while forging. To help students, he’ll draw a line down the center of the anvil horn. The smiling face is on the area of the horn where the farrier should work the steel.

Marshall can turn raw bar stock into a finished shoe in a matter of minutes, but he also preaches that speed isn’t so much a goal as a side-effect of learning forging skills.

“Shoemaking efficiently and correctly is far better than making shoes fast,” he says. “After all, sometimes speed will kill you. Speed comes from efficiency.”

There’s something else that contributes to efficiency, according to Marshall — enjoying yourself.

“Efficiency comes when you start having fun,” he says, “when you’ve practiced so much that you’re not worrying about it anymore.”

Take punching nail holes in shoes, for instance.

“You hit the pritchel once, you hit the punch three times, and every nail drops in,” says Marshall, demonstrating. “It’ll take you a long time to get to that. But if you worked at that all day ... you’d be so efficient with your nail holes that nothing would ever scare you again.”

Marshall’s own forging is marked by quick, efficient movements. His attention to detail is also obvious as he works at the clinic. He moves quickly from student to student, stopping here to show one a better way of using their tongs, there to move a farrier closer to the anvil or calling for everyone’s attention as he demonstrates a way for all of them to improve their technique.

Pieces Of The Pie

Good technique comes from mastering what Marshall calls forging’s “four pieces of the pie.” The pie analogy again demonstrates his talent for breaking things down as he explains that shoemaking, involves just four basic skills:

  1. Shaping or bending steel
  2. Punching holes
  3. Welding or brazing
  4. Forging

“Forging is what catches most people,” he says. “Bumping the steel, stretching it out, calking it, sweeting it out ... It takes a while to learn, but you can do it.”

Focus On The Foot

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CLOSE WORK. Bob Marshall says it’s important to work over the steel, rather than reaching for it from arm’s length. This not only allows smaller, more efficient movement, it’s easier on the farrier’s body.

Marshall sees an odd dichotomy going on the farrier world today. On one hand, he sees many young farriers doing what he calls “just amazing” work, at both the anvil and at the foot of the horse. But he also sees an over-reliance on keg shoes and cold shoeing as holding many shoers back — and more importantly, not helping horses.

“A horseshoer who was watching me, put it this way once,” Marshall says. “He said, ‘When I go to the horse, I’ve got a foot and a keg shoe. When you go to the horse, you go with your ruler and your imagination.’ What he meant is that I’m focused on the foot.”

Marshall maintains good shoeing requires the farrier to focus on the foot and create the shoe that foot needs, not try to match the foot to a shoe.

“Don’t return to trimming the foot because the shoe doesn’t work out,” he says. “People are getting away with so much crap because the horse can survive so much.”

Mistake Free

For the good of the horse and the horseshoeing profession, Marshall urges his students to be demanding of themselves and critical of their own work.

“There are three things you can do with a mistake,” he says. “One, fix it with a couple of hammer blows. Two, you can fix it on the next heat. Three, throw it out. You need to teach yourself not to accept a mistake.”

Not learning these rules can result in a disaster.

“The method of forging you develop will be to fix mistakes,” he warns. “You’ll get good at it. You’ll get to a point where you look at a mistake and say, ‘That’ll do.’ ”

“That’ll do,” he warns, “WON’T do.”

“It’s either too bent or it’s too straight. There’s nothing else...”