If you are reading this magazine, there’s a good chance you are interested in improving your skills as a farrier. This article is designed to help you do just that.

Most of the articles in this “Back To Basics” series teach you about an individual project. But this one is different. This one is about the learning process and improving what you already know how to do.

That means this article’s point is not how I am doing what is shown, but why. The why is to improve my skill level and make each task easier. Hopefully you can take some of the principles and tasks outlined in this article and apply those that fit your stage of skill development.

Idea From A Clinic

During a recent clinic in Iowa I was telling those in attendance some of the things I’ve tried in my efforts to improve. Rich Evans, a farrier and statistician at Iowa State University, suggested that I put together a training schedule — much like a body builder would use — but aimed at building forging skills instead of muscles. I thought it was a great idea.

People learn in different ways, but there are some constants. We all have neural pathways in the brain — the chemicals and wiring that let the brain control the body. Repeated use of these pathways can increase the skill with which we do a task.


With this in mind (pardon the pun), most of what I suggest involves repetition. I want you to continue forging portions of the shoe over and over again, making your muscle memory permanent. The method mentioned in this article is simply an adaptation of a teaching method that Jim Keith of Tucumcari, N.M., suggested to me years ago.

The following skill-developing example is designed for a raw beginner; however, if your skill level is intermediate or advanced, you can still take some of the tasks involved and incorporate them into your practice.

Session One

Cut 24 pieces of stock to a desired length (pick a length that is commonly used in your shoeing practice). Lay out all the pieces of stock with a center punch, toe nails and lateral branch if you are making lefts or rights. Start by building 12 toe bends — one right after the other — for a hind shoe. Once complete, forge 12 front toe bends. As they are built, stack one on top of the other, with the goal of having 12 identical fronts and 12 identical hinds when you’re done.

Depending on your skill level, when you’ve done this, you may have already spent as much time as you allotted for practice on that particular session. If so, head to the house and mentally continue building toe bends in your head instead of counting sheep as you fall asleep. If the toe bends were no trouble, continue with the next task to complete the shoe.


Session Two

Take a 6- to 10-inch piece of scrap stock that is the same section as the shoes you are making. Pick a number between 15 and 50 and make that many heels on the stock. Begin the process by making the first heel. Heat the heel, quench to within an inch of the end of the heel, and bump the stock back to the original section. (For more on this procedure see “It Pays To Get Upset,” American Farriers Journal, March/April, 2000, page 81 through 85).

After every heel, place a mark in the stock with your center punch so that you can keep track of the number of heels you’ve completed. Don’t stop until you reach your number.

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Session Three

Once you have finished with the heel practice, you can do the second heat on the toe bends you made earlier. Set them in an area where there is easy access to the forge so that you can work on your timing (Figure 9A). Timing becomes extremely important if you decide to compete and will also improve your efficiency in your daily shoeing. If you practice with that in mind, it will pay off later.

For beginners, simply make the heel and forge a slight bend in the stock to counteract inertia when you later bend the branch of the shoe. For the advanced forger, build the heel, bend the branch, forge the appropriate shape on the horn, punch the nail holes and finish half the shoe. Do these moves on each toe bend until you have 24 half-completed shoes.

Beginners will require an additional heat on the branches to complete half a shoe. On the third heat, bend the branch around and punch the nail holes — just as the advanced forgers did — to finish heat number two.


Session Four

For session four, I suggest doing exactly as you did in sessions two and three on the opposite branch of the shoe. The only difference will be sweetening the branch if you are making a lateral and medial side of the shoe. Once complete, you will have 24 shoes to nail on feet, as well as a much higher skill level.

By nailing on your handmades, you learn what makes a shoe right and what makes it wrong. Nailing on your own work is an essential part of improving your skills.

The principles involved in these practice sessions can be applied to making any shoe that you are trying to master. Just determine the tasks involved in the shoe, break it down into the amount of work that can be done in one heat and make a practice schedule to teach your mind to control your hammer with skill in each individual task.

There are a few other items that I use to practice. One is the ring building described by Bob Marshall (American Farriers Journal, Jan./Feb., 2003, page 18). Once the rings are made, they are indispensable skill-developing aids. Use them for fullering practice by creasing twice around them. 


Forge-Light Forging

When the practice session is over, I turn the lights out in the shop and build the last shoe by only the glow from the hot shoe and the fire in the forge. You will not only have to concentrate on the steps in the shoe-building process, but will also be training your body to find the punches and pritchel without easily seeing them.

Later, you will be able to find the punches faster, and without thinking (if you place them in the same part of your tool tray every time). I find this exercise makes me concentrate on every step in the process. Once that last shoe of the night is built, I leave it on the anvil for inspection the following day. You will be surprised at what that one little shoe can teach you.


Let’s Go To The Tape

Using a video camera to record your practice is an extremely useful aid. It shows you where you are losing efficiency. I have seen a lot of people level their shoes four or five times while they are building them. That is not necessary, since the only level that matters is the final one. Keep the shoe flat enough to work, but it doesn’t have to be level until you take it to the foot.

When you swing your hammer, be certain that you know exactly why you hit where you did. If the blow did nothing to improve the shoe, eliminate it. When helping people learn to build shoes, I often ask why they made a certain move. If they don’t know, then the move was probably not needed. Watching yourself on video helps you figure out where you can save some time and energy.


Keeping Track

Get a calendar book and map out your practice sessions in advance. Once each session is over, make a note as to what you actually accomplished. This helps you determine if your sessions are helping you improve, as well as giving you personal contract regarding practice. Continually try to make the sessions more diffi-cult without making them longer. If  you are trying to get stronger with a weightlifting regimen, you continue to increase the weight you are lifting at every opportunity. Think of your practice sessions the same way, and increase the difficulty (weight) as often and as regularly as possible.

Set your goals, then make a plan to reach them. Having organized, well thought-out practices will help you to be more successful, both in your daily shoeing and should you decide to enter shoeing competitions. Best of luck, and I look forward to seeing you at Calgary, the American Farrier’s Association convention or the next open division at a local contest