Twenty of Japan’s finest farriers stand respectfully as Japan Farriers Association (JFA) President Ryo-ichi Segawa introduces five judges. The purple flag of the JFA, heavy with gold braid, is presented with red and white ribbons streaming from the pole, each with the name of a former national champion. After the opening ceremonies, contestants will compete in horseshoe forging, shoeing two feet, a written examination and an American-style eagle eye bar shoe class.

A huge blacksmith pattern anvil is mounted solidly on a wooden stump next to each of ten bottom blast coke fires in the modern, well-lit, airy shoeing facility of the JFA’s Education Center. Rubberized paving covers the floor in front of each anvil, and you’ll never see a cleaner shoeing facility.

Large doorways connect the shoeing areas to a long, covered walkway where farriers can observe horses’ movement. A pit at one end of this walk provides a safe, close-range, ground-level view of a horse being led and turned.

Prospective horseshoers must successfully complete a year at the Education Center and a 15-year apprenticeship before becoming certified to shoe horses without supervision.

Following introductory speeches, 10 horses are brought in for the contestants and judges to examine. Each man has been assigned a front and a hind foot on one horse. Contestants measure the feet with the old shoes still in place.

Horses are brought one at a time into the observation alley. The two contestants assigned to shoe the horse stand in the observation pit taking notes while the horse is led towards them, turned and led away. The judges, also taking notes, are at the opposite end of the alley. After all contestants observe their horse’s travel patterns, the horses are removed and shoe forging begins.

Forging Horseshoes 

During one of two 35-minute rounds, each contestant forges three shoes. Two are for the contestant’s assigned horse and the third is to be an exact copy of a specimen. Prior to the contest day, contestants had received a photocopy of the specimen shoe, which is available for examination at the contest site.

Exact specifications of nail hole placement and drawings of the required horseshoe are found in the Japanese horseshoeing textbook. Crease and nail hole placement are a prescribed distance from the unfinished heel of the shoe. All horseshoes in Japan, including machine-made shoes, are patterned after similar drawings.

Square-polled rounding hammers are used to forge the shoes. Each contestant uses several different weights. The handles are relatively short compared to even moderate-length U.S. handles. Tongs are a short, square-nosed plier type, similar to those used in continental Europe.

First, one end of the bar stock is drawn almost square, the branch curved, creased and nail holes punched. Nail holes are formed in the V-shaped crease using one stamp for the nail head shape and a second stamp, with a very short pritchel-like end, to clear the shank portion of the hole.

Stamps and fullers are hung in a rack over a water tray on the tool stand by each anvil. The tips of these tools are immersed in water except when in use.

A second branch of the horseshoe is forged in the same manner as the first. The toe is formed last by bending the two curved branches closer together.

The shoes are turned in for judging at the end of the period. Close inspection in the judging room finds all shoes very similar to the specimen. All have the same pointed-toe shape, are creased with 10 nail holes and have square, unfinished heel ends and no clips. Other than a slight size difference, none of them seem to have been forged for the horses’ feet.

Judges return the shoes intended for the horses to the contestants after recording the forging scores.

Trimming The Horse

Contestants are allowed 45 minutes to prepare the feet and shoe a front and hind foot with the previously forged shoes. Most hoof preparation is completed with Kamagata Teito, the sickle-shaped, razor-sharp Japanese hoof knife. This is the one tool that’s uniquely Japanese (see pages 88 to 90 of this issue for more information on Kamagata Teito).

The knife is generously used on the sole and frog. It is even used to trim hoof wall. One overzealous contestant accidentally demonstrates the sharpness of the knife as his horse stands in two pools of blood.

The toes are notched during the initial hoof preparation, leaving a large space for a toe clip. There is a noticeable lack of nipper and rasp work although a few American nippers and rasps are observed. The nippers are used only by some contestants, and then only to cut through the thicker toe area of the wall. The

Japanese rasp has less and more widely spread teeth than American styles. The rasps have no handle tang and the direction of the teeth reverses in the center.

Medial branches of the feet and shoes tend to be very straight while lateral branches are bolder. Toes tend to be bold and even square. This hoof shape may have been cultivated by repeated shoeing with shoes of this favored shape.

Judges observe and record marks on the trimming, but the horses will not be examined again until after the shoes have been nailed on.

Fitting Shoes

Contestants hammer forge toe clips, shape the shoes and crop shoe heels to fit the feet. A broad clip is started with the round face of a hammer. Hammering the clip back into the web of the shoe over the broad, almost flat anvil horn tends to broaden and even square the toe of the shoe. Many front shoes have a full web rocker toe, often rolling toward the lateral branch.

Shoe heels are cropped to length and shape at a black heat. Contestants seem to prefer a stout cropping block and an 8-pound hammer with an 8-inch handle.

The shoes are taken to the foot for hot fitting by either placing the pointed ends of the pulloff in a nail hole of  each branch or with special fitting tongs. Pulloffs are similar in function and design to those used in the U.S., except the rein ends are pointed instead of having distinguishing knobs.

Nailing, Finishing

Shoes are filed cold before nailing. Each farrier selects six nail holes for optimum placement in each individual foot. After each nail is driven, the shank is flattened against the hoof wall with the point going in the direction of the coronary band. Four nail holes in each shoe are left empty and there is no blocking of the nails.

Japanese driving hammers have various simple, effective designs and are hand-forged. All farriers wear a white cloth glove on their tong hand, and many have gloves on both hands. Prior to nailing, contestants thread nails into the back of the glove. The nails are always close at hand, which is certainly more sanitary than keeping them in your mouth.

There are no shoeing boxes. Tools are simply laid out on the floor. Contestants clinch with the hoof on the floor using the driving hammer, not clinching tongs. An assistant holds the opposite leg up while the farrier bends and cuts the nails, rasps under the nail ends, hammers the clinch down and hammers the upright clip back against the notched toe of the foot. There is little or no rasping of the outer hoof wall.

Farriers do all of their shoeing work either from the ground surface or with the hoof on the ground. No foot is taken into the forward position.

Written Examination

Contestants, divided into two groups, now get two 30-minute periods to examine two horses. They observe each horse’s movement, handle its limbs and complete an examination form. These forms record the horse’s conformation, shoeing prescription, possible lameness and gait problems and are turned in for judging after time is called.

During the written test, the 10 fires and anvils stay busy with shoe and tool forging demonstrations by top non-competing Japanese craftsmen.

The final event of the day is the eagle eye bar shoe. The shoes being forged resemble those made by the best competitors at AFA contests.

The next day, everyone goes to a large hotel for an awards ceremony. There is lots of good food (eaten with chopsticks), many speeches and the presentation of winners.

Nicely-wrapped packages and ornate certificates are presented and received with much bowing and great ceremony. The 40th annual cow hoof trimming competition awards are presented as well. Three times as many Japanese craftsmen trim cattle as horses, and the cow hoof trimming contest had been held the same day as the horseshoeing, but in a different location.

It was quite interesting to observe the different tools and procedures the Japanese use to achieve the same objective as all other farriers: a sound, properly balanced, trimmed and shod horse.