THERE ARE hundreds of farriers around the country just like John Voigt. A farrier who stands out not because he charges high prices or shoes world champions, but because he does his job well every day—quietly and unassuming.
Voigt has spent 32 years getting under horses and has enjoyed his success and experience. But at a point in his career when his experience and knowledge could land him high-profile jobs, Voigt is quite opposite.
The Carbondale, Ill., shoer has learned he’s more comfortable just the way he is, working with private owners and small boarding stables instead of trainers and big barn managers. Voigt prefers the more personalized atmosphere with small shoeing accounts and after 32 years has reached a comfort level with his business.
Here’s a look at the “Shoeing For A Living” day I spent recently with Voigt.
7:30 a.m. Voigt picks me up at the Super 8 in Carbondale. Together, we go across the parking lot to grab breakfast at a diner.
7:37 a.m. Over eggs and coffee, Voigt tells me he was born in Nebraska when his father was in graduate school, but soon moved to Carbondale when his father became a professor at Southern Illinois University. Voigt attended Southern Illinois later in life, eventually receiving a degree in public relations, but it was during weekends and vacation breaks when he picked up his chosen profession. “I started shoeing my own horse when I went to college,” says Voigt. “Pretty soon, I started riding with a farrier in the area to learn more. A couple of years later when the farrier moved, I started getting a few phone calls from his old clients asking me to shoe their horses.”
7:45 a.m. As we’re finishing up breakfast, Voigt outlines today’s itinerary. The morning will be spent at a private owner’s barn shoeing three horses. Our afternoon is at a small boarding stable where he will shoe three more horses.
As we move our conversation out of the restaurant, Voigt mentions his preference for smaller accounts and more personalized relationships with clients.
7:55 a.m. “I really enjoy smaller accounts,” he says. “I’ve worked in big stables and you can get bored working at the same place all day. “It’s nice to go to a smaller place, do one or two horses, then move on down the road. I guess I’m sort of a modern day gypsy.”
8:00 a.m. As we sit at a stoplight, the diesel engine of his black V8 Ford purring, I can’t help but ask about his rig.
“It’s a 1999 F350 Ford that I bought without a bed on the back,” Voigt explains. “I wanted to get a Stone Well body on it and I finally got to the point where I could justify it.”
Since he started driving the new rig almost a year ago, not only has it helped him save time because of its convenience, but it also renewed his spirit toward his work.
“It’s given me a mental lift too,” says Voigt. “It makes me look and feel more organized. It’s almost 12 months later and I still feel a rush. It makes me feel better about my work.”
8:13 a.m. We arrive at a private residence and follow the driveway around the house to get to the barn. Voigt backs his truck up to the edge of the barn, then starts to unpack his tools.
As Voigt is unloading, owner Colleen Kennedy strolls into the barn to greet us.
She owns three horses used for fox hunting and with the start of the fall season only 3 days away, Voigt is here to give them all shiny new shoes for the opening fox hunting ceremony.
8:23 a.m. After setting up and consulting with Kennedy about each horse’s needs, Voigt leads Sydney out of her stall and places her in cross-ties. A pretty brown mare, Sydney only needs the shoes reset according to Voigt.
After pulling the shoes, he goes to work knifing the sole. After a couple flicks of his wrist and the sound of the knife on Sydney’s foot, it’s clear to see it’s been a hard summer for horse’s feet.
“The dry summer has produced the hardest feet that I can remember,” says Voigt. “I’ve had horses where I literally couldn’t use the knife on their feet.
“This horse is going to be running around in rough country, so I’ll normally leave a little more of the dead sole on to provide more protection.”
8:35 a.m. It’s been about 10 minutes since we started and I can already see Voigt is developing a work pattern.
After pulling Sydney’s two front shoes, Voigt has since knifed and nipped both feet and is getting ready to heat the shoes.
“I usually do everything in pairs,” says Voigt. “Once I pull the shoes and get the feet half-trimmed, I like to get the shoes in the fire and then go back and finish trimming.”
Before Voigt puts the shoes to be reset in the forge, he takes them over to his belt sander for a quick cleaning.
“I clean the dirt, rust and corrosion off the shoe before I put it in my forge,” says Voigt. “It keeps all of that junk from collecting on the forge liner.”
8:40 a.m. Voigt has finished trimming the feet and has shaped the shoes at the anvil. Now he adds the final touch...a couple of dabs of Borium.
“I put just enough on to give them traction but keep them light on their feet,” says Voigt. “With this type of country and riding, these fox hunting horses need Borium or calks. I usually leave it up to the owner to decide which to use.
“Borium is so hard it will screw up your anvil and hammer, so I try and keep the shoe as level as possible when I’m pulling it off. I’ll pull the nails individually to keep it flat, just so I don’t have to hit the reset shoe as much on the anvil.”
9:17 a.m. Voigt is putting the finishing touches on Sydney as Kennedy is putting a halter on Dexter, the black gelding that Voigt will work on next.
Voigt ends his routine by applying a hoof sealer to Sydney’s newly shod feet. “I’ll apply it to the outer wall to close up the old nail holes and keep bacteria out,” says Voigt. “It’s mainly cosmetic.”
9:20 a.m. Voigt pulls the front shoes on Dexter and decides he’ll get a new set of Equine Forging brand #1 shoes. After a few minutes, it’s noticeable that Dexter is much calmer than the first horse, something Voigt picks up on quickly.
“Another reason I like shoeing in private owner’s barns are their horses are usually better mannered,” says Voigt. “I prefer to work when the owners are there with me. They help keep them calm and at the same time you can educate them about shoeing techniques. They take more responsibility. At a big boarding stable, most horse owners are absentee.”
9:37 a.m. Voigt has finished trimming and starts shaping the front shoes. As he pauses to take a break, Voigt extols another lesson he’s learned over his 32 years of shoeing experience.
“There’s so much continuing education now compared to when I started,” says Voigt. “Young farriers come along so much faster these days.
“I see guys in their early 20s sprinting around a horse like a monkey on amphetamines, doing 10 to 12 horses a day. I tell them to enjoy it while they can because about the time you are 35 or 40 years old, the rules start to change. You have to learn to pace yourself or your body will burn out.”
9:45 a.m. He’s finished shaping and nails the fronts on Dexter, and begins to pull and reset the hind shoes.
“With the back shoes, I’ll set them off the toe with a little overhang,” says Voigt. “This will help with overreaching. It helps prevent pulled shoes out in the field while hunting.”
10:20 a.m. Voigt applies hoof sealer to Dexter’s feet and puts him back into his stall.
The last horse, Ace, is just starting to recover from lameness problems, so Voigt takes a few minutes to ask Kennedy about his behavior. Together, they discuss the situation and decide to only make a few changes to the shoes.
“She’s had some lameness concerns with him,” says Voigt. “The vet did some work on him a couple of months ago and he’s perfectly sound right now so we don’t want to change much. Obviously, the changes we made have worked.
“The last time I shod him, I put on egg bar shoes, so I’m going to stay with them. She wants to start working and training him again, so I’m going to square up the bar to try and prevent overreaching problems.”
10:39 a.m. Voigt has pulled the front egg bar shoes, trimmed a little off both front feet and has the shoes in the forge. After a heat, he shows me an altered shoe side-by-side with the unaltered shoe to show me how much flatter the bar will become.
“This is how much difference there will be when I’m done,” says Voigt. “It will still provide the support he needs, but will be less likely to be stepped off.”
10:50 a.m. The front shoes are reshaped. For additional traction, Voigt drills a few holes near the heels for drive calks.
“I don’t want to put traction on the toe with this horse because it could impede his breakover and cause problems,” adds Voigt.
10:55 a.m. After grinding down the rough edges on the belt sander and adding a nice smooth finish, the shoes are ready for nailing.
“That’s one of the reasons young farriers should develop some proficiency in the forge,” says Voigt. “Shoes aren’t cheap and these were still fully functional when I pulled them off. If you can take a perfectly good shoe designed for one thing and make it into what you need, it saves time and money.”
11:10 a.m. With the front shoes nailed back on and the hind shoes pulled off already, Voigt is once again in the pre-trimming phase of his routine.
In a few minutes there’s a new set of hind shoes in the forge, making it easy to see how Voigt’s system of working in pairs at a controlled pace makes him very efficient.
11:35 a.m. With both of Ace’s hind feet trimmed completely, Voigt puts the final touches on the shoes. “I’m going to touch these a little with Borium around the edges,” says Voigt.
11:50 a.m. The finished hind shoes are nailed on Ace. Voigt goes about cleaning and packing up the rig before heading for lunch. After a quick check on the cell phone in his rig for messages, we drive up to the house so Voigt can get paid.
“These are the kind of owners you love to work for,” Voigt adds. “Not only will she pay me right away, but we’ll schedule the next appointment, too.”
12:01 p.m. We’re back on the road, but only for a few minutes. We’ll be stopping off just down the road at a local grill for lunch.
12:09 p.m. As we sit down for lunch, I get another chance to pick Voigt’s brain, ask some deeper questions and get to know the veteran shoer a little better. The topic of our conversation touches on many different subjects.
On Prices: “This area of the country gets between $55 and $70 for shoeing. But I think everyone fudges a little on their prices,” says Voigt. “If you want to learn what prices are being charged, the worst place you can go is the bar during the AFA convention. You’ll hear all about prices.”
On Billing Absentee Owners: “In cases where I deal with absentee owners, I don’t believe in sending the bill home with the child or taping it to the stall door,” says Voigt. “Bills have a tendency to get lost if you do it that way.
“Plus, other owners or stable workers will look at it and wonder why I’m charging them $25 when I’m charging the owner next to them only $20 for a trim.
“It’s much easier to take the bill home, make out a professional-looking invoice just like other businesses and put it in an envelope with your logo on it,” Voigt adds.
“You’ll get your money quicker and the horse owners will have more respect for you.”
On Trip Charges: “Traditionally, horse owners don’t like to pay farriers a trip charge,” says Voigt. “If you tell an owner it’s $50 for the shoeing and $10 for the trip, they’ll have a fit. But if you tell them it’s $60 for the whole job, they’ll pay you and thank you as you leave.
“A trip charge may work for some shoers, but I don’t believe in them.”
On Apprentices: “I’ve had a few over the years,” says Voigt. “It’s a big responsibility. And they’ve made it so hard legally to do it, with workman’s comp and taxes, it’s too prohibitive. My accountant had a fit with me for taking on an apprentice.
“It’s a damn shame too, because students are instead forced to fend for themselves when they get out of farrier school. Nobody can learn a trade in 12 weeks. That’s why so many of them quit.”
On Retirement: “The concept of selling your business when you retire is sort of new for the farrier industry,” says Voigt. “It’s an interesting concept for farriers because in most cases you are not selling a building.
“If you have a shop, it’s probably attached to a house, so you’re not selling it. A lot of time you don’t even sell your truck. Essentially they’re just selling a client list.”
12:50 p.m. We finish lunch and head toward our afternoon appointment.
1:07 p.m. We arrive at the boarding stable. Once again, Voigt maneuvers his rig so that he can back its swing-up doors to the edge of the aisle.
Now that it’s midday, the sun is out and the temperature has risen high enough to make working in the shade a benefit. With his rig angled, Voigt avoids working in the sun.
After unpacking the gear, Voigt strolls through the barn to figure out which horse he’s going to start on first. He starts with Brussels. When he has the big Belgian draft horse halfway down the aisle toward the cross-ties, he’s met by Jill O’Donoghue, the stable trainer/owner.
She asks Voigt to change his order, and start with Phillip instead. Phillip is due for a training session in about an hour, so Voigt obliges and takes Brussels back to his stall and puts Phillip in the cross-ties.
1:15 p.m. Voigt starts trimming Phillip, a pony that was sold to new owners only a few weeks ago. Phillip has never worn shoes before, but the new owners want him to be shod so Voigt is more than happy to perform the task.
Despite an unusually thick hoof wall for a pony, Phillip is a quick trim.
1:25 p.m. The forge is going with the size 00 St. Croix shoes for Phillip’s front feet inside starting to turn a nice cherry red.
“His back feet are quite a bit smaller, so we’ll put a 1/4-inch by 5/8-inch Anvil Brand shoe on the hinds,” explains Voigt. “It will take longer to shape these shoes too, because they’re so light they don’t hold the heat as long.”
1:39 p.m. With the front shoes shaped and smoothed with a quick once-over at the belt sander, Voigt puts the hind shoes in the forge.
1:50 p.m. All four shoes are ready to be nailed on Phillip. Voigt alters his “pairs” routine slightly, taking extra time to nail the shoes on all at once with the pony. “Ponies are a problem to nail sometimes,” he says. “Sometimes I choose a nail to use before I choose a shoe.”
2:09 p.m. Phillip is taken away and the big Belgian Brussels is brought over to Voigt. The vast size difference of Phillip being led away and Brussels coming toward is laughable, so Voigt wisely takes a few moments to collect his thoughts before tackling the huge draft horse.
2:11 p.m. Watered down, toweled off and ready to go, Voigt starts trimming Brussels. Brussels is due to get his front shoes reset, but his hind feet go unshod so Voigt only has to trim them.
Voigt quickly gets into his routine of trimming, heating the shoes for reshaping and then going back to finish the trim.
2:45 p.m. Brussels’ size slows down the process, but Voigt prevails by adding a final rasp stroke to the right front foot. With the left foot already done and the shoes shaped and smooth, he’s ready to nail the shoes back in place.
Voigt clinches the nails using a hoof gouge to set a secure clinch, a technique he’s been using all day with every finish.
“Most farriers either fold the nail down or run a rasp under it,” explains Voigt. “I use the gouge to make a little groove in the hoof wall under the nail. When I clinch, it folds right into the groove and it’s smooth. Just like indenting a toe clip.
“I don’t think it takes much more time to do and I think it helps to hold the shoe on better. Very few people use it, but I’m sold on it.”
3:10 p.m. Voigt has finished trimming the hinds on Brussels and is ready for another short break. Brandy, a white and gray Appaloosa, will be the final horse of the day. She’ll also be reset, making the last horse of the day a snap. Another horse done in pairs!
3:25 p.m. Even Voigt’s easy pace slows a little as the end of the day draws near.
“I like to end my days about this time,” says Voigt. “As long as you do good work and have good business practices, you can start early, leave early, start late, work late, work Saturdays, charge trip fees, whatever you want. It’s up to the individual.”
4:09 p.m. Brandy’s right hind foot is propped up on a hoof stand and Voigt executes the final few rasps.
After a quick application of hoof sealer to all four feet, Brandy is back in her stall and we begin to clean up the work area.
4:20 p.m. Packed up and pulling away from the barn, I thank Voigt for letting me learn from him today.
He has provided a number of useful tips during the course of the day, not just tips about shoeing, but ideas about running a farrier business and lessons for life.
Ideas that both rookie and veteran farriers can learn from as well.