By Jacob Biba, BlueRidgeNow
It doesn't take long for farrier Buck O'Neil to determine the type of care a horse may need from him.
O'Neil, who has been shoeing horses for 49 years and fittingly calls Horse Shoe, N.C., home, may only watch a horse take four or five steps before turning to what he considers a more reliable source of information.
Working recently with Stetson, a brown and white gelding at Windy Gap Young Life Camp in Weaverville, N.C., O'Neil, horseshoe in hand, said, “This is a picture of how his foot has moved over the last six weeks. I'll look at that rather than the horse to determine what I might need to do.”
O'Neil, originally from Minnesota, said he was drafted into the trade in the 1960s and became more serious about it when a friend offered to sell him an anvil and forge for $40. The friend told O'Neil he could pay up whenever he got the money. He took the deal.
A few years later, O'Neil was fortunate to find a mentor in Frank Fleischhacker, a German master farrier who had immigrated to the Twin Cities after World War II. Fleischhaker, having learned the trade between the World Wars, served as farrier to the German cavalry during the second.
O'Neil worked with Fleishhacker for 6 years, learning the basics of classical European-style farriery, along with something he considers most important — horsemanship.
“That's really the hardest part,” he said. “Because they're all individuals. A big part of this is psychology. I always tell people that veterinarians, jockeys and farriers are all in about the same boat, because we walk up to a strange horse and we've got about 15 seconds to figure out how it won't kill us.”
O'Neil worked in Minnesota for 20 years before moving to the Northeast to work with racehorses. For a brief spell in the 1990s, he changed careers, moving to Atlanta and earning a master's degree in taxation from Georgia State University.
He would eventually move to Asheville to work as an accountant, but after working on a friend's horse, who showed O'Neil's handiwork to a local veterinarian, it wasn't long before O'Neil was shoeing horses again full time.
Today, O'Neil keeps up with the technological and academic advances and describes what he sees as a reinvention of the wheel, returning to the lessons learned from his mentor.
“I find that a lot of the technology they're using today to study horses — gait and everything else — really reinforces what he always told me,” O'Neil said.
Asked whether he's ever altered his approach to farriery, O'Neil responded, “Let's put it this way, I've changed my techniques several times over the years and have gone back.”
According to O'Neil, farriers are the forerunner to the modern veterinarian, with Greeks being the fathers of the trade. He noted the Greeks were great horsemen and were the first people to study the correlation between a horse's performance and its hooves.
The trade moved along slowly for 2,000 years, and as horses played a primary role in transportation, moving the economy, O'Neil said, the farrier was celebrated.
But when World War I came along, there was a change.
“Like in Europe, the cars and trucks got big right after World War I because they were left over from the war,” O'Neil said. “And they started getting away from the horses a little more.”
From the conclusion of the World Wars up until the 1970s, the popularity of horses and the need for them dramatically decreased.
“But as the economy turned around in the 60s and 70s people had so much more money to spend it became cheap to have horses again,” O'Neil said. “Up until then it was pretty much just the rich who had them. More and more people could afford horses and the industry started to boom again. And that's when I kind of got into it.”
Though he describes himself and other farriers as an “expensive accessory for an even more expensive pastime,” O'Neil, with front teeth slightly worn from the horseshoe nails he grasps between them, can't turn away.
“I tell people horses are my heroin,” O'Neil said. “I'd really like to quit and get away from them ... but there's no place to go for treatment.”
To learn more about O'Neil and his work, visit www.pisgahforge.com.