Roving all over the Sunshine Coast in his Dodge pickup, Mike Schulkowsky is the picture of a modern cowboy.
Schulkowsky is Powell River, British Columbia’s only full-time farrier, wearing a cowboy hat and leather apron to work and speaking with a pronounced Midwesterner’s drawl. Before the horseshoes there was the dream of being a hero from a Western.
“When I was a kid, if there was a Louis L’Amour book at a rummage sale and it had a picture of a cowboy on it I’d buy it, ’cause it was a cowboy,” he says.
Raised in Powell River at a place known as Lone Oak Farm, Schulkowsky’s cowboy destiny was not written in the stars.
“I was working at the mill, watching the ferries come and go and wishing I could go with them,” he says, whose father also worked at the Powell River pulp and paper mill. “And this old Italian millworker said to me, ‘No way, you’re going to be like me and work here all your life.’”
Schulkowsky says he knew right then that he had to do something to get the life he wanted and hopped a ferry out of Powell River. He headed out to Keremeos and Oliver in 1980 to work as a ranch hand for 5 years.
“I wanted to be a cowboy, so that’s what I did,” he says. “I was born to be one.”
But working as a ranch hand often wasn’t enough to make ends meet and in the early 1990s Schulkowsky found himself back in Powell River, working for MacMillan Bloedel once again.
Wanting to bite off a larger piece of the cowboy pie, he forged a new plan — to study at Oklahoma Horseshoeing School and become a farrier.
After graduating in 1992, he returned to Powell River to take over from Jim McNair as farrier for the area.
Schulkowsky says he shoes about 250 horses in the region. However, as people mainly have horses in the region for pleasure, rather than as work horses, he says he has seen their numbers diminish over the years, mainly because of the cost.
“Horses aren’t cheap to keep,” says Schulkowsky, pointing specifically to the high cost of bringing feed in on the ferry. “You are looking at between $480 and $520 a tonne for hay here in Powell River. And the average horse is going to eat at least, on average, 3 tons of hay per year.”
One of Schulkowsky main clients, Phoebe Kingscote at Tanglewood Farms, now keeps about 10 horses, down from over 20 in previous years.
“If you need a lot of hay like I do, the price just goes up and up and up, because of the cost of bringing it in on the ferry,” Kingscote says. She spends about $1,000 for each semi-trailer full of hay she has brought to her farm.
“Right now, though, my horses pay for their own feed, working as trail horses during the summer.”
She offers guided trail rides from her farm. “But my horses are aging. What happens when they can’t do that anymore?”
In the past she’s tried to save money by shoeing her own horses, but with little success, she says.
“It took me 3 hours to trim the hooves on one horse and it killed my back,” Kingscote says. “Money is well spent on a good farrier.”
It takes Schulkowsky about an hour to finish shoeing each horse at a cost of roughly $155 per animal. So, despite the declining number of horses in the area, Schulkowsky says he’s still able to make a living.
“All I need is a horse with a good temperament, solid feet and an owner who pays me on time.”