Paul Melcher refers to himself as a “plain vanilla” horseshoer. The Livonia, Mich., farrier shown here maintains there’s nothing fancy about the way he shoes horses.
We’re sharing his shoeing career with you because he entered the shoeing business in 1975, the same year American Farriers Journal got its start.
As you’ll learn, Melcher’s career has included factory work, shoeing school, an informal apprenticeship, part-time shoeing, fertilizer sales, quality assurance manager and several stints as a full-time shoer.
Compared with 25 years ago, Melcher drives fewer miles today, shoes higher quality horses, doesn’t worry as much about non-payers and works mainly on valuable eventers and jumpers rather than backyard horses.
A dedicated member of the Missionary Church, he credits God with much of his career success. He devotes considerable hours to church work, shoeing horses for a unique church-run ranching operation in Pennsylvania and mentoring newcomers to the farrier business.
Here’s what happened yesterday.
6:30 a.m. After spending the night with my dad in Lake Orion, I start the 35-mile drive south to Melcher’s place. Located on the northwestern side of Detroit, Livonia is a suburb of 102,000 residents. The trip requires 90 minutes of stop-and-go “rush hour” driving.
8:00 a.m. As I park the car, Melcher greets me and we immediately head for work.
8:05 a.m. Heading for the freeway, I comment that there are probably few horses in this suburban area. Melcher, however, says there are a couple of nearby ponies and horses among all the houses and city traffic. “While I shoe 30 to 45 miles away from home, some of those animals are owned by clients who live in this area,” he says. “I never see them, but I see the addresses on their checks.”
8:16 a.m. With gas prices going up, Melcher is thinking about removing some shoeing supplies from his truck to reduce weight and improve gas mileage. As we pass a gas station, I notice premium grade fuel for his truck is $1.30 per gallon this morning.
8:23 a.m. Several years ago, Melcher tells me there was a knock one morning at his kitchen door. The man had smashed his car into Melcher’s shoeing truck. “The truck was a total loss,” he says. “I bought it back the next week from the insurance company, fixed it up and added a Monetta shoeing body. “Two years ago, I bought a Ford Ranger pickup and moved the shoeing body to the new truck. Anyone who’s ever used a custom-made body where everything is organized will never go back to a pickup with a cap.”
8:27 a.m. Heading through Ann Arbor toward the Dexter area, Melcher explains how he calculates costs on the computer. For instance, he knows shoeing product costs make up only 7 percent of the total cost of doing business.
8:31 a.m. Melcher uses two part-time assistants who he is teaching more about the business, but still spends many days working alone. M.K. McLaughlin of Stockbridge, Mich., works one or two days a week. Brian Bausch, a Kansas-reared horse trainer and farrier now living in Hart, Mich., drives 200 miles southeast and works with Melcher for a couple of days each month.
8:36 a.m. When it comes to shoeing, Melcher wants the shoe to fit, wants to provide needed support to the foot and wants the proper hoof angles. “It’s amazing how much those three simple things will do for a horse,” he says.
8:39 a.m. Melcher fills me in on how he became a farrier. “I grew up on the east side of Detroit and my sister worked at the Grosse Pointe Hunt Club,” he recalls. “I used to go over and watch the Breckenridge family from Mount Clemens shoe horses. After awhile, I figured this might be something I’d like to do someday.” He attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit and figured he’d eventually go into mechanical engineering when he got out of school. But it didn’t happen. “When I got out of school, I thought I’d work for a year before going on to college,” he says. “There was a recession in the automobile business and everyone I took my resume to just laughed. I ended up getting a factory job, but I hated it.”
8:41 a.m. Like any concerned fianceé, Lynn asked Melcher one night what he planned to do with his life. “Not being happy with my factory job and having watched horses being shod a few years earlier, I told her I wanted to be a horseshoer,” he explains. “She was working as a dog groomer and part of her job was to place clean newspapers in the dog cages before going home at night. “As she was folding the newspapers one night, she spotted an ad for Red Tomlinson’s Michigan School of Horseshoeing at nearby Belleville. “We didn’t even realize such shoeing schools existed. It was God’s guidance that Lynn saw the ad and brought it home to show me. I immediately signed up for the school and the rest is history.” Melcher took a leave of absence from his factory job to attend the 12-week shoeing school. The day after he and Lynn were married, he took part of the cash received as wedding gifts to pay the school’s tuition and to buy a shoeing truck. He graduated on Nov. 27, 1974, and started shoeing full-time in January of 1975.
8:45 a.m. We arrive at Old Orchard Stables in Dexter, Mich. Before Melcher unloads his equipment, he grabs a broom and sweeps the area where he will shoe. I quickly see neatness is part of his very business-like shoeing routine.
8:52 a.m. Working on the first horse, he tells me how and why the family moved out of East Detroit. “My in-laws bought a retirement place at Deckerville up in the Thumb of Michigan,” he says. “After our first child, Brooke, was born, we didn’t want to raise our kids (including younger brother Jarred) in Detroit and moved up there.” Melcher worked several years with a shoer who shod Standardbreds and backyard horses. Later, he shod horses on his own, traveling a wide area of the Michigan Thumb. “I quickly learned you don’t make shoeing money by driving,” he says. “I’d do one horse here and two horses there. Once in awhile I did a whole stable of horses, but not very often.” “In those dozen years of shoeing, there was lots of shoeing work from April to September. Then we practically starved to death the rest of the year. “I had to take an off-season job selling fertilizer to support my shoeing ‘hobby’ and to keep groceries on the table in the winter,” he says. “If you ever want to know anything about soil fertility, I remember it all.” Eventually, the federal government’s Crop Reserve Program came along and farmers were paid for not growing crops on part of their acreage. As a result, they didn’t need as much fertilizer, which directly affected Melcher’s income.
9:07 a.m. At 35 years of age and with very little winter income, Melcher knew important career changes needed to be made. He saw several farriers get hurt on the job and end up losing essential income. He and Lynn were concerned about insurance, benefits and retirement programs. As a result, they decided he should look for a different career. “I ended up taking a job for 5 1/2 years as a commercial manager with a quality assurance company and we moved to the South Lyon area west of Detroit,” he says. “Once again, I learned it wasn’t as much fun working for others, even though I kept shoeing on weekends. “When the company merged with another firm, I had the chore of telling 30 employees their jobs were gone and their services were no longer needed. After this happened, the bosses told me that they didn’t need me either.”
9:13 a.m. As Melcher finishes a trim, the barn owner arrives and they discuss specific problems with three horses to be trimmed and shod this morning.
9:18 a.m. McLaughlin arrives and starts trimming another horse. She works with Melcher each Thursday and this is her second “Shoeing For A Living” article. She was part of Matt Johnstone’s crew featured on pages 11 to 17 of the January/February, 1998, iss ue of American Farriers Journal.
9:32 a.m. Melcher tells me two other shoers work in this barn. “We’ll always nail a shoe back on another farrier’s horse,” he says. “It ends up being a wash at the end of the year as they do the same thing for me. We get along great!”
9:43 a.m. The owner of the next horse wants to try Gene Ovnicek’s Equine Digit Support System naturally-balanced shoe based on recommendations from the Michigan State University equine veterinarians. Since he doesn’t have these shoes on the truck, they’ll wait a few weeks. “We work closely with area veterinarians and the university vets,” says Melcher. “But vets don’t always consider the cost of a new process. Spending more money isn’t always best for the horse.” He always encourages farriers to develop good relationships with veterinarians. “Don’t be afraid to take the first step and introduce yourself,” he adds. “Let them know what you can do and that you do know something about the foot.”
9:47 a.m. Melcher urges beginning shoers to get active in farrier organizations and attend clinics. “I joined the Michigan Horseshoer’s Association and the American Farrier’s Association (AFA) way too late in my shoeing life,” he says. “When I finally joined, I found the meetings very educational and lively. These organizations can educate everyone in the shoeing business.” As an AFA Certified Farrier, he’d like to see AFA do more to promote certification. “They need to fully explain the certification program to owners,” says the farrier who’s working toward Certified Journeyman Farrier status. “This program demonstrates farriers have proven to their peers that they can properly shoe a horse.” In 25 years of shoeing, Melcher says only one or two customers have ever asked about his shoeing credentials and education. “You don’t go to a doctor or lawyer without finding out something about them,” he says. “The same should be true of a farrier.” Melcher says 60 percent of owners seem satisfied with the same shoeing work done 20 years ago. “The other 40 percent are competing and looking for better shoeing to make their horses go better,” he says. “They’re not willing to settle for old shoeing ideas.”
9:53 a.m. A few days after Melcher was dismissed from the quality assurance job, the family attended a “Basic Life Principles” seminar. During the opening session, attendees introduced themselves to other people. When the Melchers introduced themselves to Debbie and Mark Merna of Hamburg, Mich., they found they, too, were horseshoers. Talk about coincidence! Both couples were deeply involved in church work and both men had graduated from shoeing school in 1974. “As we were leaving the seminar, Mark grabbed me and asked if I’d work with him,” says Melcher. “His back was bothering him, he needed help and I’d just told him I was an unemployed shoer. So the following Monday I went back to work with Mark in the South Lyon area without missing a day of work. “After 18 months, I went out on my own after training a replacement. Mark and I are still good friends, work together at times and donate our time together to good causes.”
10:02 a.m. When he again went out on his own, Melcher purchased farrier supplies from Ted Boschma’s Saddlewood Horseshoe & Supply Shed in South Lyon where he still trades. Living in the area, he’d stop each morning and buy supplies needed for the day. They were renting a house in the South Lyon area and the owners who worked for General Motors moved back from the Saturn plant in Tennessee. Lynn was working in Livonia at the time and on her way home one day spotted a “for rent” sign on the house where they now live.
10:11 a.m. Melcher pulls on a pair of safety glasses each time he goes to the forge. “I’m pretty conscious about eye protection, but don’t do as good a job on ear protection,” he says. “Lynn keeps after me to do so.”
10:15 a.m. Melcher starts working on Charlie, a horse with a reputation for not standing quietly. With his calming personality and gentle talk, Melcher doesn’t have a problem.
10:18 a.m. “Most horse owners don’t ask about my shoeing credentials or price,” says Melcher. “All they want to know is when I can get there.”
10:23 a.m. Melcher shoes in this barn every Thursday. As a regular rule, he trots out the horses he’s going to work on next week to determine what needs to be done. “By checking foot care needs in advance, we often keep horses from losing shoes,” he says.
10:32 a.m. Before leaving a barn, he schedules the next shoeing. Most horses are on 6 or 7 week shoeing schedules, but he can follow whatever time frame is needed since he visits most barns each week. Melcher relies extensively on Delta Nails and shoes with Equine Forging and Kerckhaert products. He’s been urging clients to put shoeing work on a 12-month basis with all the indoor winter riding and competing. But he demands on-time payments. “If the check is not there, I charge $5 extra if I have to bill them,” he says. “It takes time to make out an invoice, type the envelope and mail it. I expect extra payment for doing this.”
10:45 a.m. Melcher joined the Livonia Chamber of Commerce to obtain better health insurance rates and recommends other farriers look into this option. “We’re paying $300 per month for health insurance compared to the previous $600,” he says. “We’re also investing in a 401K retirement program.”
10:50 a.m. The long-term goal is to move back to the Deckerville area. He plans to drive 135 miles to the Detroit area and shoe on Monday and Tuesday and stay in a motel Monday night. He’d drive back to Deckerville on Tuesday night and take Wednesday off. Then he’d repeat the Detroit area shoeing schedule on Thursday and Friday.
10:56 a.m. His shoeing business is concentrated in three areas. On Tuesdays, Melcher shoes in the South Lyon area 30 miles west of Livonia. On Wednesdays, he heads 35 miles downriver. He travels 40 miles to the Dexter area on Thursdays. By living in Livonia, he’s in easy commuting distance via the freeways of all three shoeing areas. He also shoes some horses on occasional Saturdays in the Deckerville area when the family heads north for the weekend. “It makes a lot of business sense to keep horses close to home,” Melcher explains. “Most people I deal with have horses as a hobby, spend considerable money on them and allow me to schedule shoeings in advance which makes my work much more efficient. Luckily, there aren’t many cheapskates that we have to track down to pay us.” “I let clients know when I am in an area,” he says. “If it’s an emergency, they can let me know and I can quickly take care of the problem.”
11:03 a.m. Between barns and over an early lunch at the Lighthouse Cafe in Dexter, Melcher tells me the biggest shoeing change he’s seen in 25 years has been becoming more familiar with conformation, balance and getting better movement in the horse. “Shoers today are no longer just hanging steel on a foot,” he adds. “We’re working for the betterment of the horse. “People today are more finicky about shoeing and want their horses to move better and perform at a much higher level.” He says the development that has made him the most money over the past 25 years are pre-clipped shoes. “These shoes have made farriers plenty of money, especially those of us who don’t do a good job of drawing clips,” he says. “Just surviving with all the wild horses in the early days was critical. So it’s nice to have better horses to work on,” he says. “Having all the equipment I need at my fingertips makes a big difference. I started out with an anvil found in a junkyard. Slowly, I upgraded tools and equipment. “Upgrading my clientele was also a key. I now work with horses that are better behaved which are owned by serious competitors who are much more interested in what shoeing work can do for the animal.”
11:56 a.m. As we’re leaving the restaurant, Melcher tells me he shoes 350 horses. “I’m charging five times what I did in 1975,” he says. “But my family’s standard of living is the same, even with much more shoeing education.” When Melcher started 25 years ago, he was smart enough to map out a business plan. He figured he would do trims on 25 percent of the horses and trim and shoe the other 75 percent. “With a pencil, paper and a calculator, I figured I needed 250 horses and needed to trim and shoe them every 6 weeks,” he says. In 1975, Melcher charged $5 for a trim and $20 to nail on four shoes. Today, he charges $23 for a trim and $95 to nail on four shoes. Reset shoes today cost $80. With 350 horses, he definitely needs to add another farrier to the payroll. Otherwise, he gets home too late at night. “I’m having trouble working new horses from existing clients into my schedule,” he explains.
12:14 p.m. The next stop is Sandhill Farms in Dexter. Melcher explains the importance of scheduling horses for future shoeings. “A few customers try to go 8 weeks between shoeings and end up with shoes falling off,” he says. “I let them know the horse is telling them lost shoes aren’t the farrier’s fault.”
12:30 p.m. Melcher recalls a horse owner who was upset because her vet wouldn’t tell her the exact hoof angle needed with a lame horse. Melcher says the vet was right not to recommend a specific hoof angle. “The vet knew there was considerable difference between hoof gauges,” he says. “The fact that hoof gauges measure differently is something many vets don’t know, but this one did. It’s a problem when they ask for a specific hoof angle.”
To explain, Melcher measures a hoof angle on the left front foot of the horse he’s trimming horse with both hoof gauges in his shoeing box:
1. The Cavalry hoof gauge measures from the approximate center of the hoof wall to the toe. It’s 50 degrees.
2. With the Ward & Storey hoof gauge, the measurement runs from the coronary band to the toe. With this gauge, it’s 55 degrees.
“When I get a vet that specifies a 54 degree hoof angle, I call and ask what hoof gauge they used,” he says. “They usually don’t know. Then I ask whether what they really wanted is to increase the hoof angle by 2 degrees. Now we can deal with what they want. Communication is the key.”
12:46 p.m. Melcher encourages farriers to take a few college or night school business courses to boost their knowledge. “Get to the point where you fully understand the important numbers in your business,” he says. “Know how numbers can affect changes in your shoeing income. “If you don’t analyze your financials, you will not be a very good horseshoer, you are probably going broke and you will soon be out of business.” He uses QuickBooks software for accounting and billing. The program lets him add the horse’s names to the individual shoeing records. It even calculates the difference in profitability between shoeing of individual horses versus doing a number of horses in a stable.
12:52 p.m. Melcher carries copies of the four-color illustrated Clinical Equine Anatomy and Common Disorders of the Horse and Doug Butler’s The Principles of Horseshoeing II in his truck. These two books make it easy to explain to clients how he’s shoeing their horses. “I had my wife tear the anatomy book apart and slide all the pages into plastic protectors so they don’t get dirty,” he says. “For quick reference, I keep them in a file case that sits in the truck. When the pages get dirty, I just wipe them off.”
1:07 p.m. Melcher remembers 25 years ago when he paid $2 for a hoof knife, sharpened it with a chainsaw rasp and tossed it out after a week of trimming. Now he pays $60 for a hoof knife, uses them for six months and treats them like gold.
1:32 p.m. Melcher considers shoeing a recession-proof business. “I get busier when people don’t have a lot of money to spend,” he says. “People around here get laid off from their automobile industry related jobs and spend more time on their horses. The auto recession also got me into shoeing. “Many owners say their horses are better mannered and more responsive than their kids. Plus, horses don’t talk back.”
1:39 p.m. Melcher remembers the customer 22 years ago who told him to schedule a shoeing 6 weeks later and send a bill. This changed his whole approach to shoeing. He got his first pricing lesson when he shod a group of horses for $40 each. “When I was done, the owner told me I’d done a much better job than the previous farrier who charged $60,” Melcher says. “He paid me $60 per head and I immediately jumped my shoeing prices by $20.” Melcher normally raises prices in late November when some owners are thinking about pulling shoes off for the winter. “When they get a shoeing bill in March, a few ask if the invoice isn’t higher than last year,” he says. “I get around this concern by raising my prices in November.”
2:03 p.m. Melcher has seen so many shoeing changes in the past 25 years that it’s difficult to keep up with all of them. “We used to whittle hooves down so the soles would give,” he says. “That way you knew they were short enough, especially with reining horses. We’d leave the soles touchy to help the horses slide. “Fortunately, we don’t do that anymore. I try to keep everything comfortable and don’t do a lot of rasping He finds it’s nice to have shoeing specialties. “Eventers and jumpers are my shoeing specialty,” he says. “I enjoy working with these horses and leave most other horses to other shoers. “If I had to do Saddlebreds and gaited horses, I’d starve to death first. I do a few draft horses, but they take twice as long, so I charge twice as much.”
2:15 p.m. Melcher used to tie horses close to the truck. Then he heard New Jersey farrier Bruce Daniels explain at a clinic why they should be tied 15 feet away. The reason? This gives you a chance to straighten up your back when you walk to and from the forge. Melcher also finds horses are more comfortable and stand better when shod closer to their stalls.
2:55 p.m. Melcher adds leather pads to an old bay horse. Since the horse doesn’t have a good foot, he rasps off some hoof to get the proper hoof angle. “On a club foot, I often trim it back to the white line area,” he says. “I’ll cut the hoof back to keep the laminae healthy. I’d rather have a horse with an easier breakover and decreased stress on the laminae. By using the shoe for support, I end up with a happier horse.”
3:40 p.m. With modern technology such as the Internet, Melcher can sometimes solve a problem without driving to the barn. “For instance, I had an owner who wanted me to drive out and look at an abscessed hoof,” he says. “Instead, I asked her to take a photo of the abscess with her digital camera and e-mail it to me. “After I looked at the photo, we discussed the problem on the phone and I explained how to treat it. I didn’t have to drive 50 miles and she avoided a barn call charge.”
4:03 p.m. Melcher says farriers have a lot less emergency work than veterinarians. He deals with occasional founder problems where he needs heart bar shoes. “I see some suspensory problems, so I don’t want the hoof angle too steep,” he says. “You need more support, so a wider lateral hoof area often helps.”
4:20 p.m.. Melcher tells me proper rig organization is 50 percent of the shoeing job. “Knowing where everything is on the truck makes a big difference in your shoeing efficiency,” he adds.
5:17 p.m. He foresees a time before long when there will be more multi-ple-person farrier operations. He thinks this makes sense for farriers and also has many benefits for horse owners. These operations will help farriers more efficiently cover a territory, eliminate time-consuming driving, better meet the needs of clients, provide easy recordkeeping needs and offer more “perks” to shoers. Farriers in multiperson practices will also do more specialized shoeing, not have to worry about losing income or their business due to sickness or injury, not have to worry about not being able to afford new shoeing equipment, still be able to take vacations and not have to work on Thanksgiving day.
6:12 p.m. We stop at another farm west of Ann Arbor to shoe a horse for the first time. This is a horse which recently came along with her owner from New Mexico when the husband took a job at the University of Michigan Hospital. The sound horse proves somewhat difficult to shoe and has a tender spot in one hoof. With a little ingenuity and by taking our time, we get the horse calmed down and shod without any injuries to man or beast.
7:15 p.m. We arrive at Honey Run Farms west of Ann Arbor, which is part of an attractive equine subdivision where every house not only has a garage but also a horse barn. There’s also a centrally-located stable, indoor riding arena and cross-country course that serves all horse owners. This client owns a horse that lost a shoe put on weeks earlier at a show by another farrier. To replace it, Melcher needs to modify a keg shoe and drill for calks.
7:21 p.m. When the client asks about adding biotin to the ration, Melcher tells her it’s definitely an option, but that the horse has a very hard hoof. “If the feet are extremely dry and there’s less than 14 percent moisture in the hoof wall, I’d put something on them,” he tells her. “Put it on the coronary band or the bottom of the hoof, but not on the hoof wall. Make sure the horses have plenty of water and salt to increase fluid intake.”
7:24 p.m. Melcher completes the shoe and nails it on. “I like following good shoeing work like this,” he says. “It makes my day. “With some shoers, you throw away what they did. So when you see something good like this, you really like it.”
8:00 p.m. Melcher writes out the bill, gets a check and we head for Livonia and the end of an exciting work day.
8:10 p.m. Melcher believes a big problem for shoers is being undercapitalized. While this can happen at anytime in a shoeing business, it’s particularly bad when getting started. “As a rule, farriers don’t set enough money aside to replace equipment,” he says. “You have to plan ahead and prepare reasonable financial budgets. “You need financial figures from last year to compare with what you are doing. It also pays to run ‘what if’ spreadsheet programs to see how making changes in your business will affect income, expenses and profits.” Melcher’s daughter, Brooke, handles his books. “There’s still a great deal of information that most farriers don’t get out of the business,” he says. “Unfortunately, many of us spend more time being a farrier than a businessman. “Raising prices isn’t always the answer. You also need to take a look at controlling costs and see what the impact can have on profitability.”
8:30 p.m. Heading east from Ann Arbor, Melcher tells me we probably only drove 80 miles today. He recalls the old days when he used to drive that far between barns. He isn’t convinced farriers will ever stop nailing on shoes, but expects many new and exciting shoeing technologies to develop over the next 10 years. In addition, he hopes researchers can offer proof that some new hoof care ideas now being used are really good for the horse.
8:45 p.m. We arrive back at Melcher’s house and Lynn has supper waiting on the table. (We called 15 minutes earlier on the cell phone, so she knew we were coming.)
9:15 p.m. Melcher says he’d really like to give back to this industry which has treated him so well over the past 25 years. He feels it’s important for farriers to take on apprentices. “You need an experienced farrier who will take the time to do hands-on work with new shoers,” he says. “This industry needs a mentoring program where young shoers can get experience and learn the trade. “I’m willing to do that with young shoers. I’d like to teach them and then give them the overflow of my horses to help them get started. “I want to pass along what I know about shoeing to other people. It would be a terrible shame not to pass along this highly-valuable information.”
9:22 p.m. Melcher tells me he has an exciting weekend coming up starting tomorrow morning. He and three other Michigan horseshoers, including Mark Merna, will travel to the Miracle Mountain Ranch near Spring Creek, Pa., to shoe 60 horses free of charge. “This Christian ranch does great work with kids and helping shoe these horses is the least we can do for them,” he says. They’ll head out late Friday morning, shoe horses on Saturday, enjoy a trail ride and supper on Saturday night, then finish up the shoeing and head home on Sunday. “We hope to have several other farriers there from New York and Pennsylvania so each of us should only have 10 horses to shoe,” says Melcher. “We’ll head back on the July 4th weekend to reshoe the horses.”
9:27 p.m. “One of the things that hooked me on shoeing is the joy I get out of working on a horse’s feet and then watching them move off well,” he concludes. “That was a great feeling 25 years ago and it’s still a great feeling today. “Things really haven’t changed all that much. The good shoeing memories from the mid 1970s are still the good memories today.”
9:35 p.m. I say goodbye and head down the highway on the 35-mile quicker drive back to Dad’s house for the night. Once again, I’ve spent a super day with a super farrier. It was great to learn what’s transpired in Paul Melcher’s life over the past 25 years. It all started in 1975 when both Melcher and the American Farriers Journal came on the scene.