There are a lot of farriers out there who have at least one thing in common — they don’t do drafts.
And for Bruce Matthews that fact represents an opportunity.
The farrier from Hyde Park, Vt., refocused his shoeing business a couple of years ago, providing shoeing services to what he sees as an underserved market — draft horses.
“I like draft horses,” Matthews says. “I enjoy working with them and getting to know their owners. It’s not just a job. It’s a passion.”
Matthews graduated from the Eastern States Farrier School in New York back in 1970. For the next 10 years, he moved around the country, working in Idaho, Florida, California and North Carolina. Much of his work then was on Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds farms, but he says he always felt elated when he got a chance to work on a draft horse.
Matthews moved to Vermont in 1980, settling in the Burlington area. He found it hard to make a living as a shoer in the area at that time, so he shut down his shoeing business and spent the next 20 years driving a tractor-trailer over the road. But he never lost his love of horseshoeing and a couple of years ago, decided he’d been away from it too long — and he and his wife thought there might be a way for him to get back into it by focusing on the horses he had a passion for. A family health situation also make him reluctant to spend nights away from home as a trucker.
“We decided if we were going to do this, we’d go into it 100 percent,’ Matthews says. “So we started doing some research.”
Matthews wanted to make sure there was enough of a market out there for him to specialize in doing drafts and mules. He met with other farriers, read through the Farrier Practices Survey that was featured in the Nov., 2002 American Farriers Journal Farrier “Supplies And Services Directory” and conducted informal surveys himself. He also met with Wayne Brockney of Meader Supply in Rochester, N.H. Meader Supply carries a wide-range of horseshoes and tack for draft horses and Brockney told Matthews he thought the farrier could be successful shoeing drafts.
Filling A Niche
Matthews found that draft horse populations have stayed relatively high in New England and seemed to be on the increase. Knowing how many farriers feel about shoeing the big horses, he believed there was a viable market niche he could pursue. He set up his shoeing business, “Northeast Draft Horse Shoeing,” and went to work.
Brockney also helped in the equipment area. Matthews needed to be sure he had equipment to fit the job. That meant, for instance, a forge that has enough room to handle the largest draft horse shoes, hoof nippers with longer reins and heavy enough forging hammers to move a lot of metal when adjusting shoes.
Surprisingly, though, while Matthews experimented for a time with a 17-inch rasp, he eventually went back to a smaller size. He also invested in a heavy-duty Hoofjack, but admits he still tends to do most of his shoeing with the hooves on his knees.
Other Farriers Helped
Matthews says other farriers have turned out to be one of his best marketing tools.
“It seems a lot of them have a client or two that have drafts that they don’t really want to shoe,” Matthews says. “I give them my cards and they pass them on to clients.”
Matthews is also getting the word out in other ways. He’s conducted some draft shoeing demonstrations at various horse gatherings and has posted his name on Internet sites. His idea is to educate many draft owners about the importance of shoeing and proper foot care.
“There are a lot of people who are buying drafts and don’t really know how to handle their feet,” he says. “And draft horses are so smart, that if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.”
He doesn’t want to get too busy. Most days, he’ll do two drafts, sometimes adding a third and even a fourth. But he insists on taking his time. He will trim 3 or 4 in a day if none of them need shoes.
Setting His Own Pace
“I have no interest in killing myself,” he says. “And I do a quality job. My clients have to understand that a quality job takes a little time. Most folks want perfection yesterday, but it doesn’t happen that fast.”
Matthews has his own stocks and a rig for hauling them. But recently, he’s been using a custom-made leather harness that he straps around the horse’s barrel. It has straps the hold the hoof up as he works. It’s been so effective that he rarely has to use his stocks. He also shoes well-trained horses free-standing.
“I educate my clients that these are just another tool,” he says. “It’s not stocks or harnesses that are a problem, it’s some of the people that use them.”
Matthews says he takes his time and wants to be sure the horse is comfortable. Part of doing that comes from observing individual horses.
“You need to watch a horse, work with it and see how it learns and reacts to things,” he says. “Then you can establish a line of communication with the horse. I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m forcing a horse into the stocks.”
He also plans each individual shoeing.
“You have to plan your work and work your plan,” he says with a grin.
Because he’s specializing in drafts and mules, Matthews has a wide shoeing territory. He shoes in northeastern New York, northern New Hampshire and throughout Vermont. But he keeps his driving costs down by charging a per-mile fee for any distance of more than 50 miles. He’ll also travel outside his normal shoeing area if the client has enough horses for it to be economically feasible for him to stay at the location overnight. The mileage fees are added to his base price of $150 to trim and shoe all four feet. If a client wants all four feet trimmed but only the fronts shod, he charges $90. Trims alone are $50.
So far, Matthews says his “draft only” shoeing business is going well. He’s booked solid. And he’s even repaying some of his fellow shoers who have referred drafts to him.
“I refer a lot of riding horses to other farriers in the area,” he says.
After all, this farriers business is to “Just shoe drafts.”
DRAFT SPECIALIST. Farrier Bruce Matthews holds the bridle of a draft horse during a seminar at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. Matthews, who first started shoeing in 1970, has recently focused his efforts on shoeing just draft horses and mules, filling a niche he’s found in the area around his home in Hyde Park, Vt.