There's a reason why Kentucky is called the “Horse Capital of The World.” With the seemingly endless rolling bluegrass hills mixed among winding tree-lined creeks; meticulously manicured stone bridges and pathways; plush, spacious stables and barns adorned with beautiful wooden trim and paddock fences as far as the eye can see, it only takes a few minutes to be awe-inspired and feel genuine envy for the horses and the attention they receive.
It’s the kind of place where horses and horsemen alike spend their years in luxury. It’s also a place where you can take a drive and gaze upon future Kentucky Derby hopefuls, playfully trotting alongside their mothers in a roadside paddock.
It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of the region, but the horse industry is big business in Kentucky. The Bluegrass State alone handled over $600 million in horse sales in 1998, nearly six times as much as any other state.
In a world where owning a horse is not just a hobby or a passion, but an expensive investment, a farrier’s job takes on new meaning. A horse with a sloping pastern or toed-in conformation translates into thousands of lost dollars at a sale or on the track. This makes the job of the farrier in preventing and eliminating foot deviations early in life more important, and sometimes stressful.
This is the climate David Nadeau deals with every day.
Born and raised in Kentucky, he has been shoeing for 35 years. Judging from his constant smile and excited tone of his voice, you can easily tell he’s exactly where he wants to be. Right in the heart of “Horse Country,” working with Thoroughbreds from foal to track.
Many farriers might find Nadeau’s shoeing routine a bit on the boring side, because that is exactly what his business is, routine.
“I can pretty much tell you down to the day where we are going to be and what we’ll be doing the entire month,” explains Nadeau. “Each month is basically the same. You might be bored by the end of the day.”
As you’ll see from this “Shoeing For A Living” day spent with Nadeau, his work is anything but routine and boring.
7:15 a.m. Nadeau picks me up in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel in downtown Lexington and we head toward the parking garage to start our day. As we approach his shoeing rig, a shiny black late-model Mercedes Benz, I realize I’m in for a serious education on how things are done in Kentucky.
Although you may think the Mercedes is a little extravagant and on the cocky side, his explanation about his unique rig is simple.
“I used to drive a truck around everywhere, but I always woke up in the morning with a sore back,” says Nadeau. “I soon realized that it was the benchseat in my truck that was causing my back problems, so I got rid of my truck and my back hasn’t bothered me since.”
After riding around with him the entire day, I’m convinced it was a good decision.
7:25 a.m. As we make our way out of downtown Lexington rush-hour traffic, Nadeau shares his background and explains how he got into the shoeing profession as a teenager in 1965.
“When I was young my father owned horses and we couldn’t find a horseshoer, so he sent me to farrier school,” says Nadeau. “My sister used to be a national-level barrel racer. One day the blacksmith we used quicked the horse and we didn’t get much use out of him after that. Soon after, I was pressed into shoeing our horses and my later years were basically sealed at that point.”
Nadeau paid his way through college by shoeing on nights and weekends. After a short stint in the Army he began shoeing full time.
Over the course of his career, Nadeau has shod Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, hunters, jumpers and Arabs. Now he works strictly with Thoroughbreds on nine farms in the Lexington area. He used to shoe Thoroughbreds at several racetracks as well, but it wasn’t long before he was forced to make a choice.
“I do primarily Thoroughbred farm work as it’s hard to mix the farm and the track,” says Nadeau. “If a horse loses a shoe at the track, you have to drop everything and put it back on. If I’m scheduled to be at the farm, every now and then they’ll let you reschedule but they don’t like it.”
7:36 a.m. We pick up Jason, Nadeau’s 21-year-old son, at his townhouse and head out to the first farm. Jason recently started working with his father as an apprentice. As we turn out of the parking lot to head for Overbrook Farm, Nadeau explains exactly what’s on the day’s itinerary.
He is the only farrier at Overbrook, a 25-barn, 2,000-plus acre farm on the northern edge of Lexington.
“I don’t do much shoeing,” Nadeau explains. “What I do is I work with the farm’s veterinarian advisor, Dr. Robert Copelan, to trim and keep the feet in top shape.
“Our trimming is not just to reduce growth, but to establish a pattern of growth. We try and maintain shape, form and balance while preventing foot problems. Working with Thoroughbreds is different than other horses. Race horses require more foot care, so we really stress trimming.”
Nadeau will trim the stallions and mares on his own. Dr. Copelan will come to the farm every two weeks and he and Nadeau will work on foals and yearlings. The process is relatively simple.
Dr. Copelan looks at the foal or yearling and evaluates everything from limb conformation to knee, hock and hoof health to overall size and stature in both standing and walking gaits. He then makes suggestions to Nadeau, who trims the horse. After trimming, they walk the foal or yearling again. If everything meets Dr.Copelan’s approval, the horse goes back into the stall.
“It allows the Overbrook managers to evaluate what they want to do, what they want to change, whether they’re going to require surgery or help maintain form after surgery,” says Nadeau. “Everything is recorded at the farm. I’m lucky because I have several farms that do this. They really take care of their horses and it costs lots of money. But this is not your ordinary farm.”
7:48 a.m. We arrive at the security gate at Overbrook Farm and it’s obvious Nadeau wasn’t exaggerating when he said this is not an ordinary farm.
“Every stall in the stallion barn has a camera hooked up to monitors at the security gate and the night watchman’s booth,” says Nadeau. “If anything goes wrong, they know pretty fast.”
Nadeau points out the perimeter chain-link fence that runs from the bottom of the paddock fence deep into the ground. The fence, along with electronic sensors that monitor the openings between the paddock fence breaks, keep out rodents and opossums.
“Opossums are a carrier for EPM (Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis), a disease like meningitis in humans, which can be fatal to horses,” adds Nadeau. “When you’re dealing with the money those stallions command, you don’t take chances.”
7:52 a.m. Winding our way across the beautiful grounds, we reach barn one. As we park, Nadeau explains he started with this account when this was the only barn on the farm back in 1980. Now, 19 years later, he still has the account but the farm has 12 barns devoted solely to horses and four used for tobacco and machine storage. “I was lucky, I grew with this farm,” Nadeau adds with a wide smile.
7:55 a.m. “Some farms raise babies to sell, but Overbrook raises theirs to race,” says Nadeau. “I’d say 55 percent go on to race and the rest are sold. They’re evaluated early on to determine their potential as race horses. Those not rated as strong racing prospects are sold.”
Since Dr. Copelan isn’t scheduled to show up until 8:30 a.m., Nadeau and his son start trimming mares. One of the stable hands leads out the first mare, a dark bay named Golden Attraction. Jason goes to the other end of the barn and works his way back. To keep the aisle from getting congested, Jason prefers to go directly into the stall to do the trimming. “It keeps the mare calm because she’s not separated from her baby,” says Jason.
This is what Nadeau claims is the “boring” part of his job. Since the mares are trimmed on a three- or fourweek rotation, there isn’t much to do except rasp a little here and there to maintain form, symmetry and balance. Despite the nuances of the job, Nadeau offers his own take on proper foot care.
“I don’t do a lot of work on the frogs. If it’s not poorly shaped I won’t trim it off,” he says. “If it becomes misshapen, I remove that tissue. It’s easier for us because we trim the mares often and there’s lots of people here to take care of the horses.”
After trimming the left front of Golden Attraction, Nadeau takes an extra moment to show me her slightly collapsed and rolled under heels.
“Because of their weight, mares have a tendency to wear their heels more, so you trim away more toe,” he explains. “Babies, on the other hand, wear the opposite way. We control our trimming pattern to take care of these problems.”
Moving on, Nadeau tells me the next mare recently had an abscess on her heel and had previous problems with them rolling under. With careful, controlled strokes of his rasp, Nadeau starts working on the toe to get the foot back into shape.
“I lot of guys will say ‘Just drag the heel back.’ Well, if you drag the heel back you’re lowering the angle,” says Nadeau. “The best horseshoeing job is one you never see, because nothing is wrong.”
After working his way through two more bay mares, Nadeau is putting the final touches on a white-gray mare named Rainy Night as Jason finishes up his side of the barn. In 40 minutes, they’ve checked and trimmed 10 mares.
8:35 a.m. Dr. Copelan shows up with Overbrook Farm manager Jim Cannon. After a few minutes exchanging pleasantries, the veterinarian takes out his hand-held tape recorder and they dive into the task at hand.
As the stable hand leads the first foal out into the aisle, Dr. Copelan starts the tape and notes the date, time, name of the foal, sire, mare and the mare’s sire. As Dr. Copelan begins his assessment of the first foal, Nadeau tells me everything the doctor says into the recorder is transcribed for Overbrook Farms records.
8:45 a.m. The group moves on to the next foal. The sign on the stall door lists the bloodlines of this 28-dayold foal and I recognize one of them, AP Indy.
“This particular one is offset in front. There’s a slight enlargement of the right front ankle and the right front fetlock joint,” Dr. Copelan says into the recorder. As the vet continues the assessment, Nadeau adds some insight to what they look for in these evaluations.
“You have to look at the knees,” says Nadeau, “ because they determine what the feet will do. The offset condition is a predisposition for toeing-in, so we’ll reduce that tendency now.”
8:51 a.m. “This foal gives a very good first impression, a beautiful head,” Copelan says as they start another evaluation at the next stall. “Those knees are practically perfect,” he adds as the stable hand walks the foal away and then straight back.
Nadeau hardly touches the rasp to the feet of this foal. Dr. Copelan recommends a “couple of passes” with the rasp and it’s back in the stall with its mother.
8:53 a.m. “This foal has both knees offset and some angular deviation in both knees, especially the left. The left might need a PE,” says Copelan. Wondering what PE stands for, I ask David to translate.
“It’s a surgery called periosteal elevation,” Nadeau explains. “The vet removes a ‘T’-shaped portion of the periosteum in the joint and as it heals it creates a bony wedge that straightens the joint. It’s a relatively new procedure within the last five years. It’s one of the Thoroughbred industry’s biggest assets, it does quickly what we could never do only with trimming.”
9:15 a.m. We finish the eight foals in barn one, pack the tools into the Mercedes and drive to barn two.
9:22 a.m. The first foal we evaluate at this barn is the offspring of former Derby winner Grindstone. As we move from stall to stall, it becomes a who’s who list of top sires—Tabasco Cat, Alydar, Seeking The Gold, Storm Cat, Mr. Prospector, AP Indy and Secretariat. Overbrook is definitely not your typical horse farm.
9:50 a.m. We pack up and move to the yearlings in barns three and four. Like with the foals, Dr. Copelan evaluates the yearlings both walking and standing. They are trimmed, walked again and led back in the stall.
10:38 a.m. Halfway through barn three, we come across a chestnut filly diagnosed with a heart murmur. You can instantly see the disappointment on everyone’s face because this offspring of Capote and Mission Pass is a big, beautiful yearling with excellent muscle tone and development. Because of the heart murmur, it will never reach the racetrack.
11:10 a.m. Finishing up in barn three, we walk 50 yards to barn four and evaluate 11 yearlings. Since the yearlings are kept on a structured three-week trimming and evaluation schedule, there aren’t many surprises.
11:50 a.m. As Nadeau puts the finishing touches on the final yearling in barn four, farm manager Jim Cannon says a new horse in barn eight lost a shoe.
11:55 a.m. Walking through barn eight on our way to the stall for Musical Cat, Nadeau gives me background on this horse that was just moved onto the farm a week earlier.
“He came in with shoes on. Usually, if there are shoes on a yearling when it arrives, there’s a problem,” he says. “ I don’t know his history, but as of today I don’t care because from now on we’ll do it our way.”
Once Musical Cat is taken out of his stall, it only takes a couple of minutes for Nadeau to send Jason back to the car for a new shoe. Musical Cat’s feet are in bad shape. The toe has been squared off too much, there are numerous surface cracks and there’s a chip in the front. The yearling was wearing egg bar shoes, but Nadeau can’t understand why.
“Someone has applied mega-technique to this horse,” he says. “What we’ll do is raise the angle by taking some hoof off the toe and get some of the hoof angle back. We’re not going to shoe this one normally. I’ll set a couple of nails and then I’m going to dress the foot. Normally you wouldn’t want to dress the foot to the shoe, but the foot is so out of shape that it’s necessary to bring it back into shape.”
Nadeau uses a stall jack to shape a Victory aluminum shoe properly and nails it on with 3 1/2 Capewell nails. Nadeau chooses a Victory shoe because it has more nail holes and its shape is very near that of the hoof. After carefully nailing the prepared shoe onto Musical Cat’s left front and applying some minor cosmetic touch ups, we pack up the gear and head to lunch.
12:30 p.m. We pull into an Italian restaurant called Fazoli’s and sit down for a quick lunch. Over our meal I pepper Nadeau with random questions.
“Are you ever afraid about losing business days to injury or prolonged sickness?”
“Most of the farms here only need one horseshoer,” he says. “The good thing about Lexington is if someone gets busy, we can call a friend and they’ll cover for us. With 80,000 horses in eight counties we can accommodate a lot of shoers. If there’s an emergency situation, we have other guys come in and help because we all know the network.
“There’s a lot more friendship among farriers than people think. A lot of shoers think if you let someone else on your farm they’ll take business from you. That’s not the proper attitude. If you can’t keep the farm it’s because your work is not good enough.”
“What about shoeing and trimming prices?”
“This area differs a great deal in pricing,” Nadeau explains. “The average price for shoeing is $85 for all fours. Around $50 for fronts and trimmed hinds. Shoers who do specialized work get between $100 and $200.
“Prices for shoeing fronts and trimming hinds on Thoroughbred yearlings and mares is $50 to $75. Trim prices are under the national average at $12 to $20. But keep in mind, I don’t drive long distances to get trimming work and most farms have over 100 horses that need to be trimmed every month. You’ll find a few horseshoers charging less to get work, but it’s hard to make friends by doing it.”
“What’s the farrier’s need for continued education?”
“It’s a must,” he says. “Anytime a horse owner can read something about hoof or horse care, we have to know it too. If they ask ‘Hey, what about this?’, we have to know at least something about what they’re asking. At least be familiar with it so we don’t look bad.”
“What about licensing for farriers?”
“I don’t like it,” he says. “My reasoning is simple: If you’re licensed, then you’re liable. It would be easier to sue someone if they’re licensed. I like the certification testing and agree with the idea of setting standards. But it’s too subjective and there’s to much crossover with breeds.”
1:15 p.m. We leave the restaurant and start toward Lane’s End Farm. On the way, Nadeau explains what he and Jason will be doing.
“We’re going to be gluing plastic extended heel shoes on a couple of babies with weak tendons,” he says. “Usually, we’ll wait a few weeks and see if they’ll come up on their own, but once the bulbs of the heels start to become irritated we have to go with plastic shoes. We’ll glue on a plastic shoe because foals have hoof walls that are too thin and the tissue is too soft to nail into.”
1:34 p.m. The security gate at Lane’s End opens to reveal another beautifully manicured farm. Like Overbrook, Lane’s End is nearly 2,000 acres with impressively detailed barns and paddocks scattered throughout the rolling hills.
1:40 p.m. Arriving at mare barn two, Nadeau pages Lane’s End farm manager Wayne Smith. Since the foals will need to be tranquilized for the plastic shoes to be glued on, Smith will have to administer the drug due to farm policy.
1:55 p.m. Smith arrives and sedates the foal. Smith looks distant and under the weather. As it turns out, he stayed up all night with a sick mare and hasn’t slept for 27 hours. He’s got a headache, but he quickly administers the drug and within minutes Nadeau is cleaning the hoof to prep it for the glue.
Nadeau uses a plastic Dalric D2 extended heel shoe and Equilox to help this foal’s low heels and weak tendons. Nadeau and Jason hold the shoe on the right hind foot for five minutes before they feel safe enough to leave the foal, an offspring of Zagora and Seattle Slew, alone in the stall with its nurse mare, Spice.
2:17 p.m. Moving to mare barn three, we encounter another foal with extremely low heels on both hind feet. This one will get the same extended heel shoe. As the foal is tranquilized Jason heats the glue. After a few minutes, Nadeau cleans and preps both feet. This foal takes more time because they have to wait for the glue to set on both hind feet.
2:35 p.m. All packed up, we leave Lane’s End and head for our final stop of the day, Summer Wind Farm. We will evaluate a yearling a close friend of Nadeau’s bought recently. An offspring of Red Ransom, the yearling that has a badly crooked left front leg which the previous owners had given up on.
3:01 p.m. We arrive at Summer Wind and make our way to the back barn where Nadeau’s fiance, Martha, is waiting with brownies. After unloading the gear, Nadeau brings the yearling out and is immediately impressed with the progress.
“You can’t believe the change this horse has gone through in two weeks,” Nadeau says. “This horse has a lateral curve to the cannon bone on the left front leg that is causing the ankle to curve in and under the horse. I’ve been applying Equilox to the outer edge of the left front foot to overcompensate and straighten it out. It’s working well.”
3:06 p.m. Jason preps the glue while the horse is tranquilized, the key step in Nadeau’s eyes.
“If you can’t get the horse to stand on one foot the entire time, then you have to tranquilize it,” he says. “We have to hold the foot in the air for a minimum of 10 minutes. If he’s awake, he may not be willing to do that.”
3:15 p.m. Waiting for the drug to take affect, Nadeau trims and cleans all four feet, rasping away excess tissue. Minutes later, he is applying Equilox liberally to the outer edge of the left front.
3:35 p.m. “Some people like lateral extensions in these cases, but what does as much good as anything is building up the height on the outside edge,” says Nadeau. “I can artificially raise a foot with this product because it creates the same wedge effect they get from doing a periosteal elevation on foals. With the combination of making the hoof wider, giving more stability to the foot and raising it higher, I produce a change in the growth pattern.”
3:55 p.m. Jason has packed everything into the trunk of the Mercedes Benz and we exchange goodbyes. Even though they didn’t do much actual shoeing today, I thank the father and son farrier team for showing me some of the prettiest farms in Kentucky. Although many readers might consider the role of the farrier on these farms as simple “cosmetic” shoeing, Nadeau is quick to refute that notion.
“Thoroughbred shoers trim and shoe to minimize motion through the limb,” he says. “The more motion, the more energy that is used. The more energy used, the quicker the horse will tire while racing.
“It’s our goal to produce a horse that moves straight with no lost motion, yet lands with balanced pressure up the bony column. It’s not an easy task to perform.”
THEY’VE GOT IT CORNERED. Anyone who has worked with foals before knows they can be spooked easily. (Left) Nadeau enlists the help of a stable hand and his son, Jason, to get this foal to cooperate by pinning it in the corner of its stall. (Right) Going directly into the stall to trim is an extra step Nadeau willingly performs. “Anything to keep them comfortable,” he says.