Photo Above: Freeville, N.Y., farrier Kirk Smith prefers to forge most of the shoes he uses at the horse. The practice gives him the freedom to make modifications where the horse needs them, carry minimal inventory and saves him money in a number of ways including gas mileage.
Horses have been a staple in Kirk Smith’s life long before he started shoeing horses in Freeville, N.Y.
He always had horses while growing up in the small farming town of Clark in northeastern South Dakota. He cut his teeth working cattle part-time as a high school student and later during his summer breaks while attending Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Along the way, he broke and trained horses.
“Horseshoeing seemed fun,” Smith says, “and I thought I should have a better understanding of it as a horseman and trainer.”
During his junior year at Cornell, Smith met Steve Kraus, who was shoeing horses at the university’s equestrian center and coaching polo. The future head farrier at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine took Smith under his wing.
“I called him up and asked him if I could bug him,” Smith recalls. “He enjoys teaching, so he’s happy to help people. It was convenient for me to go there when Steve was working and I wasn’t in class.”
When Smith was in class, his studies focused on bio and environmental engineering. Naturally, the intricate system of levers, pulleys, weights and counterweights that’s at the heart of farriery appeals to him.
“Horseshoeing is basically mechanics and physics,” Smith says. “It’s a pretty complicated system that we haven’t quite figured out. But at its root, it’s an engineering puzzle. Your basic goal is to get that system balanced such that you’re not putting undue stress on something that can’t take it.”
Keeping clients within a small radius of home saves time and money for Freeville, N.Y., farrier Kirk Smith.
Forging most of the concave shoes at the horse allows Smith the ability to limit inventory, punch nail holes and place modifications where the horse needs them and saves money in a number of areas.
Scheduling clients with enough “fudge time” allows Smith to accommodate unexpected problems, as well as ensure that he’s on time for the next appointment.
Shoes with spooned heels should only be applied to horses’ hooves that are on a regular schedule to avoid them from growing into the buttress.
The complex nature of the engineering puzzle proved too intriguing for Smith to resist.
“I sort of got suckered into doing it forever,” he chuckles. “And it turns out you can make a good living at it, so it works.”
5:47 a.m. It’s a fairly typical early November day in the Finger Lakes region. The sun offers no hint that it intends to rise as a light mist and breeze make the mid-30s temperatures feel chillier.
Smith is busy feeding the horses and chickens as his curious bird dog Blueberry — or Blue for short — darts about, intent on picking up the scent of anything that encroached upon his territory overnight. The 6-month-old Brittany is making great strides while training for upland bird hunting, he says.
After the early morning chores are completed, Smith and Blue climb into his Chevy Colorado for the drive to the day’s first appointment.
“There are a couple of outliers who are a little farther out, but the vast majority of my clients are within a half-hour — 25 miles maybe — of my house,” he says. “I’m really lucky in that I have two relatively large barns that are within 2 miles of my house. I literally spend almost an entire day, every week at a barn that’s 1½ miles from my house. It’s hard to knock that.”
Although the close proximity of his clients minimizes travel costs and wear and tear on his truck, Smith finds greater value in saving time.
“If I spend an hour driving, that’s an hour that I can’t be doing something else, whether it’s working, driving my horses or being home with my family,” he says. “Having a lot of horses close by is handy in spring and fall when it’s muddy and you have problems. It would be fine to drive 2 hours and work all day if you can guarantee that you didn’t have to go back at the end of the week because a horse pulled a shoe.
“A lot of farriers will charge trip calls and stuff like that. You can’t possibly charge a trip fee that balances out your time and expenses. If you did, it would be unreasonable.”
6:21 a.m. The first stop of the day is a private barn consisting of three trail-riding horses.
“This will be the farthest we will be from my house all day,” Smith says of the 20-minute drive to the Foote family barn in Dryden.
|Stone dust contributes to separation of the white line in the Finger Lakes region, Smith says. The finely ground, irregular and sharp rock particles find small separa-tions and work their way into the white line.||The damp climate of the Finger Lakes region of New York contributes to cases of thrush. Smith applies No Thrush, a powder that adheres to the moisture on the bottom of the foot, to help combat it.|
Smith backs his truck onto a rutty dirt road, stopping at the gait of an electric fence. Inside the old, dimly lit, wooden barn, Pat and Renee Foote shuffle along the dirt floor while tying up and feeding three horses.
After exchanging pleasantries, Smith opens the cap door and tailgate of his truck, revealing it’s “homemade insides.”
“I work pretty simply,” he says. “There’s not a lot of stuff in here. I’m a proponent of do the basics right and don’t have to do much other stuff. I don’t like doing the other stuff.”
Horses with problems can be addressed with good, quality basics and they will get better on their own …
The “other stuff” Smith refers to is the inventory a farrier traditionally carries when practicing therapeutic horseshoeing — “pads, wedges, bar shoes and all sorts of funky appliances to fix or manage horses with problems.”
“I think that avoiding those things in the first place is time better spent,” he says. “So, that’s my goal. How well I accomplish it is subject to interpretation, but that’s the idea.”
No matter one’s interpretation, Smith appears to be accomplishing his goal given that very few are shod with shoes outside the norm.
“There’s a lot going on in a normal shoe that can account for a lot of small problems,” he explains. “If it’s possible, a lot of balance problems are best addressed within that scheme of things. Most of the time, even horses with problems can be addressed with good, quality basics and they will get better on their own.
“Stay out of the horse’s way would be another way of putting it. They’ll get better if we don’t prevent that somehow or another, or create another problem trying to fix the one that was going to get better by itself, which happens all the time.”
6:31 a.m. Levi, an unshod Paint, is something of a unicorn in that very little is required when tending to his feet.
“I go into this barn every 6 or 8 weeks, and in all honesty, I trim his feet twice a year,” Smith says. “I clean up the rough edges and put them back down. For whatever reason, his hoof growth equals wear, roughly speaking, without getting short or sore or getting long. There’s usually very little to do with his feet.”
Outside of a touch of thrush, Levi’s history remains true to form.
“This is what his feet normally look like,” Smith says.
“And he gets ridden a lot,” Renee says.
After a light trim, Smith applies some No Thrush — a powder that adheres to the moisture on the bottom of the foot — that Renee has on hand in the barn.
6:45 a.m. After trimming Levi, Smith turns his attention to Ridge.
“Ridgey’s got issues,” Renee says. “He’s got arthritis and tendonitis of some sort. He’s like a big puppy dog.”
Since the retired trail-riding horse is lame, he has a tendency to move stiffly with short, choppy steps and often stabs his feet into the ground.
“Sometimes he packs a lot of dirt and debris in the white line,” Smith says. “It sort of comes and goes, depending on the footing conditions.”
Conditions often are muddy in the spring, fall and early winter in Smith’s neck of the woods. Many of his clients spread stone dust — finely ground, irregular rock particles with sharp edges — in the high traffic areas to combat it.
“You get a tiny bit of separation in the white line and you have this little crack,” he says. “Now, you get this piece of stone dust stuck in there. Because it’s sharp-edged, it sort of works its way around and doesn’t come out. The next thing you know, you have this giant pocket that’s packed with dust.”
The small rock particles do quite a bit of damage to farrier tools and hinder the trimming process.
“You spend a lot of time digging this stuff out,” Smith says. “It drives me nuts. I really think a lot of the white line separation problems we get are caused by stone dust than anything else.”
|Another advantage to forging shoes at the horse is the ability to punch nail holes, draw clips and add mechanics where the horse needs them the most.|
7:02 a.m. The nip in the air is a reminder that it won’t be long before the snow flies. Yet, the shoeing schedule for Sunshine, the final horse at the Foote’s barn, comes at an awkward time in the trail-riding season. That leaves Renee with a decision on snow pads.
“This is always the tough time of year because if I put them on, it will be too early,” she says. “If I don’t, it will be too late. We’ll wait until the next go-round in December.”
Sun is a stereotypical long-toe, low-heel, flat-footed horse.
“In a trail horse, that makes him foot sore,” Smith says. “He’s not really lame, but he doesn’t like to go on stones without shoes.”
Smith runs down some of the potential options — rim pads, full pad and a wider shoe. Since Sun is only shod up front, he also suggests shoeing all the way around.
“Depending on what is exactly happening, he might be disliking rocks because his hind feet hurt, too,” Smith tells Renee. “Putting back shoes on might help.”
“I was thinking, ‘Does he need 4-wheel-drive?’” she replies. “Let’s revisit this in the spring when we get back into the riding work, because who knows what this winter will bring.”
7:11 a.m. There’s enough wear on Sun’s shoes that a new pair are in order. After measuring the front hooves, Smith returns to his rig.
While he’s already expressed an aversion to carrying inventory normally associated with therapeutic shoeing, Smith doesn’t stop there. He actually doesn’t carry much of anything outside of the absolute necessities — forge, propane tanks, anvil, a handful of keg shoes, concave bar stock and tools — none of which necessitates electricity.
“I have,” he says, “an inherent distaste for power tools.”
Smith measures a length of concave stock, and then shears it with an anvil devil on his 100-pound Scott anvil.
“I make most of the shoes I put on,” he says. “I don’t carry very many shoes in my truck, either, because I’m lazy. If I have shoes in there, I won’t make them. If I’ve got something in there that I can make work, then I’ll do that. I like to make shoes, though, and I think that if you do it regularly, it doesn’t really cost you time.”
Smith contends that the modifications one must make with a keg shoe doesn’t save as much time as many believe.
“There’s no question that there’s more work involved in making a shoe than modifying most keg shoes,” he says. “When you’re dealing with a keg shoe, they’re inevitably too big or too small. You’re going to be back and forth to the grinder because you’re working with preformed sizes. The clips may or may not be where you want them or you don’t like them. As soon as you have to shorten a heel or do something like take a clip off and put something else on there, all of a sudden, any time savings you had went away.”
The certified journeyman farrier realizes that his is a minority opinion.
“Most people don’t buy it, obviously because most people aren’t making shoes,” Smith says. “I can turn a pair of shoes in 15 minutes. Even if it does take me more time, I’m resetting that shoe three or more times. It only takes me an extra 5 minutes every three times I see that horse. It’s really pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things — an extra average of a couple of minutes per horse.”
Smith points out that he’s not making shoes for a competition, which is a completely different animal.
I like to shoe horses, not count horseshoes …
“I’m making everyday, get horses shod shoes,” he says. “Most of the shoes I’m going to put on are hammer finished. I’m not going to get out a file and polish everything. I’m not going to spend very much time with the brush cleaning off slag and pressing out every last wrinkle and hammer track. I’m not going to spend 20 minutes a day making sure my punches and pritchels are perfect.
“Those are the sorts of things that you’d spend a lot of time doing at a contest because they matter at a contest. The real, basic functions are all the same.”
Concave stock is a strategic choice for him, as well. He can place the nail holes and clips where the horse needs them. It’s also easier than flat stock at the anvil.
“There’s a lot of work already done to it,” Smith says. “It’s easy to bend, easy to turn and I don’t have to crease it. The real advantage in the shoemaking world of concave is that you don’t have to hit it as hard. Making shoes out of concave is like a finesse project. It allows me to get a lot of the advantages of making shoes with a lot less work than making them out of flat stock.”
It’s a good fit for the type of horses that Smith shoes, as well.
“I also like the purchase that horses get from it, because I shoe a lot of horses that are everyday backyard pleasure,” he explains. “It also cleans. A concave shoe won’t pack dirt like a straight, rectangle section will because it doesn’t have that vertical wall. The concave will fill with dirt easier, but it also empties easier.”
Smith resects a small area of Mars’ hoof wall to remove areas affected by white line disease. “I’ve seen some really bad cases around here. It’s pervasive. Our environment is pretty conducive to letting it start and then how bad it gets.”
There are exceptions, though.
“If the horse is foot sore and you need more flotation, you don’t want that shoe sinking in the footing,” he says. “It depends on the context, but being an easy way to make shoes is a big draw to it.”
The biggest benefit, though, is there’s no need to carry much inventory.
“If you want to avoid having to make a lot of modifications to keg shoes, then you have to carry a lot of keg shoes,” he says. “So, you have different sections, different shapes, all that stuff, coming out of the box. I have no interest in managing that kind of inventory. I like to shoe horses, not count horseshoes.”
The extra few minutes that it takes him to make shoes at the horse is saved in visits to the supply shop.
“So, if I can shoe horses with a handful of bars of steel, I can save time on managing all of that inventory nonsense,” Smith says. “I don’t have $1,000 tied up in 200 pairs of shoes sitting in my truck. I have that money in my pocket. I can have a smaller truck and it saves me in gas mileage because there’s less weight on my truck. It saves me money in a bunch of ways, really.”