Heidi Mello can’t recall the number of times she’s been horse-kicked over the course of her career.
But the FEI-sanctioned farrier says she’s learned which ones to treat with caution.
“With 23 years in the industry, I’ve had my share,” Mello says. “The worst incidents are the ones I don’t remember until 3 or 4 days later after I’ve woken up … you stop doing the stupid ones.”
Mello has taken up quarters in the corner of a cavernous A-frame tent behind the International Ring, an anvil and assortment of hand tools that haven’t changed that much over the years close at hand.
One piece of equipment that’s modernized slightly is the anvil, which now sits on an aluminum base anchored to a rubber ring.
“It’s so the farrier doesn’t become deaf from the pings,” she said while striking its surface to produce a gentler tapping sound.
The farrier considers herself an old-school practitioner, someone adept at shoeing horses that ride on fast-vanishing grass courses.
“I’m lucky to have been taught by an old-timer,” says Mello, clad in a leather apron bearing stains and burn marks. “A lot of the new ones want to work with all the new toys without knowing how the old basics work.”
For the Bermuda resident, the tournament starts with a look at the horses’ hoofs during the pre-competition medical inspection so she knows what might be coming her way.
Riders have their own farriers at home, but Mello’s task is to do repairs on-site.
“I’m not here to change anything — I’m here to do maintenance,” she says. “I’m like a NASCAR mechanic except I’m doing every team.”
Once riders inspect the course, they might come to Mello requesting shoes more suitable for the terrain and its conditions — a different one for mud, sand, wet and dry surfaces.
Often, at the height of activity in the International Ring, time is very important.
“It’s our job to keep the ring running on time and the finest, finest details makes a world of difference in this sport,” says Mello.
Other times, riders whose mounts have lost a shoe in the ring will come calling.
“We can’t have them going back to the stables with a flat tire,” she says.
Some riders are convinced they know what type of shoe configuration their horses require, against her advice, she adds.
“Those people are usually my best customers, but I’m not going to get into an argument with someone in white britches who’s riding for money,” says Mello.
Shoes are secured on horses’ hoofs with spikes or screws called calks.
At Spruce Meadows, many riders favor three screws in the rear of the shoe, and longer ones at that — in the belief it’ll mean an advantage at one of the most “sacred” sites of the sport.
“Every rider says this is the place to come, it’s a big deal to get into this ring and they want the biggest screws,” says Mello. “But if you go too big, you’ll get stuck in the ground.”