Pictured Above: Brad Edward of Billings, Mont., works on placing a shoe while earning a farrier education at the Wyoming School of Horseshoeing In Cheyenne, Wyo. Photo: Samantha Fox/The Fence Post
A new school where “good enough” is a four-letter word can be found on northbound Interstate 25, less than a mile into Wyoming on the east side of the highway.
The Wyoming School of Horseshoeing is located in a long, red barn on the Terry Bison Ranch with white-painted lettering along the side bearing the school’s name.
The school opened at the beginning of February, and is headed by Brooks Varnum. He has worked as a farrier throughout his adult life, and this school was a chance to pass along knowledge and help others become certified farriers.
Protect, Performance And Correction
There are three main reasons Varnum will shoe a horse. If the reason for getting a shoe doesn’t fall under the three criteria, Varnum won’t do it.
“A horse going barefoot is healthiest for the animal,” Varnum says.
The main reason for shoes is to protect the hoof wall. Sometimes the horse wears down the hoof quicker than it can produce it.
That's the main reason. But sometimes a shoe is needed for performance reasons for example on sprinting horses or jumping horses — those that are used for more than just riding on a normal basis.
Then there’s corrective.
If there’s something wrong with the foot or the hoof, a horseshoe can be used to balance the horse. Think of it like braces for teeth. Having the horseshoe on won’t do any good if it’s not fitted to the horse’s corrective needs.
But outside of those three reasons, Varnum won’t put on a shoe.
“Sometimes sound is wanted by the owner. Just so it sounds good,” Varnum says. But horse owners don’t always know there are specific purposes for the shoes.
“It's not their job to know,” he says.
Varnum’s career as a farrier started with curiosity.
He was sort of a “city boy” from Buffalo, Minn., with relatives in North Dakota, who had a ranch. He was 12 years old when he was first exposed to horses visiting his family.
In high school he got a job at a ranch and became the person who helped the farrier with the horses. That’s where his interest in what is now his life’s work began and he’s never looked back.
“I was that annoying kid always asking questions,” he says.
He went to a school just like the one he now teaches, to learn how to be a farrier. But before he dove into teaching this year, Varnum had a farrier business of his own.
He started in Cooperstown, N.D., with some help from his family. But his quality work helped his business take off quickly.
Also, there aren’t a lot of farriers in North Dakota.
After a couple of years, Varnum moved and started to work in Brookings, S.D., for his apprenticeship. That was in 2012. Two years later he was back in Minnesota for another round of school.
It’s about constantly learning and perfecting the craft, Varnum says.
In 2015, Varnum and his wife, Angie, moved to Fort Collins, Colo., when Angie started in the veterinary program at Colorado State University.
Varnum started sending out his résumé, and one went to Dan Thiel, owner of the Terry Bison Ranch. He only sent out maybe 10 résumés before they connected.
Varnum was looking for work, not necessarily teaching, though. He says he thought about teaching, but was never actively looking for a teaching position.
“Just like I always wanted an instructor role but didn’t have the facility, Dan always had a facility but never had an instructor,” Varnum says.
Building the school started May 2016, and 9 months later the first class was admitted. There are three students who are halfway through an 8-week course. The courses come in 2- 4- and 8-week sessions.
On day one students are already working with the horses.
The students have the option to live at the ranch, for which they pay tuition and lodging and are provided three meals a day. There’s a café at the ranch, so it’s not just sandwiches on a daily basis.
This gives students the chance to focus on what they’re doing and learning without having any distractions.
Varnum teaches by showing and doing. He spends the first part of the morning talking and teaching things that will likely show up on the certification test.
The rest of the day students are practicing the work they will be doing once they are certified.
In the barn last week there were two horses in individual stalls with Brad Edward from Billings, Mont., and Micah Gabrielsen of Laramie, Wyo., putting shoes on the horses. The third student, Eric Bailey of Parachute, Colo., had to go to the chiropractor.
Working as a farrier is tough on your body if you don't take care of yourself, Varnum says.
Varnum watches what they’re doing, and gives pointers when he sees they’re needed.
He knows they’re all learning, and he wants them to learn and improve on their own. But he also knows his stuff.
However, he knows they need to learn through doing even though mistakes are made.
Varnum was in his office — a rarity for him during the class — when Gabrielsen came in.
“I’ve stuck one,” Gabrielsen says.
There’s no panic in his voice, and Varnum isn’t alarmed either. Varnum follows Gabrielsen into the working room, grabs the iodine and a fills the syringe.
He calmly picks up the leg of the horse and squirts the iodine into the shoe hole where Gabrielsen stuck the horse.
The horse doesn't really react as blood comes out. It immediately put weight on the hoof and was licking its lips.
A sign, Varnum says, that the horse was calm and OK.
It was the second time Gabrielsen had stuck a horse since the class started, but this time he was better prepared. He knew the signs based on the last time and took the nail out immediately.
“I want them to make mistakes here rather than when they’re out [working],” Varnum says.