EDITOR’S NOTE: American Farriers Journal recently published the 11th edition of Getting Started in Hoof Care, a career guide for the new farrier. Woodbine, Md., farrier Matthew Raskin, who is in his second year of an apprenticeship, recently wrote an article that aims to help young farriers understand the importance of education, apprenticeships and continuing education.
There are many paths to take to becoming a farrier.
You can ride with a farrier and take part in an apprenticeship or you can go to a horseshoeing school and then do an apprenticeship, which is what I did. There is no right or wrong path to take. As a young person getting started, they say a journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step. I’m going to tell you about my first step and journey from school to a year into my apprenticeship.
I have worked with and rode horses all my life. I do civil war re-enactments, movie shoots, search and rescue and just general trail riding with my own horses. I have been interested in blacksmithing since I was 12. I have dabbled in forging after building a brake drum forge when I was in middle school. In 2014, one of my dad’s farrier friends got hurt, so I rode with him shoeing horses for a couple weeks. I had no clue how to do anything and was so fascinated by it. Soon after I started looking into the horseshoeing trade as a possibility for my future. I figured that since I loved to work with horses it would be a nice handy thing to do.
It was suggested to me to look into farrier schools, I looked at several schools such as Oklahoma, 5 Star, Heartland and several others. I looked at the schools’ merit for what they had to offer. I decided to pick one of the schools. Their program had several options — a 12-week, 24-week and a 36-week course. I was on the fence about going until one of my close friends talked to me about how there are a lot of people running around calling themselves farriers but can’t actually do the job they claim to be able to do.
It wasn’t until 2016 when I made the decision to apply, and as luck would have it, I got in the 36-week program that started January 2017. In preparation, I took an intro to farrier course hosted by the University of Maryland. It was an awesome experience. As part of the class they had a local farrier and he showed us the very rudimentary basics of how the foot functions and how he goes about trimming and shoeing a horse. It was a good introduction to what I would be doing in school.
My expectations of going to school was just like any other trade school. I would come out of there with a basic working understanding of how to go about shoeing a horse, and like any other trade, I would need to have an apprenticeship or mentorship. At the horseshoeing school, I started the year with a great group of young men and women eager to start their careers. The school had a great group of instructors for both the classroom and the practical instruction. There was no tip-toeing into it. The first day at school we sat in on the middle class’ front leg dissection — and it was awesome.
In the classroom, we had regular classroom instructional time and learned a lot from anatomy, physiology, conformation, locomotion (the different gaits/footing), pathology/lameness, business and accounting. We learned the bone structure and functions or the tendons and ligaments and learned hands-on with the guidance of our instructors. We were able to do multiple dissections of hoof capsules and legs both front and hind. We had our regular instructors, as well as multiple guest speakers and instructors such as Wayne Hipsley, Chris Kibbe, Tab Pig, Dave Richards and many more.
In the shop, we learned farrier principles such as tool usage (trimming and blacksmithing), welding, tool making and how to make different styles of shoes, as well as shoe modifications. We learned how to use both propane and a coke forges to heat the metal for modifications and build shoes from bar stock. We started off with straightening keg shoes out and making them into bar stock to center punches and pritchels and even hoof picks. Then we started with bar stock, making heels then toe bends and complete shoes. We had and eagle eye contest every Friday. We ended the year with a practical exam of shoeing a horse with handmade fullered fronts and plain-stamped hinds.
Outside the classroom and the shop, we honed our horsemanship skills in the field and aisle ways. We trimmed many horses as a class and got to work with many different breeds and temperament of horses. We learned a lot at school but it was only the beginning. We were just scratching the surface of what we will learn in our shoeing career, which is why they insist on an apprenticeship after school.
There is so much to learn about shoeing horses that being an apprentice is vitally important in the road to maturation as a farrier. This trade is an art form. It’s skill, science and craftsmanship all rolled into one. It takes many years to get good at it all while learning it at someone else’s elbow, which is the way it has been learned for thousands of years and the way we will continue to learn it.
As I was about to graduate from school, the farrier I had lined up called me and said his old apprentice wasn’t ready to go out on his or her own and he couldn’t use me. The school worked hard but on short notice nothing could be found. I rode with several farriers; however, none were a good fit. After a short time my father suggested I give one of his old friends a call. I looked him up found that he is very big on continuing education and his reputation is that he does what is best for the horse. I called him and while on the phone with him he asked whether I felt ready to be on my own with what I know. I believe honesty is key so I told him I knew enough to be stupid and dangerous. He said, “Good answer. When can you start?”
I’m now a year into my apprenticeship. As I reflect back on when I started with my mentor, I recall that I was eager to learn and show him what I knew, which wasn’t a lot. At that point, I was so excited to prove myself that I forgot it’s not about me or anything other than that animal standing in the cross-ties. My job as an apprentice is to assist and share the workload.
It’s in an effort to make the mentor’s life easier and that’s everything from setting up and cleaning up to sweeping, stepping and fetching, pulling and finishing, drilling and tapping, etc. We learn this trade from the ground up. As your skills improve, your ability to assist increases.
Some tasks might seem mundane, such as sweeping and cleaning up the rig, but every task has its purpose. For instance, cleaning the rig every day I knew where all the tools and supplies where so when I was asked to step and fetch, I knew exactly what my mentor needed and could get it to him in a timely manner. Being efficient offers great rewards because it makes time for education that is extremely important. We have to do our very best because that’s what they deserve. It’s not about being hip, slick and cool. It’s not about showing the world you can make a pair of shoes in 30 minutes. It’s about what is best for that animal at that particular time — and at times I do forget that.
A key part of being an apprentice is to stay humble, keep your mouth shut, listen and do what you’re told when you’re told and how you’re told — no more no less. I made mistakes but that’s the way we learn. None of us learn from doing it right the first time. They say the difference between a good farrier and a great one is the great one has made many more mistakes. However, it’s not the mistake that makes him or her a great farrier, it’s what they do about it. It is that they learn from their mistakes that separates good farriers from the great ones.
I don’t know whether I will be a great farrier, but I do know I have many more mistakes to make. With the knowledge and guidance of my mentor in my apprenticeship, hopefully I will keep my mistakes to a minimum.
Another key aspect of an apprenticeship is it’s not only a technical training opportunity but a character-building opportunity. We are getting started in a career that will test every aspect of who we are physically, mentally, emotionally and we need to be prepared for it. There was recently an article that my mentor had me read called “Five Little Known Facts about Apprenticeship,” written by Annie Holmquist of Intellectual Takeout, which was published in 2015. She talks about how an apprenticeship is also character training. She writes:
“In chronicling the history of the American apprenticeship [Paul Douglas] notes that an apprentice’s master was expected to be a good, upstanding man who instructed his charges in morality as well as the craft. Specifically, Douglas writes, ‘Another function of an apprenticeship is the development of character and good citizenship. Originally it was a preparation for life not a preparation of technical pursuits alone.’”
As an apprentice, I’m learning a great deal about myself and how I interact with people in different situations. I look to my mentor for guidance on how to handle and conduct myself. I have a hill to climb and sometimes for me that learning curve is steep.