Recently, American Farriers Journal Technical Editor Red Renchin wrote about farrier education and attrition rates within the industry (presumably schools based in the United States). I think the piece had some very valid points, but I disagree with Renchin on some key issues.
First, he begins with his concern that many young, new farriers do not stay in the business. His reasons seem valid, and his idea of schools creating a sellable farrier also has merit. However, I begin to disagree when Renchin implies "real world" skills are not being adequately emphasized (i.e. trimming, shoeing with keg shoes, clinching and finishing and that learning to build shoes isn't a fundamental skill).
I agree that some responsibility lies within the schools, however. I do not believe they hold sole responsibility for a cure. Education is a personal endeavor that is internally driven. The school is merely the beginning. To me, his piece really boils down to the simple debate of handmade vs. keg shoes, and what each mean to the individual and the trade.
Other Reasons Contribute To Attrition
As Renchin stated, the attrition rate of new farriers is very high. In addition to what makes our trade difficult, there are aspects in which we must excel if we want to succeed. This is a unique trade. It is quite common for a large number of people to change direction when choosing a career path, often multiple times. A common reason many people choose this trade is that it is easy to get into. They soon discover how seemingly simple and yet endlessly complex being a farrier can be. We must not only be able to comprehend complicated anatomy, biomechanics, applied static and dynamic physics, but also be able to discern and apply appropriate trimming and shoeing for the needs of the horse.
Next, consider the business aspects. We must be good entrepreneurs and businessmen, having satisfactory interpersonal skills to interact favorably with clients, owners, trainers, managers and veterinarians. We must be able to calculate at a moment's notice all the infinite factors that may affect what course we take, and apply them with proficient skill to meet those needs. We must be good with finances, recordkeeping, inventory and scheduling.
And, of course, we must be physically strong, have great endurance, tremendous patience, creative ingenuity and a high pain tolerance. Your family, should you have one, will indeed understand the meaning of sacrifice and know what it is to love a person obsessed. I can't imagine why anyone would quit! Those of us who remain do so for the love of it. This is but a short summation of what it takes to be successful in this trade. It is nearly impossible to cram it all into a lifetime, let alone a school.
What Happens After School?
Farriers must receive a financial return from their education and business in order to reinvest in themselves through personal and professional development. Schools that sell certificates of graduation from short programs as being adequate to be a successful farrier are disingenuous and misleading. My perspective is that schools are a fantastic place to be introduced to solid fundamentals that should be further developed in the "real world" through the school of life.
I ask Renchin, who has a vast experience of hiring students, “Were those hires graduates or attendees?" Graduates should have demonstrated an ability to perform the basic skills in his list; attendees would have completed the required weeks, but fell short in the demonstration. This should be evaluated in the interview and hiring practices. It seems to me that this creates a limited perspective (even if long-lived).
There are plenty of students who leave school adequately prepared to be apprentices. Let's not leave out those who depart school, start a successful small business and continue to seek further education. There are many roads after school, and time is not always the best teacher. It has been said that there are those who shoe for 20 years, and others who shoe for 1 year, 20 years in a row.
Schools are a great place to begin. There is no cure, as was suggested, in schools. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. But, this improvement is not the sole responsibility of the schools or the system.
The greatest responsibility lies within the individual. We are so very fortunate in this country to have the freedom to find the course that suits us best. In farriery, there are opportunities from 6-week courses to several years long courses to apprenticeships, mentorships, venues, contests, certifications and brotherly comradery. The mistake is in the delusion that any amount of learning is ever enough. The idea that schools hold full responsibility for the complete education of students is a highly misguided notion.
There are a great number of schools in this country, all of which have slightly different programs. However, those esteemed to be the best, all acknowledge that they can, at best, provide the basics. Most of these schools all agree on some solid fundamentals. They understand the paramount importance of a good trim, and recognize the complexity that it can be. They highly value a solid understanding of anatomy. They appreciate the value of the ability to forge, fabricate or modify materials. They know that these things are rarely stand-alone. They are intimately entwined. The improvement of one, improves them all and the end result.
We are all students at different stages of the process. If a student chooses the right school, the mold is cast preparing them for a lifetime of learning and innovation. The wrong choice prepares them for a lifetime of isolation and dependence on manufacturers and postal service. Those who learn all they need in 2 to 6 weeks can get anything they need from the supply store. To correctly fit and apply a keg shoe often requires modification or some compromise. We don't live in an ideal world and therefore most everything is a compromise to some degree. Shoeing is no exception. Where I feel we commonly fail is in accepting and perpetuating the notion that mediocrity is “good enough.”
Easy Doesn’t Mean Better
This is essentially at the heart of my disagreement with Renchin: a frequent industry willingness to find what is easy at all costs, even at the cost of disregarding intrinsic value. The last thing our trade needs is advocating for lesser skill. Teaching the continued reliance on what is available off the shelf is such an advocate. It regularly amazes me that we could ever argue to further reduce the nonexistent minimum standard. It is absolute folly to argue that it is better to “look a fool” by taking too long building what is required from materials on hand, than to leave and order some keg shoes you didn't have on hand. It is highly costly to leave a horse, possibly suffering, to wait on an order that you hope will be right. Then, once that order arrives, return to that animal to provide for its footcare needs.
I argue that the path calling for leaving and needing should cause greater concern than the time investment required to build a shoe from scratch. Building the shoe provides tremendous benefits. Having the ability to produce what is needed, not only eliminates this problem but provides additional benefits. First, it goes further in developing one’s skill when understanding how to best trim feet and appropriately apply shoes.
Secondly, it can be a sound business strategy, as there are some arguable benefits to handmade shoes that can, in some circumstances, outweigh the convenience of keg shoes.
As long as we are going to interact and affect equids, the human element in farriery is an innate part of our functional relationship with horses. Because of the nature, need and effect inherent to our trade, it is imperative that we do not simply allow it to be further degraded or dumbed-down. With all our advancements, it should be obvious to relevant parties that we should instead encourage and promote excellence and not mediocrity.
Shoe manufacturers have contributed greatly to our industry through education, research and product development. While I promote ingenuity, advancement and research, I can appreciate the tremendous value advancing technology plays. I recognize there can also be drawbacks. Technology has the “habit” of enabling laziness and false sense of reality. It is not my intent to degrade the use of pre-manufactured shoes. I use them often when they suit the situation. I also spend a great deal of time teaching my apprentices how to properly use them.
Traditionally, smithing was a necessary part of farriery — and it still is. A horse’s feet are like our fingerprints in that no two are alike. I know how much my personal skill level to address this improved with learning to build shoes. I wonder how much better I would be if I had learned to forge more from the beginning.
The farrier school’s role is to get students started, and present them with the options. From there it is up to the individual student to take the path of the dependent applicator or the path of the self-reliant tradesman.
Read AFJ Executive Editor Jeremy McGovern's response to Red Renchin's blog in the Frankly Speaking column found in the September/October 2014 issue of American Farriers Journal.