They Shoe Horses, Don’t They?

With his mouth full of nails, Jim grins after Duchess dropped a pile on him while he worked on her hind hoof.

Part therapist, part blacksmith, part horse whisperer, a farrier in western and central New York must also be intrepid and impervious to cold.

A faint winter sun rises from behind a New York foothill, causing Route 414 to glisten as Jim Hunter’s work truck descends into Watkins Glen, in the heart of the Finger Lakes. Yesterday nearly seven inches of snow fell and the townspeople are still digging out. The temperature on the revolving bank thermometer blinks 9 degrees. But the major roads are clear and it’s daylight, two things that mean work to a farrier.

Simply put, farriers shoe horses. According to the American Farriers Association, there are 125 farriers in New York State. About 50 of them live and work in central and western New York.

Beyond general shoeing, farriers are blacksmiths as they make shoes, therapists as they correct faulty limb action, and small business owners. Jim, like many farriers, is full-time and self-employed, so he balances a myriad business skills, like booking appointments, ordering stock, managing accounts, maintaining a client base, jockeying insurance, planning retirement, and smiling through long hours. He has been in business over 30 years, “long enough so you’d think I’d know better.” He shoes between 1,800 and 2,000 horses a year, rotating many every six to eight weeks. Missing an obligation still bothers him.

Jim is quiet: Yesterday’s snowstorm upset his work schedule. Focusing on the road, Jim remembers a storm from years ago. The snow turned into
freezing rain, making roads treacherous. Since he had committed his time to a nearby barn, Jim drove the normally 20-minute trip in two hours, navigating around overturned tractor-trailers. “I used to think I had to get it done,” Jim says. “I told people I’d be there so I went.”

As downtown Watkins Glen dwindles into countryside, Jim pops the clutch and upshifts, and we skip alongside Seneca Lake.

The “Lazy J” barn sits over the brow of the hill on a private-lakefront road. A good path was plowed, so Jim backs in. He steps out of his truck and pulls on his heavy Carharts and his trademark polka dot cap. A trio of horses greets him with stares and cocked ears. As he unloads his gear, the owner approaches. Beneath his arm a newspaper headline reads, “B-b-bitter cold chills S. Tier.” Jim introduces me to James Felli, the owner, who greets us with a comment about the temperature, “I think it’s up to 12.”

“Get your swimsuit out,” Jim says. James smirks but seems concerned about his horses. He asks, “Are they okay? Because in this cold they keep twitching.” I notice as Jim and James exhale, moisture catches in their mustaches and crystallizes.

Hearing the concern, Jim stops unloading and says, “It’s the same reaction as a fly in spring.” He goes on to clarify how the blood, muscles, and coat work to regulate the body temperature.

“Would blankets at night help?” James asks.

Jim reassures him that the barn is adequate protection from the wind and cold. As for the blankets, Jim says, “If you do it once, they’ll expect it every night.” James nods deeply, a don’t-want-to-start-that nod. Apparently, horses are creatures of habit.

Jim harnesses Cracker, a gelding with a chestnut coat to the crossties. His head is toward the door because one day, a few years back, a car drove up with the sun glaring off the windshield. Cracker, with his hindquarters to the door, heard the car and saw a huge reflection spread across the back wall of the barn. Spooked, the horse reared back and snapped the crossbeams. As a result, he has forever earned a place facing the doorway; he won’t stand in any other direction.

To accommodate the personality of every horse, an essential tool is Jim’s good memory. He knows their histories and their habits, which horses weave, lean and bite. He can even look at sets of shoes and name the horses they fit.

As Jim straps on his chaps, Cracker farts loudly. Jim jokes that there is a law in the horse union stating a horse must “drop a load” on or near a farrier as the hind foot is being tended. Failing to do so means losing a membership card. “I think he conserves,” Jim says eyeing up Cracker. We all chuckle. Then Cracker whinnies, which makes us really laugh.

For all three horses today, Jim simply must trim the hooves and reset the shoes. A hoof grows continuously, which is the reason why shoes are pulled and the hoof is trimmed back. If not done, a horse can have problems walking. The shoes serve to protect the hoof, and a set of shoes usually lasts two to three resets.

As Jim says, “The devil is in the details.” The complicating detail for farriers, as any professional who works with animals knows, is that horses don’t talk. To shoe effectively, Jim must first develop a keen sense of each horse so that he can treat that horse’s needs. Treatment entails selecting a shoe based on a horse’s size, activity, and condition.

It all begins with a touch. In the smallest of gestures, Jim places his hand on Cracker’s thigh and strokes down to the hoof. He then picks up the foot. Jim repeats this motion a hundred times a day. Some horses even anticipate it and shift their weight and cock their hooves. But it’s the deep breath Jim takes, before he puts the hoof between his legs and settles it in the groove of his thighs, that’s the true signal to begin. The sound in it, the heaviness, is no cipher. It lives for a moment, a low pitch that trembles with the physicality of his work, work that hasn’t changed in centuries. Jim says, “Blacksmiths from 200 years ago wouldn’t see much difference today because the basics are still there.” Like farriers of the past, Jim’s body is curled like a question mark. He then begins his inquiry of the hoof, his craft of prying, picking, paring, trimming, planing and nailing.

Of course, the horse can only hold that position for so long. As Jim says, “They’re patient, but they get tired.” He breaks the process down into steps, and horses become accustomed to the pattern, the rhythm. As Jim moves to the hind feet, James comes into the barn with three Styrofoam cups of coffee, something to warm us up. He looks at me and says, “Jim once told me there must be an easier way to make a living, but his people don’t complain.”

Jim sets down Cracker’s hoof and adds, “The horses do.” Cracker, ever the comic, raises his tail and relieves his bowels. Jim looks back at him and then at us. “Cursed horse union,” he mutters.

by Steve Wilson
Steve Wilson lived 12 years of his adult life in the Finger Lakes region before moving in August to Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes. Over the last ten years, he taught English, lived with homeless families, assisted people on public assistance, sold cameras and volunteered in prisons.

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