Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Heather Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Shoeing My Own Horses

Shoeing Nell, in about 1960, with my baby sister looking on

I started shoeing my own horses in 1958, when I was 14 years old, back in the days when girls were not expected to become farriers. But necessity gives us courage to try things. Growing up on the ranch, I'd handled our horses a lot, had watched my father shoe them, and had already done some hoof trimming. My younger brother and I were in a new 4-H horse club, and that summer we rode our horses to town (a 28-mile round trip from our ranch) to 4-H meetings and drill practice twice a week, getting ready for a mounted drill our club was going to perform at the county fair.

Trimming and shoeing Khamette in 1962, when Khamette was a young mare

At one point our parents were gone for a week to a church conference, and my brother and I remained at home taking care of the ranch chores — irrigating and riding range to check cattle. On one of our range rides, my brother's horse Ginger lost a shoe. He could have ridden one of our other horses for ranch work until our parents got home, but we had to ride to our 4-H meeting the next day, and there was no way Ginger could travel 28 miles of gravel road without a shoe. So we looked in the shed where Dad kept his shoeing tools and old shoes and found a shoe that was the right size to fit Ginger’s front foot, and I nailed it on.

The scariest part was driving the first nail — I wasn't sure which way it should go. Horseshoe nails are beveled on the tip so they’ll curve when driven, and come out the side of the hoof wall. I was afraid I might place it the wrong way and it would curve into her foot instead of coming out the side. After carefully tapping it halfway in (and it didn't start coming out), I pulled it and tried it the other way. Thus I learned, by trial and error, the rule for horseshoe nails: beveled side to the inside.

Ginger's shoe stayed on for the 28-mile trip and for all her cow chasing and range riding the next few weeks — until it was time to trim and reshoe. I reshod her myself and started shoeing all the horses. Dad was pleased with my work and more than willing to let an eager kid take on a job that was hard on his back. But I might never have been brave enough to try if it hadn't been for a little sorrel mare that lost a shoe.

Trimming Nikki in 1963 when I was home from college. Nikki was a yearling.

Thus I became a self-taught horseshoer, gleaning tips and advice from my dad and from our 4-H leader, Jerry Ravndal, who was an excellent farrier. Jerry created a special horseshoeing 4-H project just for me and helped me put the first set of shoes on one of the fillies I'd raised. After that I shod all my horses, reading everything I could get my hands on about shoeing — which at that time was just a few old books.

In 1966 I got married; Lynn and I have been raising cattle and horses on our ranch in the mountains near Salmon, Idaho, ever since. Over the years our horses have worked hard in the summer, taking care of cattle on summer range. We work cattle on horseback spring through fall, but in winter the cattle are down in the snow-covered fields and are fed hay, so they can be moved anywhere with the feed truck. Around the corrals and calving barn, they are handled on foot, so we don't need to use horses in winter and they get a vacation, with their shoes off. But in summer and fall, I keep the working horses shod.

Early on I had to learn about corrective trimming and keeping feet in balance, since one of my young horses had crooked front legs; she was base wide and pigeon-toed — a poor combination! She paddled as she traveled (an unsightly gait), but at least that was better than interfering and striking herself. In spite of poor front leg conformation, that mare had strong feet and legs and stayed sound through 25 years of hard work.

When our kids were growing up, they helped with the riding (and our daughter helped on the ranch for 12 more years after she grew up and got married), so for many years we had at least 10 horses. We usually raised our own horses, to have the breeding we wanted: horses with good conformation, soundness, and endurance — and good feet.

Here I am in 1968 putting hind shoes on Khamette so my younger sister could ride her. This picture was taken just 2 weeks after I'd given birth to my first child and shows how easy Khamette was to shoe . . . just standing there without being held or tied.

Occasionally, however, we bought a horse or took one in trade (on two occasions, for instance, we traded a butchered beef for a young horse).
Raising our own horses not only gave us the opportunity to selectively breed the kind of horses we wanted (mostly Arabian crosses that had the heart and endurance to chase cattle in rough country day after day, many hours a day, and horses with durable feet) but also gave me the chance to handle them from the time they were babies. This made them easier to train when it came time to ride them and also made trimming and shoeing them easier — because foot handling and care were part of their early training. The most difficult ones were horses we bought; several of them had already had some bad experiences having their feet handled. I spent a lot of time and effort getting some of them to be more trusting and willing to have their feet handled and shod.

Shoeing our son's horse Brownie about 15 years later

Over the years we've also dealt with instances in which we had to be innovative to correct or deal with a hoof problem. I say "we" because my husband makes any special shoes I need. Being a welder, he can cut or weld on a factory shoe to adapt it to a specific shape or purpose. Together we've created several shoes to fit a certain need.
Examples include corrective shoes for a filly who injured a front leg when she pawed at a gate and got her foot caught in the angle of the crossbars (with subsequent fusion of pastern joint when it healed). She didn’t travel quite straight on that leg afterward, swinging that foot inward and striking the opposite fetlock joint. We had to make a special square-toed shoe to keep her from interfering.

On another occasion Lynn made a metal plate to cover the hole in a gelding’s sole. Ahmahl had a stone bruise that abscessed, and it had to be opened to drain. It healed nicely, and I was able to start riding him again, but it left a big hole in the sole, which needed protection from the rocks. We also had to make pads for a flat-footed horse each time we shod him — this was a horse we acquired as a yearling for our young son, in exchange for half a beef.

In shoeing our ranch horses, I try to do what's best for each one; no two are alike in the structure, durability, and flight of their feet. In trying to shoe each horse to enhance its athletic ability and soundness rather than hinder it, and to resolve any problems or injuries that occur, I have found that my horses taught me a lot. They have been my best teachers regarding hoof care and shoeing.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all of her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

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