By: Art Myers
Remember those old westerns where a crusty blacksmith hammered out horseshoes? That still happens today, but around here most horses don't need shoes.
But their hooves still need plenty of care from workers called farriers.. as I found out in the latest "Art, Do My Job!"
So what's a farrier, anyway? Well, think of it as a blacksmith with a master's degree in horse feet! Billy Blackman, a farrier in Jefferson County, says a farrier needs three core qualities:
"The strength of Samson, the wisdom of Solomon, and the patience of Job."
Billy's patience would be tested today, not by the horse, but by me as I tried to learn his trade.
It was time to strap on my first pair of chaps.
"You're ready to go - you look the part," said Billy.
I might have looked the part, but Billy lives it. He makes sure 300 horses from Georgia to the Gulf have happy hooves, and it's obvious Billy has lots of respect for these animals.
"These horses, when you walk up to 'em, they'll probably know more about you than you know about yourself," Billy said.
But we did bring them a snack to make sure they were cooperative-- what Billy jokingly calls "a horse drug."
Maverick is Billy's horse; a friendly western mustang that needs his hooves trimmed and balanced.
How do you get a half-ton animal to lift it's foot, anyway?
I repeated Billy's advice: "pull on the tendon a little bit and he pops it up."
But it's the farrier's exhausting job to hold it up, clamped between the knees as he works on the hoof.
Job one-- clean the hoof with a brush and trim it up with a hoof knife.
Next-- check it with a hoof gauge to make sure the hooves match.
Billy says it's like trying to align the front end of a car. " We're trying to get this one matched with that one. I'm nipping a little of the length right here with these nail clippers."
The rasp then smooths and levels the hoof.
Now it was my turn. Try as I might, it was really tough to get Maverick to lift his hoof! I strained and pulled and even pushed the horse's behind, but nothing. Then Billy stepped in and like magic, Maverick's hoof levitated.
I cleaned and filed and clipped and it wasn't long before I was exhausted. Billy was kind. " The first time I did a horse it took me four days, one foot per day!"
Billy says having a horse stomp on your foot is no fun. "One stuck his foot down my boot and busted all the blood vessels down my leg. It looked worse than it was," said Billy.
Billy's great nephew Jensen Zecher was watching as I worked on Maverick, and tried to encourage me as he remembered his first horse.
"It was just like yours, a lot harder than I thought it would be," he said.
Jensen's been helping out here since he was 11.
I asked how he could tell if a horse was trouble. "Their ears are pinned back and they just have a look on 'em," Jensen said.
I asked, "what does that look say?"
"Don't get around me! " Jensen replied.
It was time for a test drive. I tried to jump aboard like they do so easily in the movies. I made it halfway up, and slid off in embarrassment.
When I finally did mount up, Maverick was a sweet ride! I commented,
"He's walking much more smoothly. He's got radials now!"
Billy says he likes people well enough, but says his perfect day is spent right here with horses like Shea, who seemed to want to give me a smooch. During the interview he kept leaning over to nuzzle my neck.
"What do you like about horses better than you do about humans,?" I asked Billy.
"Completely honest. Completely honest'" he replied. "You never walk away from a horse and wonder how that horse feels about me, 'cause they will let you know."
Out of 300 Horses he cares for, only one has horseshoes. Only certain horses need them like thoroughbreds or jumpers, or animals that travel on rocky terrain.
(One final note, thanks to the Tallahassee Museum for their video of the blacksmith used in the production of this story!)