making hot metal horseshoes
Pressing the hot curl of metal against the horse’s hoof, a veil of acrid smoke rises around farrier Nina Thomas’ face. A few quiet words calm the chestnut gelding being shod. Nina lifts up the still-glowing horseshoe to examine the seared outline it has left behind on the hoof horn. The charred marks indicate the steel has been shaped to precisely ally with the hoof. The shoe is plunged into a bucket of cold water with a hiss of swiftly-dissipating heat.
Once nailed on, the set of four carefully-crafted shoes Nina is making will last for six weeks. They need to fit perfectly to support the horse whether it is grazing in a field, competing cross-country or hacking down country lanes.
For Nina, 34, farriery is a vocation combining traditional metal-working techniques with veterinary-level knowledge of equine anatomy. “I’m passionate about getting my work right. Horseshoes provide protection and grip. When they are tailor-made to suit an individual animal, and fitted to a correctly-trimmed hoof, they make a huge difference to how comfortable the horse is,” she says. “When a horse’s hoof hits the ground, that force is transmitted up through its leg. If the hoof isn’t level, the horse’s joints, tendons and ligaments are put under great strain. It’s critical I get that hoof balanced.”
Securing an apprenticeship
Nina made it her goal to become a farrier having seen a young apprentice help fit new shoes to her own horse. “I had only ever seen big, burly men shoeing horses before. I thought, if he can do it, so can I,” she says.
To qualify as a farrier, there is an apprenticeship of four years and two months with an Approved Training Farrier. During this time, Nina learnt her craft in stages. She first mastered the simpler aspects of removing old shoes and cleaning the hooves. Once that was accomplished, she moved to the more complex tasks of trimming feet and nailing shoes on. “All the time I was learning how to make horseshoes. It was hugely satisfying to see a shoe I’d made nailed onto a horse’s foot.”
She qualified as a member of the Worshipful Company of Farriers eight years ago. This body, which has existed since 1356, sets the world’s most exacting standards of farriery.
Trimming the hooves
It is not known exactly when shoeing horses started, but many of the methods Nina uses have been practised for centuries. The medieval members of the farriers’ company would be familiar with the hammer, nails and shaped horse shoes lying on the tailgate of her van which is converted into a mobile forge. Her anvil is similar to the one they would have used daily.
Nina typically shoes five horses a day. Her first task is to remove the old shoes with pincers. “I look for excessive or uneven wear on the shoe, other than what is normal for that horse. This might point out a problem I can help improve,” she says. The insensitive horn of a hoof grows in much the same way as human toenails do. The speed of hoof growth varies according to the time of year. It is faster in summer’s warm, moist weather when the grazing is lush. “The rate of hoof growth is dependent on the horse. A Thoroughbred’s hoof might grow 6mm in a month, but a big cob would need twice that amount cutting off,” she says.
Nina trims and reshapes the hoof using nippers and a rasp. A paring knife is kept close to hand in the side pocket of her protective leather apron.
“My aim is to trim the hoof so it is level when the horse puts it to the ground,” she says. “I think of the tendons and ligaments in a horse’s leg as a system of pulleys and levers. If a hoof is uneven from side to side, ligaments on the sides of the joints will be put under strain. If it is not balanced from heel to toe, then tendons at the front and back of the leg are subject to injury.”
Nina selects a horseshoe from the neatly stacked rows in an enormous drawer in the back of her van. For most horses, she shapes shoes which have been pre-manufactured. She stocks 15 different sizes. “The smallest shoes are 3½in wide, and are used for a little show pony called Nighty. The largest shoes measure 7in across. These are used on a large cob, called Norman,” she says.
Shaping a shoe
The shoe is heated for three to four minutes in her mobile forge. This is powered by propane gas and reaches a temperature of 1,370°C. Nina gauges the shoe’s temperature by its colour, removing it when it glows a vibrant orange. “The shoe is grey to start with. It first flushes a dull red, then a bright red into orange and yellow,” she explains. Grasping the shoe with a pair of tongs, she uses a hefty 2lb shoe-turning hammer to customise it around the anvil.
“I build a picture in my mind of the hoof’s shape while I am trimming it and I shape the shoe to match,” she says. She uses the anvil’s point, or bick, to widen or tighten the curve of the shoe, and its flat upper face to level the metal.
“If the steel is at the correct temperature, I don’t need to hit it hard to create a change. It’s all about good technique rather than brute force, although it does help to use familiar tools. Every hammer has a different swing to it.”
A carrying pritchel, a type of punch, is then knocked into a nail hole and the still-hot shoe placed against the hoof to singe the horn. “The smell is very strong and I’m so close to the smoke it feels like it’s burning my eyes. It is a smell I remember vividly from my local riding school when I was a child,” she says. The charred horn deposits a faint black outline on the shoe. This enables Nina to see what alterations need to be made to achieve a flush fit. “When I first started to shoe horses, I was back and forth to the anvil reshaping a shoe. Now it is rare if it takes more than two attempts.”
A final press of the shoe against the hoof tests its fit. “I want to see a singe mark on all of the hoof where the shoe is to sit. That way I know it is completely level with no gaps,” says Nina. Any sharp edges are removed by a rasp then the finished shoe is doused in water to cool. The hoof is cleaned with a wire brush.
Fitting the shoe
Using a 12oz hammer, Nina drives six nails through holes in the shoe to attach it to the hoof. “Some horses have harder hooves than others, but it’s generally easier than nailing into wood,” she remarks. Nails are engineered with a chamfered tip. This ensures they bend outwards as they penetrate the hoof, emerging through its outer wall. The sharp points of the protruding nails are removed with the hammer’s claw. Nina uses a clenching tool to bend their tips downwards. A final rasp to smooth the hoof completes the process. It typically takes an hour and a quarter to shoe a horse and must be repeated every five to seven weeks.
“It is physically a tough job and I’m well aware how debilitating it is on my body. If I’m not holding up half the weight of the horse then I’m at the anvil throwing a hammer around. Everything involves strength.” Nina is 5ft 8in tall but standing alongside the chestnut gelding she is shoeing, her head reaches only to its withers where the neck joins the back. “It’s easy to understand why only five percent of farriers are women. But I think women often have a quieter approach,” she says. “I’m very relaxed with the horses and that makes them relaxed with me. I’m very aware if the horse is nervous or in pain. I have endless patience to help sort his problems out.” However she has no qualms about passing on a job which requires more strength than she possesses.
Following in the footsteps
This ancient craft is still evolving. Farriers today will have veterinary-level information about the horse’s hoof and anatomy. They have increased knowledge about the measurement and analysis of the horse’s movement.
All this helps with the ability to make special custom-made shoes. These are increasingly being used to help treat horses who are lame, or to compensate for imbalances in the way they move. It is into this arena of corrective shoeing that Nina is now directing her expertise. “I enjoy working alongside a vet to help find a solution,” she says. “Remedial shoeing is all about altering the balance and angle of a horse’s joints to alleviate a problem. One horse I worked with has arthritis in her front feet and hind legs. By trimming and shoeing her correctly, I was able to put her joints at the right angle to ease the discomfort of the arthritic spurs. She’s now ridden every day.”
To address such specific requirements, Nina must often craft remedial shoes from scratch. For this she keeps a 100-kilo anvil and a coke-fired forge at a local farm. This forge can reach temperatures approaching 2,000°C. “The coke forge allows heat to penetrate deeper into the steel. I can bend and draw the metal more easily and accurately,” she says. The intense heat facilitates fire-welding. Nina uses this to forge shoes with a supportive bar or plate joining the heels. These are used to help relieve pressure on a horse’s heels. They also create more ground-bearing surface, spreading the load, and helping horses recover from lameness.
“If a horse has got a problem that I can help with, that’s hugely satisfying,” she says. “I get pleasure from the fact that my work is making a difference to those horses’ lives.”
Photography: Clive Doyle
The feature about Nina's forge originally appeared in the Sept / Oct 2014 issue of LandScape.
For back issues click here.
Or to subscribe to LandScape click here