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For want of a shoe ...

Horses and riders put 1,500 pounds of trust in their shoes. That makes a good farrier important.

By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002


SPRING LAKE -- Kenny Mead keeps the preserved lower leg of a tan horse, sliced in half lengthwise, among the tongs, hammers and horseshoes in the back of his truck.

He points to the interior bones that extend into the hoof like a long finger -- which, in a way, they are.

"This is here, this is here, this is here," Mead says, pointing first to the dismembered leg and then to the corresponding joints of his middle finger.

"It's actually considered a digit."

Mead, who shoes horses for a living, sometimes refers to himself as a blacksmith and looks appropriately rugged. He wears a Fu Manchu mustache and has thick forearms and shoulders. Stout calves stick out from beneath his jean shorts and knee-length chaps.

"I've never found a leg press machine that has enough weight for me," he said.

But when he talks, Mead sounds more like a professor, or at least a student of shoeing horses.

"Kenny's very into educating himself," said Jean White, a riding instructor whose horse Mead shod on Wednesday morning.

Mead says he takes courses, attends seminars several times a year, and generally keeps up on a profession that is becoming increasingly sophisticated and profitable, especially in places such as eastern Hernando and Pasco counties.

Old cattle ranches and citrus groves continue to be divided into smaller parcels purchased mostly by recreational farmers, many of whom own at least a couple of horses. More and more of them, said White, who has taught dressage in Hernando County for 20 years, use their animals for sports such as show jumping or barrel racing.

Some of the horse owners expect to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a horse, $60 to treat it to an occasional massage, and $150 for it to be shod -- which is what Mead usually charges. It took time to work his way up to clients who can afford that much, though he got a good start when 11 years ago he chose to apprentice with Frank Johnson of Pasco County.

"I remember, when I was a kid, the reason we didn't use Frank was because he charged too much -- which, when I got to thinking about doing an apprenticeship, didn't seem like a bad thing," said Mead, 41, who lives in Hudson and works in Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties.

"Spring Lake could probably support two or three more good farriers," he said.

A time-honored trade ...

Mead pulls his truck up to the barn on White's 17 acres off Neff Lake Road in the Spring Lake area. Its panels swing up to reveal hand tools, a belt sander, a jigsaw, welding tanks, different-sized shoes draped over slanting boards, a propane forge and an anvil that swings from underneath the rear of the truck like an enlarged trailer hitch.

"It's a shop on wheels," he says.

He and White decide to start with Pantero, a young dappled gray Andalusian that White bought for $25,000 in Spain and hopes to shape into a top-flight dressage horse, in which case its value would multiply many times.

Pantero is tied off in a breezeway surrounded by fruit-bearing banana trees and the blue flowers of a plumbago bush. Mead rolls out a knee-high cart holding most of his tools and gets to work, first cleaning the hoof with a wire brush and then removing the shoe with a wedge he strikes with a hammer.

With a tonglike pair of clippers, he cuts the outer edge of the hoof, which falls to the concrete floor like an oversized fingernail clipping. A knife with a short, curved blade is used to flatten the bottom of the hoof and trim the frog -- the fleshy interior of the hoof, which, unlike many of the horse's parts, is alien to the human anatomy. A slice of it feels disconcertingly like a sliver of tire tread.

"It's a part we don't have at all," he says. Besides cushioning the foot, "It functions as a diaphragm pump to pump blood back up the legs."

The first book describing the use of metal shoes was published in the time of Pope Leo VII, in the 10th century, said Frank Lessiter, publisher of the American Farriers Journal, and records of trimming hooves go back to about 400 B.C.

"You can still shoe horses with the products made 100 years ago," said Lessiter.

Henry "Arky" Pillsbury, 85, of Crystal River, a farrier with more than 60 years of experience who was inducted into the American Farriers Hall of Fame last year, listed two main prerequisites for being a good farrier.

"First thing is, you have to be dependable," he said. "Second, you have to know when to go to the bar. It doesn't work when you've been drinking."

So, in some ways, shoeing is traditional and relatively simple work.

Mead fires up his forge, which rumbles like a rocket preparing for takeoff, and slips in the shoes, looking in on them occasionally like a pizza chef. When they begin to glow, he adjusts their shape by hammering them on the anvil, replaces them in the forge and -- once they have reheated -- applies them directly to the hoof. This produces billows of smoke, smelling like singed hair.

"Nobody is perfect at trimming and leveling, so we burn it on to seat the shoe," Mead explains.

The shoe is attached with square-headed nails, the points of which emerge through the side of the hoof. These he clips off and files flush with the hoof. In slightly more than an hour, Mead is done.

... with a few new tricks

As he worked, White explained why there is more to Mead's job than it may seem.

Farriers (that is the most common term, but Mead prefers blacksmith or horseshoer because the U.S. Army classified men who merely tended, fed and cleaned horses as farriers) squat almost constantly, usually bracing the hoof between their legs. Almost all of their tools are muscle-powered.

"This is so hard. If I did this, I'd be a cripple after one day," White said.

Mead has never been seriously hurt because he knows how to distinguish between horses that are trying to test his will and those that are genuinely uncomfortable, White said. He makes them feel at ease by pausing occasionally and giving them a scratch.

"He doesn't get defensive around the horse," she said. "Kenny's a good horseman."

The horse, rider and equipment place about 1,500 pounds of pressure on four feet, each roughly the size of a human hand. If the horse feels any discomfort from its shoes, White said, it will alter its gait. In a sport such as dressage, which requires precise footwork, that could be disastrous for the rider's score and the farrier's reputation.

"If you make one horse lame and 200 sound, nobody will ever hear about the 200 good horses," Mead said, "but they'll hear about the lame one."

"Within about 12 hours," White added. "Horse people have a real efficient grapevine."

Mead's next subject, a quarter horse named Doch, gives him a better chance to demonstrate his skills.

The lower edges of Doch's hoof are chipped because of the wet weather, and when Mead begins trimming the hoof, he exposes black spots, like rot in a potato, left by old abscesses.

Mead fixes Doch up with custom-fitted pads he manufactures on the spot. Before nailing on the shoes, he inserts a grid of plastic.

"This works kind of like rebar," Mead says. He puts a foam cover over the horseshoe, injects urethane into the void, and finally seals the opening in the rear of the hoof with duct tape.

When the outer pad is removed, Mead says, Doch's feet will be protected by exactly the same substance used in the midsole of a modern running shoe.

"All we're trying to do," Mead says, "is make it to where he's comfortable rather than, I don't know, walking around like he's got a rock in his shoe."

-- Dan DeWitt can be reached at 754-6116. Send e-mail to dewitt@sptimes.com.

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