Joey George pulls the curved iron from the coals with his tongs and adjusts his grip on the ball-peen hammer in his other hand. Before the glowing red-orange has faded to gray, George strikes hammer blows squarely on the iron. The combination of force, the strategic placement of each hammer strike, the heat of the elements, and the curve of the anvil’s horn works to form a familiar sight in the Bluegrass.
The Mighty Horseshoe
George moves back and forth from forge to anvil. His mission is to complete the perfect horseshoe to the exact measurements he took earlier.
“The most difficult part,” the 18-year-old says as he continues to swing the hammer, “has been learning how to forge.”
From 5 feet away, David Godby stands and watches. Godby is an old-school farrier from Somerset, and today, he has just come for a visit. He folds his arms, sets his jaw, and squints a bit at the work. He nods at the young man.
“What this boy is doing here, I know a lot of men who make a living shoeing horses, and they can’t even start doing what he’s doing. They use premade stuff,” he says.
Godby began working as a farrier in the 1960s. At one point, he was trimming at Spendthrift Farm near Lexington for $3 a horse. He laughs and shakes his head, then tells of working for Lowell “Shorty” Roberts. Shorty served more than 40 years as the resident farrier at the Kentucky Horse Park.
“The first year I worked for Shorty, I stayed in the shop, doing this,” Godby points to George, who is using a wire brush to remove the slag caused when iron moves. “If you couldn’t make a shoe, Shorty didn’t think you were a farrier. Why, you could lead a horse right in here, and Shorty could fix up a shoe that’d fit that horse without even picking the foot up.”
Godby is silent for a while, and he watches the farrier-to-be with a critical eye, keen interest and appreciation.
He nods in George’s direction and says, “A guy that does that kind of stuff and gets good at it, I’d want him to shoe my horse because he’s got pride in what he does. Some guys are out for money, but what this boy’s doing here, he’s interested in what he’s doing. It’s an art.”
Godby looks around himself in the large metal-roofed building. One side of the room is separated into stations to cross-tie horses. The other half of the room is set up with brick forges. The air is filled with the acrid smell of hot coke—coal with the impurities burned off—and the warm smell of horseflesh.
It is in this place, the Kentucky Horseshoeing School, where people like Joey George learn the ropes from the best in the business: Mitch Taylor and Sam Gooding.
Located between Lexington and Richmond on U.S. 25, the only nationally accredited horseshoeing school handles the trimming and shoeing needs for a variety of equine facilities, such as the University of Kentucky’s herd; farms, including Hunterton Farm in Paris; and horse havens, like Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown.
The school operates with three courses of instruction: beginners, intermediate and advanced. Those who graduate from the final course can go on to be apprenticed to farriers who have been in the field for a while, or, like George, return home to use his expertise in the family business.
George’s father graduated from this very school nearly 30 years ago. He is from Smithfield, Virginia, and has been helping his father since he can remember.
“This was my dream ever since I was a kid,” George says as he takes a break from hammering. “On weekends, I didn’t want to go play; I wanted to watch my dad.”
George is in his second term at the school, and though he’s been under a horse before, he shod his first horse at the school the first full week of January.
He pulls the shoe out of the forge again and places it strategically at an angle to the anvil.
“Every hammer blow, you map out. It’s a lot, and I love it,” he says and wipes the sweat at his temple against his shoulder. “At first, you don’t know how to put it all together, but now, it makes me feel good to know I’m progressing.”
After a few more hammer blows, George checks the shoe, then submerges it in a tub of water. He powers down the blower, separates the unusable pieces of debris from the still-glowing coke in the forge, and cleans up his area. He is responsible for a chore on campus in addition to his studies.
After he sweeps the floor, he nods to Godby, and the two shake hands. George then walks through double doors, crosses a tiled foyer, and heads into a classroom.
The art of the farrier extends beyond the fire of the forge. The art of the farrier is also found in the science.
Mitch Taylor points with his scalpel to the hoof in the vise grip.
“When we see a back part of a foot that has really well-developed ungular cartilage, well-developed digital cushion, we have feet that have healthy heels,” Taylor says, then makes way for the students gathered around him. “Get in there and feel that.”
This is what dissection in one of the anatomy classes at KHS looks like. Taylor cites Dr. Robert Bowker, the leading hoof researcher in the world, and explains the characteristics of healthy feet. He knows that the students who graduate from the school will carry on the long-held trade with integrity and wisdom. As one of the lead instructors at the school, Taylor takes his job seriously.
“A farrier is the one who maintains the health and integrity of a horse’s foot,” he says. “The foot of the horse is the foundation of the horse industry, and it’s the foundation of the animal. If the foundation is not sound, what good is the horse? It can’t run. It can’t carry babies. It can’t breed. Everything about the horse is above the foot.”
After 41 years in the business, Taylor knows what he’s talking about.
Taylor grew up in Colorado and was introduced to the ranching life at an early age, spending 12 to 14 hours a day on a horse. He learned horseshoeing at a farrier school in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, apprenticed in Orange County, California, then returned to Colorado and shoed horses up and down the Rocky Mountains.
In 1985, Taylor moved his farrier trade to Kentucky, where he worked on horses from Keeneland to Churchill Downs and just about everywhere in between.
“I liked all of it. I liked the horsemanship. I liked trimming the feet. I liked burning the shoes on, nailing the shoes on. I liked standing back from a job where I’d taken a disorganized, trashy, flared-out, split-up foot and formed it, trimmed it, shaped it and made a shoe and nailed it on,” he says. “And then I’d see the horse is happy and comfortable. That’s just a good feeling.”
Not long after moving to Kentucky and establishing his business, Taylor entered the master’s program in Equine Sciences at UK. It was there that he studied under Dr. Jim Rooney, who was known as the grandfather of equine biomechanics.
“Finally, I met this guy who fully understood the mechanical function of the horse’s foot and leg. I had my degrees from Colorado in biology and chemistry, so I understood physics, and I understood mechanical processes, and I had aptitude and skill in making shoes. But because we are dealing with an animal—a horse—and they are all a little different, you have to have the ability to have good biomedical skills as well.”
With years of hands-on experience and a knowledge of biomechanics, Taylor and his wife, Sarah, started the KHS. They built the current facility in 2010 and have educated farriers who have gone on to serve the horse industry all over the world.
Taylor explains that the main job of the farrier is to maintain the horse’s feet. This job harkens to the earliest jobs of the American farrier.
According to historical accounts, the farrier shop was usually the hub of small towns. Folks brought their horses and carriages and farm implements to the “smithy” for shoeing and repairs. After World War I, the rise in automobiles and locomotion other than by horse forced many farriers out of business, or into a new business, like an auto garage. The farrier tradition remained, however, and led to the creation of veterinary science. In addition, farriers learned to go to the horses, instead of the horses coming to them. In the 1960s and ’70s, the popularity of equine sports was on the rise, and the need for farriers increased.
The horse industry, as a whole, contributes nearly $100 billion to the United States economy. When Taylor started in Colorado, he charged $8 to trim and $18 to shoe. The average going rate for trimming a horse in Kentucky now is $25-$40 and the average rate for shoeing is $175-$200. Taylor says a good farrier could average six to eight horses a day with handmade shoes. And with horses, their feet need to be trimmed just about every six weeks. Depending on the job of the horse (racing, trail riding or eventing) and the rate of wear on the horse’s foot, the horse also may need to be shod at that time.
It makes good horse sense, then, that to maintain the profession, Taylor turns out students who will become among the best in the farrier trade.
“The horse’s foot has many functions: It has to bear the weight of the horse comfortably; it needs to dissipate shock and concussion; it needs to aid in venous blood return; it helps with traction; then, it provides the horse with a sense of proprioception—the ability of our nervous system to know where our body is in space,” Taylor explains. “When we don’t maintain their feet, horses don’t do well. Because we have domesticated them and we control where they live and what they eat, we have to also control the foot. If we let it get out of control, it doesn’t function correctly.”
In the classroom, in the field, and in the forge, Taylor and Gooding lead the students into equine anatomy and movement, the proper use of trimming tools—hoof knives, hoof nippers, hoof rasps—and the tools to shape or make shoes: bar stock, rounding hammers and tongs.
Aside from knowing the tools and how to use them, farriers must also be aware of the signatures of hoof diseases such as white line disease, laminitis, navicular disease, abscesses or fractured coffin bones.
“My mission in life right now is to train farrier students, to help make horses more comfortable, and to stop the madness of allowing people to use sharp instruments around horses’ feet who don’t know the anatomy and biomechanics and physiology of horses,” Taylor says. “Too many horses are poorly shod, and horses can’t take their shoes off at night.”
Taylor steps back into the dissection and releases the vise grip. He places the horse’s leg on the desk and moves deeper into the hoof. He knows that what he teaches will make a difference, and it’s a challenge he embraces.
“I really, thoroughly feel so lucky that at 17 or 18 years old, I fell into this trade,” he continues. “It’s a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and skills. I’m always improving. I’m always changing. I’m always getting to the next level. There is no end to it because it’s a science that’s applied by an artist.”
Photos by Mark Zerof