When I was a small boy, everything was large. Our house was large, my parents were large, especially my father, towering over me sternly as he lectured me yet again. As I grew, it was a bit like Alice in Wonderland – everything shrunk down in size. Visiting our old farmhouse as an adult, it was a small cottage with pocket handkerchief size rooms. I towered over Dad, and realised that Mum had never been tall anyway. But as I grew older, I found everything around me was getting bigger again. Particularly food. At the pictures I would be surrounded by kids with a four litre bucket of popcorn, washed down with two litres of Coke. Going out for a meal I would be served a soup tureen full of pasta that I’m sure 50 years ago would have fed the seven of us plus Mum & Dad. Not that any of us had heard of pasta back then.
I shoe a horse for a lovely lady and every time I go there, she gives me a ‘cookie’ to take home. Now Georgie’s cookies are a force to be reckoned with. She designed these cookies for her hungry teenagers, and one of them lasts me for morning tea for a whole week. Nearly an inch thick, and as big as a bread and butter plate, the cookies have huge chocolate chunks in them (no mere chocolate chip was ever that size), oversized fat sultanas, gallons of rolled oats, and half a cane field of sugar. I hope I don’t meet her children on the street one day; they must be seven feet tall by now.
One of my customers rang me some months back, as she had bought a ‘beautiful horse’ but he was not broken in, and would bite anything within range. I referred her to a friend who is the best breaker I know, and forgot about it. She rang me last week wanting shoes put on the horse, which was now broken in, so off I went to attend to it. Julie is a tall lady, and always has tall horses, but I was quite taken aback to meet Wally – at 18.1 hands he was a most impressive sight. He dwarfed me, and at 6 foot 2 inches that is quite a funny sight. He had been cured of all his nasty biting habits, and was now an ‘absolute pussycat’ according to John the breaker, but I soon found he had replaced it with licking.
It is quite something to shoe an 18.1 hands horse while his huge slobbery tongue is in your ear, down your back, licking your eyes and cheeks and chewing your shirt. His feet took a size eight shoe, a shoe usually only needed for a heavy horse. By the time I had finished his shoes his enthusiastic licking was running down the side of my face and dripping onto the ground.
Still on super sizing, there are many farriers, owners too, who figure that if they have a big heavy horse, he must need big heavy shoes. When I get called out because the horse has a lameness problem or a performance problem, it saddens me to see the horse has been shod in big, flat, heavy shoes, firmly nailed on with big thick nails. Have a look at a big man in the street – most likely he is wearing lightweight Italian style shoes, not hiking boots. Watching eventing recently, I was surprised to see a really good horse knock the last three rails. Casually walking past the stalls later, I saw he was shod with flat heavy shoes – he had lost because he was tired, and he was tired because of the weight of the shoes which had removed that all-essential competitive edge.
Horses don’t need thick flat shoes unless they are working horses, pulling a heavy load. Ninety nine percent of the time I use a lightweight concave shoe such as the St Croix Concorde along with a BH5 slim nail. The hoof capsule is quite a fragile and delicate construction, and there is no need to puncture it with a heavy nail. It is not the size and the number of nails which keeps a shoe on, but the balance of the prepared hoof. A heavy hand clinching a heavy nail is likely to cause pain to the horse – if the horse is tucking his toes back after shoeing, he is already feeling the pinch and that means being in pain.
Shoe size is another critical performance decision – and for most people that decision can only be made after the horse has been trimmed and correctly balanced. If the horse is tripping and stumbling, most likely the shoe size is too big. Correctly balancing the hoof often results in that same horse being shod in shoes one size smaller.
The horse’s hoof is the horse’s barometer, a bit like his eyes – lightly holding the hoof you can feel his mood, his temperament and what he thinks about you as a farrier. I have a pair of the biggest and roughest hands in the business, with skin like leather and thumbs like champagne corks, but I tell my course participants that shoeing is all about touch, and that touch is as gentle as a butterfly. Shoeing is not about banging on a pair of shoes. Shoeing is about enhancing the horse’s athletic ability, and, through that gentle touch, learning what the horse is telling you about what you are doing to him so you had better be mindful that he is monitoring your own performance too.