FARRIERS VERSUS HORSE OWNERS

Farriers shoe horses, so what else do they have to learn or need to learn? They learnt their trade once, so isn’t that enough to get them through to retirement? It is a physical and tiring job and they already earn a living, so should they waste precious time and money going to association meetings? But where are all these skilled farriers, and how can horse owners find satisfactory answers to their problems?

In Australia we have two main farrier associations to cover the needs of our population. Some states are not even part of these two associations, and have their own. In America, (with a population 15 times that of Australia) there are also two main associations, and another two or more smaller associations and there has been enormous discord, faction fighting and unrest over the past three years because of it.

And why does Australia need two associations anyway? I assume it is a male thing for the struggle for power, just like war, and the logic for doing so becomes irrelevant, also just like war.

Most farrier associations seem to be preoccupied with blacksmithing, and while the notion of hammering steel is an attractive one, is blacksmithing a major part of farriery today? The horseshoe manufacturers spend millions of dollars in creating shoes that can be fitted to the horse with a minimum of alteration.

If a horse is correctly balanced, if the flares are removed, if the hoof has been correctly maintained so that hoof problems (like Seedy Toe, contracted heels, Navicular Syndrome, brushing, forging, over-reaching) do not arise, then hand made shoes are rarely if ever required.

I believe the real issues and the solution to the problems in the farrier industries lie with the HORSE OWNER. All the horses we farriers trim or shoe belong to a horse owner or trainer, and these people are crying out for information. They are also turning to alternative methods of trimming, most of which are very dubious in their application, but are sold by well meaning, caring horse lovers who themselves have either become disenchanted with the farrier, or have seen a financial window of opportunity (or have paid for one) which has fast become a major hole in the dam for farriers.

IF the horse owners are questioning the farriers, expressing concerns about hoof problems, or commenting on gait problems then they are doing this for a good reason – they are concerned at the well-being or performance of the horse. And I believe they have every right to express their concerns.

But why is it that farriers generally won’t accept instructions, criticism of their work, or listen to new methods or ideas? I have a large website which welcomes queries from horse owners, and I have accumulated nine folders of queries over the past four years. Each folder holds one ream of paper; each ream is 550 sheets so that’s around 5000 queries. The queries range from the very straightforward to the extremely unusual. But about 90% of queries express a concern about the attitude and/or ability of the farrier.

This is more than enough to make me sit up and think that we as farriers HAVE to listen to the horse owner, that we HAVE to ask ourselves if we can do better, and we HAVE to ask how we can improve the relationship between ourselves and the horse owner.

I believe that a good start would be for all farriers associations to initiate workshops where owners can bring a horse with hoof issues along to the workshop, and a group of farriers will discuss the problems and work towards a resolution. In the mind of some, this is called sticking your head up to get shot at. But if farriers all know everything there is to know about hoof problems, then they won’t have any problem in identifying these problems, and the farriers who don’t know it all will benefit from seeing these problems identified. And hopefully it will be building a small bridge to start better communication with the horse owner.

HOW TO FIND A FARRIER

Because I flaunt my mobile phone number and my email address so freely, I receive a lot of phone calls and a lot of emails. Invariably I am either under a horse, running a course, or out of range in the outback, but I make a point of ringing every caller back as soon as I can and I check my emails daily.

Leaving a mobile phone on for 24 hours a day has its disadvantages when travelling – I am often woken around 5am by my mobile phone, when unwittingly someone from the eastern states has rung me not realising that I am currently travelling in Western Australia which is two hours behind their time.

I had an email last week from a woman who hoped I would be able to tell her the quietest stock horse stallion in Australia suitable for her mare. I am flattered that people think I know every horse in Australia, but I really don’t.

I receive a huge number of calls and emails from people asking me to recommend a ‘good farrier’ in their area. In actual fact, I don’t meet a lot of farriers. I run year round courses for horse owners, particularly in the outback where there are no farriers. But I really can’t help when I am asked to recommend a farrier. I suggest to callers that they contact their State Master Farriers Association or the Australian Farriers & Blacksmiths Association for a list of farriers. Or their local farrier supply outlet.

Then I get another call – they can’t find a number for the MFA or the AFBA. Finding a number for an association is not as straightforward as you may think. I can’t find anything under Associations either. So I suggest they should look in the yellow pages under Blacksmiths & Farriers. Not there either, although there is quite a listing of farriers which may be of help to those searching for a farrier.

So I tried looking on the internet – (updated May 2014)

The SAMFA has its own website – www.farriers-sa.com.au

The NSW MFA has its own website – www.mfansw.com.au

VIC MFA has its own website – www.vmfa.com.au

In QLD the Professional Farriers and Blacksmiths Association of Queensland (PFBAQ) was born via the merger of the Australian Farriers and Blacksmiths Association Queensland (AFBAQ) and the Queensland Master Farriers Association (QMFA).

Various websites have listings of farriers, blacksmiths, farrier supplies and associations.

The WAFA association in WA is on Facebook.

I found a website for the AFBA in all states at www.afba.org.au which even has a Members Code of Conduct

That raised the question of what is the difference between a blacksmith and a farrier. I get a lot of calls from people wanting gates made, crowbars sharpened, fancy ironwork made and so forth. So back to the Blacksmiths and Farriers listing in the yellow pages to find them a blacksmith.

I find it very sad that people in other states contact me knowing that I answer my phone, when the people they should be contacting in their own state are not answering their phones or are unavailable or just unable to be found.

While trawling around the internet, I found this wonderful drawing; so even Napoleon had to wait for the farrier.

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IN SEARCH OF THE QUALIFIED FARRIER

I keep on having the same old recurring discussion with desperate horse owners, not only here in Australia but from quite a few other countries overseas. These owners have generally started via the internet in their search for answers to an ongoing lameness issue, which up to this point has caused them to employ the services of a succession of farriers using many and varied methods of hoof care, with no resolution of their problems. They are just looking for help. They contact me because I have a website and answer emails. They might be in Singapore or South Africa, in USA or in Australia or even just around the corner. But their horse has a hoof problem and they just want that problem resolved.

It should simply be a matter of calling a qualified tradesman farrier to do his or her job and trusting them to be correct, but in reality it is not quite that simple.

In any trade or profession, historically, there are those who are truly adept at their work – they are problem solvers and they understand the need to continually research and study to maintain their expertise. It doesn’t matter if we talk about a car mechanic or a surgeon or a cook – there are those who excel at it, those who are OK at it, and those who probably should never have been there in the first place.

In England there are strict regulations put in place by government and animal welfare organizations to control the standards of work performed by farriers on horses but it is one of the only countries where this is in force.

Elsewhere there are no laws to protect our horses and their owners from the effects of untrained guesswork carried out by people just trying to earn a living, and even worse they never seem to be held accountable for the real cost of the lameness that this is causing because there is no legal obligation requiring them to be accountable. And it seems that while many people will refuse to pay for shoddy workmanship for just about anything else, they still pay the farrier for poor workmanship or a lame horse and then complain to anyone who will listen to them.

In Australia the farriery industry is unregulated – anyone can call themselves a farrier, anyone can join a Farriers Association without certification, and there is no requirement other than personal motivation for a farrier to do the Certificate Three in Farriery, although some states require certification for a racetrack farrier. At this stage the Certificate Three in Farriery is actually categorised under the metal trades award. In an ideal world the equine industry would insist on a regulated trade for all hoof carers.

Farrier associations in all states are doing their best to educate and train people to the correct standards and encourage their trade accreditation, but those numbers are in the minority compared to the numbers of people practicing hoof care, so you can begin to see why the standards of work are extremely varied.

Even trade accreditation falls short of its intended long term purpose because the holder of such a certificate is under no obligation to continue to study or upgrade their skills ever again. By necessity most farriers work alone and can very easily develop habits in order to save time, often resulting in less than accurate work which they are often unaware of, even if lameness appears.

There are many and varied views as to what is correct or incorrect when it comes to trimming or shoeing a horse. Soundness and performance are the best guidelines when judging whether the work is right or wrong; regardless of whether or not the person was accredited, if they are doing it right it is because they know their trade and they do understand the hoof and are passionate about horses.

We can all recall horses which could have been brilliant but for the want of having good hooves have never reached their full potential.

It is still within our power to put things right in the hoof care industry and put pressure on government and other bodies to legislate and control work practices to our partners on this planet, the horses. I do believe that it is never too late to make a stand and make a start.

The horse owner has the real power as they control the purse strings. You, the horse owner, can demand and ultimately achieve what you want and in defence of your horses you have to make the moves and perhaps contact the AHIC or whichever body you feel is best suited to get the ball rolling for improvement to regulate the hoof care industry.

Quoting from their website, ‘The Australian Horse Industry Council (AHIC) is a national representative body, serving the Australian horse industry.  The main role of the AHIC is to provide a voice for the interests of horses and horse owners in national forums. Particular issues that are a focus of AHIC activities include horse health and welfare, personal safety and any other issues that can have widespread effects across the horse industry.’

Collectively, all horse associations and clubs would be a strong force of persuasion, and I am sure that no politicians have forgotten the stock horses at the opening of the Sydney Olympic Games, but they probably didn’t understand the importance of those horses having properly maintained feet, or the importance of those responsible for that hoof care.

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WHAT SHOULD WE PAY FOR EGO? ZERO!

As a young chap learning the trade I can never remember any of my older mentors displaying the attitude that they knew all there was to know about shoeing horses. If the horse had any gait or attitude problems which caused the farrier to take twice as long to complete the job, the fee didn’t alter, because he was confident that any extra effort put in now would make the job much easier next time around.

It should be a matter of pride coupled with expertise that you do whatever it takes to successfully complete the task, without expecting the client to pay you extra for the privilege you have just had to practise something new and learn more.

However what seems to be happening in the horse shoeing industry today is of great concern to the truly qualified tradesman and to the exasperation, dismay and despair of more and more horse owners.

Farriery today it is looked upon as a very lucrative industry and sadly (for the horse) it is money motivated, increasingly infected with buzz words and a myriad of alternative new age horse shoes and methods of preparation and application.

It is obvious that we must have young people continuing to learn the art of farriery. In past times it was easy to teach and to learn the simple art of the trade; it was an uncomplicated and simple trade and so the standard was more consistent and for the horse owner a more consistent outcome was assured. Even today I will not attempt to teach someone who wants to become a farrier unless they are already a competent rider so they can emotionalise and feel the effects of what they do as a farrier to impact on the performance of the horse.

I hear constantly from totally confused owners who have just had their sound horse shod or trimmed and sometimes they have been charged hundreds of dollars by the farrier and their horse is now unsound. Those I can not see in person I do see via email photos in colour and the problem is always the same – misdiagnosis of the needs of the horse’s hoof and the expectations of the owner. The farrier (and I use the term loosely in these cases) has not assessed the horse correctly or has not had the proper basic training to correctly trim the hoof be it unshod or shod; as a result if shoes are required he has fitted totally the wrong size, weight and shape and then used wrong nails to complete the disaster.

One such horse I was asked to look at had been shod (with standard concave shoes) just the previous week by a ‘specialist in corrective farriery’, at a cost of $350. The owner was told it would take several visits to correct the problem of sidebone (a bony swelling above the coronary band) and thrush infection in the frogs, hence the cost because it had to be shod ‘in a special way’. Also, the horse was ‘not to be worked for another three months’.

Firstly, there is no such thing as a ‘specialist in corrective farriery’. You will never find a horse with four perfect feet, so it is the job of every farrier to correctly balance and trim the feet in order to correctly shoe the horse if required. Secondly, the average fee to shoe a horse with standard shoes is around the $100+ mark and varying from state to state. So what justifies a fee of $350? Ego!

On my inspection, the horse with the $350 shoes walked very crookedly with every leg swinging in a different pattern; viewed from in front he was standing splay footed, and from behind he was cow hocked. A closer inspection underneath showed that not one hoof was trimmed in balance and that this unevenness was now causing more pressure above the coronary band where the suspected side bone was supposed to be, while the thrush had already cleared up.

This lovely horse was anything but comfortable on his feet yet only needed to be shod with proper balance to relieve his pain; he did not have any side bone in the first place, just swelling from being out of balance. I dearly wanted to reshoe this horse correctly so that he would be pain free and could be worked next day. However, I chose not to help this horse as I believe the owner has a legal right to compensation from this ill-qualified horse shoer.

You as a horse owner have every right to ask for proof of ability, client references and trade qualifications before anyone works on your horse’s feet. Try it, and if you get a negative response, that should sound enough warning bells not to go there. The best farrier you may find (by asking for prior references etc) will not have an ego which is going to cost you dearly, he may not even be fully accredited yet, but he should be working with an accredited mentor and be willing to listen to your input as an owner or rider.

For thousands of years the horse’s hoof has remained the same and in domesticated use has only needed to be shod or unshod. Now in our modern society we have the benefit of modern methods to gain a better understanding of the hoof, but it is still exactly the same hoof. Our selfish needs require our horses to do many more varied activities now but we still only need our horse to be shod or unshod.

The simple basic principles of hoof care are still correct and will not ever alter, so be aware as horse owners that if we try to disregard the basic principles of balance and use some of the alternatives infecting the horse world today, the long term soundness of the horse may be affected. It is only my opinion but I sincerely believe that buzz words and egos will cost you and your horse dearly.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE FARRIERS GONE?

Equine Influenza in the eastern states has been a steep learning curve for everyone in the horse industry, and many have suffered financial loss because of it. The bottom line is that very few horses died because of EI, the horses are still out there and they are still growing hoof at the same rate as they did before, and they still need trimming and shoeing at regular intervals. But where are the farriers?

During the lockdown, farriers could only visit one property per day. This was fine where the farriers had large numbers of horses to attend to on one property, but most farriers visit six or more properties per day, which made the financial situation for them untenable.

During the lockdown, many part-time farriers and indeed many full time farriers found alternative work. Many farriers have a trade such as fitting and turning, or metalwork, or automotive skills. Many farriers went to work for the mining industries, and then found that the money was good, they could handle the time away from home, and so for whatever reasons they have given up their farriery practice.

Many part-time farriers decided that farriery was too much of a gamble if EI was on the cards, so they took up full time jobs in other trades or industries. This exodus has left many horse owners stranded without a farrier. So what is the answer?

I believe the answer lies in some lateral thinking and the future education of more farriers. Many owners successfully trim and shoe their own horses, and many do a darn good job of it. Yet they would never have considered the possibility of doing it for a living. How many of you put in a 38 hour week in a job you don’t like for a pay packet of around $600 per week? Yet shoeing only six to eight horses per week will give you the same pay packet. Food for thought?

Many horse owners work full time so that they can afford their horses, love being with horses, and this presents them with an ideal opportunity.

Women in particular make very good farriers, as in general they tend to communicate better with clients, are more empathetic with the horses, are often quieter and gentler in their actions, and are usually more critical of their work and have higher expectations of themselves. I mentor several women who are well on the way to becoming full time farriers.

Being a farrier doesn’t mean that you have to do 10 horses a day, it doesn’t mean you have to work 14 hours per day. But it does mean you can choose how much you want to earn, and to limit your hours to that target. It does mean that you can fit in with school hours for those with children, and it does mean you can be flexible with school holidays. This is definitely food for thought.

Also, many horse owners are now learning to trim and even shoe their own horses for a variety of reasons. Farriers generally ridicule this and also get very hostile that owners are trimming horses after a minimum of education. However this is a lot of nonsense, as trainee farriers also start trimming horses with a minimum of education as it is the only way that they can gain practice.

Over the past decade, there have been very few young people prepared to consider farriery as a trade. The tide is turning again as many school children decide they don’t want to go to University, they don’t want to learn a trade, and they just want to leave school and earn a quick dollar today. Farriery is one of the very few trades that offer high income potential along with flexible work hours and the possibility of travel – a good farrier will always get work anywhere.

After teaching horse owners to trim and shoe over the past 10 years, I firmly believe that more horse owners should be learning to at least manage the hoof care for their own horses. This enables a far better understanding of the hoof and how the correctly balanced hoof affects the performance of the horse. It gets around the problem of calling the farrier if EI should strike again; it gets around the problem of calling out the farrier for a pulled shoe plus it also saves money and adds another skill to the repertoire.

The more people there are who know how to correctly balance a hoof will also increase the chances of correct methods of hoof care being handed on to future generations. Several decades after the advent of the automobile saw a huge downturn in the standards of farriery because the correct methods had not been preserved for posterity. Finding a good farrier is difficult today- don’t let it become an impossibility for the next generation.

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A WASTED DAY ON THE JOB

A few weeks ago I had a call from a young farrier who had relocated from USA and was finding it difficult to get work in South Australia. I have a standard master file of replies for email queries from farriers considering relocating from overseas, ranging from locations, hoof care charges in different states, how to get started, who to contact, weather conditions, travel distances, petrol prices, schools, immigration rules, visas and so on, so I invited him to spend a morning with me. I work in an area which could use more good farriers and where hoof care on pleasure horses is always available – because of travel and health reasons I have given away my clientele several times over the past 20 years, but it builds up again as fast as ever.

During the four hours I was with the young farrier, I found out that he used side clipped steel shoes plus under-pads with sole pack material on most horses, in other cases he used plastic shoes and that he charged $200 per set and was not prepared to change his methods or reduce his price and that he had been living in Australia for three months and had not shod a horse. In those four hours he did not ask me one question; he was set in his ways and I guess he thought the work was magically going to appear at his doorstep.

That afternoon, working by myself again, I saw a lovely big 16 hand chestnut gelding standing ready to be reshod; he had a very kind eye and a good disposition but was standing splayed out in front and cow hocked behind.

The front shoes were of the break-over enhanced design with squared toes and savagely belted in side clips, the nail placement was one directly each side of the clips and a gap to a third one behind that. The hind shoes were squared toed and side clipped with an outside trailer at the heel, a guaranteed design to make sure the horse cannot stand straight.

I engaged the well-presented young farrier in a pleasant conversation about shoeing. I asked why he preferred to use the squared toe side clipped shoe with the rolled toe. He explained that the horse was a good show jumper and the shorter toe shoe lessened the impact; I then asked if he was at all concerned that these side clips might restrict expansion across the front half of the hoof, and he explained (while we both looked at the shiny wear on the hoof side of the shoe he had just removed), that the hoof had only been expanding at the heels, and that there was no evidence of the hoof expanding across the front half. I asked him if he thought the side clips may have stopped this expansion, his answer was ‘they help keep the shoe in place’.

All of his answers sounded feasible, but all were unsustainable with regard to the long term health and soundness of the horse. Even when I pointed to the two bulges in the coronary band directly above the two side clips, he regarded these bulges as being normal; through experience I have learned that these bulges simply disappear when we don’t use side clipped shoes. So he then prepped the fronts for reshoeing which looked quite nice until those side clips were buried back into the walls to allow the shoe to be set way back behind the toe, which was then bull-nosed off to the rolled toe shoe; this also set the shoe wide at the heels and hanging out the back forming a leverage point.

Then he moved on to the hinds with the toes pointing out, or cow-hocked, and the shoes with square toes and side clips plus an outside heel extension, or trailer as it is sometimes known. According to the young farrier, the reason for the side clips was to prevent the shoe from moving when the jumping studs were used and the squared toe was to assist the breakover, while the lateral trailer, or outside heel extension, helps the horse to stand wider behind. “But they also cause him to toe out” I said. “Most horses stand cow hocked, so it must be OK,” he replied. I have shod eventers and jumpers all my life and have never had the need to use anything but a single toe clip on a concave shoe even with jumping studs fitted to keep a shoe in place.

The reality is that Mother Nature evolved the hoof to be in a balanced or symmetrical shape to assist the horses flight response; hence the fore feet are round (to carry the heavier weight of the front end) and the hinds are narrower along the sides (to assist the horse in turning sideways to escape its predators) and with a narrow toe to assist the horse to accelerate away from those predators.

It seems that the modern hoof care provider believes that the horses hoof is so defective that it needs to be interpreted in a very different way than ever before, however the simple basic principles of nature’s hoof balance have never changed; we just need to see what we are looking at.

My last call of that day was to an owner who had serious lameness issues with her horse. I was quite stunned when I viewed the horse, which was shod with the most amazing shoes I have ever seen. (Pic 1) All the horse needed was to have the soles dressed out correctly so the horse could stand on the hoof wall and after this was done the horse was fine and had no lameness issues. Instead the farrier had made these crazy shoes and insisted that the owner clean out the dirt build-up four times daily. That night I rang the farrier concerned and asked why he had shod the horse with those shoes. The answer was ‘for support’ so I asked ‘to support what?’ His answer was ‘If you don’t know then I’m not going to tell you’ which unfortunately is a typical answer from farriers who don’t have any scientific basis for what they are doing. He had no idea where P3 was in relation to his bar shoes and no understanding of how the hoof expands and contracts and no understanding that he was actually causing pain for the horse.

So that was a wasted day, but then tomorrow is another day.

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EQUITANA DISCUSSION 2005

One of the sessions at Equitana 2005 in Melbourne in November was an open discussion on ‘To Shoe or Not to Shoe’. Panelists were Carl O’Dwyer, Grant Moon, David Farmilo, Will Miller, Dan Guerrera and Mark Rodney.

The discussion was well attended considering it was the last segment on the final day, starting at 5.15pm. The audience had the opportunity to question the panel and it would probably still be going if Equitana hadn’t closed its doors!

In summary, horse owners obviously have an ever increasing problem with farrier related problems. I made the comment that horse owners have a duty of care to their horse when it comes to hoof care, and I was very promptly put in my place with the audience demanding to know just how they can get their farriers to listen to what they want.

One member of the audience labelled farriers as ‘precious’ due to their reluctance and affront at having the owner daring to make suggestions. Owners who intervene are being told to ‘shoe it yourself’ or ‘get someone else then if you don’t like the way I do it’.  This attitude was not confined to one state or even to Australia judging by the comments! Owners who have tried to trim or shoe and who find it too difficult to ‘do it themselves’ are then out on a limb. Country people dare not challenge their farrier as he is often the only one available.

I do believe that this attitude is what is causing the major problems in our farrier industry today. Nowadays most people are answerable in their jobs, and horse owners have the right to discuss with and demand from their farrier what result they expect from him and from the horse. The reluctance of many farriers to involve the owner and discuss with them what they are doing, and also to be prepared to listen and learn has led to alternative and controversial methods of hoof care creeping into the system.

Also creeping in are new fangled horse shoes that bypass the simple basic principles of horseshoeing and create long term problems for the horse. This should be a huge wake up call to the whole farrier industry world wide to sit up, take notice, listen, learn and to be aware that horse owners are intelligent people who outlay a lot of money on their horses and who have the right to expect the best knowledge and care available. Nowadays with the internet on hand, immediate information is available to horse owners world wide, and farriers who do not keep up with this information and who object to being questioned by the horse owner have no-one to blame but themselves.

I began teaching my ABC Hoof Care Courses for horse owners six years ago because of the same old complaints from horse owners that their farrier would not listen. I have taught horse owners across Australia who are now doing a better job than many farriers. But I do humbly take the point that was made by a participant in the discussion that not all horse owners can do this. And this is where it has to go back to the farriers to swallow their pride and be accountable for their results just like the rest of us who live in the real world.

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FLOATING THE HORSE

You are probably asking ‘Now what does floating the horse have to do with the farrier?’ I shoe a lot of horses from my home property – most of my clients bring their horses here and some arrive very late, citing the same old problem that the horse wouldn’t load, and consequently arrives still in a distressed state, which makes shoeing it less than desirable. There is also the danger involved in loading an untrained horse that jumps sideways off the ramp and splits its hooves or pulls a shoe off, or various other injuries which all add to the drama.

So what is the problem with training the horse to load properly?

There are many and varied ways of training your horse to load, and training the handler to train the horse is the first step in almost all methods, or should be. I agree with any method as long as it is peaceful and doesn’t waste time. Horse owners spend great amounts of money to learn to ride correctly, but float training seems to be way down the list.

So often the handler leads the horse up to the float, the horse hesitates, so the handler pulls on the lead rope (which lifts the horse’s head up), then the horse resists some more, the handler pulls a little harder and the head goes even higher.

The rule to remember is that the horse will never go where he cannot see what he is expected to step onto. You wouldn’t either, so can you blame the horse!

The solution is a lunging rein – nearly every horse owner has one in their possession, and this can be an excellent aid to float training your horse. Simply make a loop in one end, big enough to fit comfortably over the horse’s rump and to rest just above the hocks. Pass the other end through the lead ring of the halter. Now lead the horse to the float ramp and apply pressure on the rump rope while at the same time releasing the pressure on the lead rope.

You will see the horse lower his head to look where he is about to put his feet, then he will walk straight up the ramp. The handler has used logic and the horse has responded.

So then lead the horse all the way into the float, and use the rump rope (sometimes referred to as a breeching rope) to tie him where you usually secure the lead rope. Then you can go back and secure the tail bar and ramp.

The reverse of this process will often cure a horse from rushing out when unloading, and needs only to be repeated a few times for both handler and horse to reach a peaceful understanding about floating.

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FURTHER TO FLOATING THE HORSE

A letter in a magazine article regarding floating problems when the horse was on the driver’s side but not when on the passenger side caught my attention and prompted me to respond. My own observations have been gathered over forty-nine years as a competitive horseman, colt breaker and Master Farrier.

As a colt breaker I used to wonder why some colts mouthed better on one side than the other – was it because of something I was doing? I would change my methods with that particular horse, spend more time on the slow side, but still they behaved differently and were uneven to control.

Then as a farrier, I noticed when shoeing these ‘uneven’ horses for the first time that about 99% of them were always half a size different in their front hoofs.

So, relating that back to their initial mouthing tendency, there seemed to be a pattern emerging that the colt which was slow to yield on the near-side rein nearly always had his off-fore hoof half a size larger. It was exactly the reverse for the colt who was slow to yield on the off side rein and was larger in the near-side front hoof. The same pattern followed diagonally on the hind foot sizes.

That was about 1970, and by then I had been working with horses for around fifteen years, quite happily ignorant of how they really worked.

From then on, every horse I came into contact with either as a breaker, a rider or as a farrier, I closely observed the relationship between hoof sizes and what I call ‘athletic tendencies’, and they could be separated into three groups – left handed, right handed or ambidextrous.

I used to subject owners and riders of horses I was shoeing to a quick quiz. After establishing my own opinion of their horse’s tendencies, I would ask them if the horse worked better one particular way than the other. Their answer always consolidated my theory.

When the horse’s hooves were identical in size, upon my quick quiz, these horses proved to be not only balanced in either direction but also good at whatever they were tried at, and obviously ambidextrous.

So, going back to the original breaking-in procedure, I was now able to work out a young horse’s tendencies, even before putting him into any mouthing gear, and I could adopt different mouthing techniques to allow for his left or right handedness. It was also possible to anticipate which way he would turn if he decided to buck, even in a panic situation.

Further long term observation has shown that foals as young as three weeks old already show hoof size differences, and it is quite possible to detect a left handed or right handed or ambidextrous trait even then

To return to the letter, Robyn’s experience in floating her horse and noting that it was OK on the driver’s side, and terrible on the passenger side, would indicate that her horse is simply right handed, and needs to spread his near hind (his dominant hind leg) past the point of his hip to balance in the float.

So when her horse is put into the passenger side, his near hind (which is his strong hind) is up against the outside wall of the float, and he cannot spread his leg out as wide as he needs to balance, hence panic and scrambling occurs.

Full credit to Robyn for achieving a solution to her problem, now she can also understand the origin of her horse’s behaviour – he is a right handed horse which will only ever be comfortable on the driver’s side or floated at a forty five degree angle.

CHANGING TIMES AND LANGUAGE

Life for the farrier is a constant tug of war.

A client phones to book a horse in for hoof care and I am told in conversation that the horse is 17 hands high, has an eight inch wide hoof, wears a seven foot six inch rug, weighs 450 kilos and has a four foot eight inch girth.

The next one has minis, their height is measured in centimetres not hands, so now I know how far my knees are off the ground and their vital statistics all seem to be metric.

Then someone is on the phone with a lameness issue, describing the horse’s legs as being the left front or right front or the left hind and the right hind, so before we can begin to understand each other, I have to ask the question, ‘are you standing looking at the horse or are you going the same way as the horse’ – it really makes a difference when resolving a lameness issue.

What happened to the standard where every horse and pony was described in hands high? Plus we have always described their legs as being the near fore, off fore, near hind and off hind, the near side being the side nearest the kerb whether it be a saddle horse or a carriage horse, and we should forget about following America, as our horses still speak Australian – their horses even have ankles where our horses still have fetlocks, plus only in America do they have aluminum race plates.

However like most older farriers I still measure a hoof in inches to cut a length of steel to make a shoe which now measures for example 12 centimetres wide.

In the normal leg (Pic 1) viewed externally, generally if the hoof pastern angle is parallel an x-ray will show that all the bones from the fetlock joint down, namely P1, P2 and P3, are all in alignment.

However, note that I said ‘generally’ because I often find that people talk of ‘P3 rotation’ in the case of a club foot where the front of the pedal bone is not parallel with the front of the hoof wall but P1, P2 and P3 are still aligned correctly. (Pic 2). It is not P3 rotation but simply a long toe and high heel – visible even in the x-ray.

Another x-ray often interpreted as having P3 rotation is when the heels are too high which forces the P2-P3 joint forwards and it appears that P3 has rotated at the tip. (Pic 3). However when the high heels are lowered correctly P1, P2 and P3 are all aligned correctly.

Yet another change in terminology seems to be describing the Side Bone on P3 as being ‘spurs’ and being ‘normal’, hence not considered as a reason for intermittent lameness. (Pic 4). In the days when horses were used as delivery cart horses and spent all day working on hard paved streets, they ended up with Side Bone from concussion on hard roads, as can still be seen throughout Europe on the carriage horses used for tourist duty on the cobbled streets.

We don’t usually see a lot of Side Bone now in our pleasure horses, but over the past six months I have seen four cases with obvious side bone in the x-rays which was not commented on in the search for a cause of intermittent lameness. Maybe it is just another old fashioned thing that the modern vets and farriers do not consider. Maybe this is all just being part of the 21st century, however in the quest to resolve any hoof related lameness, it is important to look at all the evidence, and to use correct terminology.

‘HANDEDNESS’ IN HORSES (LEFT AND RIGHT HANDED HORSES)

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Horses don’t have hands of course but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a dominant side. And this left or right-handedness is an important concern for farriers, trainers and riders.

If a horse is right handed, when you look at the off fore hoof closely you will notice it is bigger than the near fore hoof. And conversely, if it is left handed, the near fore hoof will be bigger than the off fore hoof.

The reason for this is that from day one of the horse’s life, its brain dictates that it will use its naturally stronger foot, and so it develops bigger. Sometimes the difference is so small that the only way you can tell is to feel the width of the coronet band (ie the hairline at the top of the hoof) and then compare this with the opposite foot in the same manner. Your fingers will notice the difference.

In my opinion right- and left-handed horses are in equal proportions, and an ambidextrous horse (ie both feet exactly the same size) is around 1:1000 and is brilliant at anything you ask him to do.

TRIMMING AND SHOEING

From the farrier’s point of view it is important to be able to recognise right or left handed tendencies. Many years ago, working as a colt breaker and farrier, I noticed that most young horses seemed to be more tractable on one side than the other. Later on when the time came for their first shoeing, it was notable that the fronts were different sizes, and that the larger shoe corresponded with the more tractable side.

When trimming or shoeing, always start with the larger foot, then aim to keep the smaller foot as close in size as possible to the larger foot. This is because we want to make the horse as feel as ambidextrous or balanced as possible. When we have finished the large foot, we can then measure it and trim the small foot much more sparingly to end up as close in size as possible to the large foot.

When I was fifteen years old, Old Joe, my mentor who was then eighty, always taught me to shape up the shoes in matching sized pairs in order to see right away if there was any difference in the horse’s hooves.

At that stage I never thought to ask why there was a difference and he never volunteered the information unless I asked the question. Many years later when I realised the value of the information, I made a point of observing the tendency of every horse and have spent the past thirty years studying this relationship of hoof size to natural athletic tendencies.

HANDEDNESS TENDENCIES

The first observation was born out of my own need for self preservation, and I noted that if the young horse bucked, it would always go to the side of its largest hoof. Quite a useful piece of information for any handler. This was also his most tractable side during the mouthing (bit training) process.

As a farrier, I began asking every client or horse owner what they used the horse for and how did it perform, then also noted any difference in hoof size. It soon became obvious that there was a predictable pattern of behaviour. A larger near-fore worked easier to the left while a larger off-fore worked easier to the right but where both fronts were of equal size, the horse was easy on both sides.

I was born left handed but over time have learned to be about 90% ambidextrous. In my shoeing techniques, I have tried to achieve as near as possible equal sized and shaped fronts on every horse, together with the owner’s cooperation in schooling the horse a little more on his weak side.

Sometimes there was an improvement for a period of time, and appearance wise they looked better with even sized hooves; but their natural tendency was still to favour the side of the natural strong hoof. Some horses become quite frustrated if we pressure them to work on their weak side.

To reinforce this left and right hand study, I practised recognising the different hoof size as they walked towards me for shoeing, and tested it by telling the owner in advance how the horse would favour or resist accordingly and the accuracy was amazing.

EFFECT OF HANDEDNESS

For the thoroughbred horse, racing anti-clockwise favours the right handed horse. Conversely, in other countries or in some states of Australia which race clockwise, this is to the advantage of the left handed horse.

The larger and stronger front hoof is balanced by the opposing larger and stronger hind hoof. While practising roll-backs on my left handed polocrosse horse, I noticed that he took half a step more to do a left rollback than a right rollback; thus he was left handed because to do a rollback, he would always pivot on his stronger hind which for a left handed horse would be the diagonal hind, in this case the off-hind.

On the polocrosse field it was beneficial for me to recognise the weak side of my opponent’s horse. It would obviously be of great benefit for riders of competitive horses to be able to identify these natural left and right handed traits. And similarly for rodeo horses coming out of a chute.

Many horse buyers purchase horses at auction, and look to a veterinarian for guidance on the horse’s health and soundness, while overlooking the fact that the horse may be totally unsuitable for the purpose for which they require it simply because of its natural athletic tendencies.

TENDENCIES START EARLY

Working on a thoroughbred breeding, training and racing stud, I was able to observe that foals as early as twenty one days old were developing a difference in hoof size, and by the age of weaning, without the influence of any humans, were already noticeably left or right handed or ambidextrous.

As foals they were handled only briefly then allowed to grow up in the paddock, haltered every six weeks for hoof inspection, and by yearling preparation time they were definitely in the groove of their natural tendencies.

During the breaking in and the mouthing process, again the young horse wants to favour its natural born athletic movement, giving to one rein much easier than the other. My observation over this long period of time is that horses, like us, are born left or right handed, with only about one in a thousand born ambidextrous. So often I have heard horses criticised for not racing kindly clockwise or anti-clockwise when, in reality, they are running against their natural dominant tendency, and if they are given a chance to race the other way, their performance will improve.

Many clients and horse owners who are unaware of left and right handedness in horses are initially dubious that such a condition even exists. When shown how to recognise this, they have found their horses much easier to work with and understand.

Over the years I have taught many students to recognise this natural born trait in horses, as well as how farriers, by using consistent standards of shoeing, can help the horse and rider maintain a higher level of natural ability.

I receive a lot of queries relating to this. One query concerned a horse that when lunged to the off-side at a trot he was stepping short. He didn’t appear to have any soreness in the shoulder of legs and there was no injury to his hoof. He didn’t dip his head when trotting. The horse was obviously a very left-handed youngster. I suggested giving him plenty of room when lunging to his off-side, letting him start off in bigger circles until his confidence built up, then gradually over days or weeks asking him to try smaller circles. He will learn to become more flexible to the off-side as he gets stronger, but may always be predominantly left-handed.

THE IDIOSYNCRACIES OF RIGHT AND LEFT HANDED HORSES

Very few farriers, trainers or horse riders think seriously about the left and right handed tendencies of the horses in their care.

It is a very interesting study, and when understood it has a huge influence on us and the way we may work better with the horse, to achieve far better results.

From the age of one month it becomes obvious in their hoof development, that in left handed foals the near fore will be slightly larger than the off fore; it can often be seen visually or it can be felt with your fingertips at the widest part of the coronary band. (Practise this and you will find that the fingertips can pick up even a slight difference and give you a great advantage in fine tuning your hoof care.)

Obviously the right handed foal will have the opposite tendencies while the ambidextrous foal will be even on both hooves.

This same difference is also applicable to the hinds and will be diagonally opposite to the fronts. So that we can understand the working tendencies, it is important to know that the left handed horse’s near fore and off hind are the dominant legs and thus have the larger hooves. The right handed horse has dominance in the off fore and the near hind. The ambidextrous horse will be even all around.

Moving forwards, the left handed horse will be easier to mouth on the near side; it will be able to turn in smaller circles to the left at the walk, trot and canter, but at the gallop on a race track it will be able to rail better in a clockwise direction with its strong leg on the outside. Galloped anticlockwise, its strong leg will cause it to drift out on the corners and also in the run under pressure to the line.

However, in the case of the left handed horse doing rollbacks as for cutting or camp drafting or polocrosse, they need to move slightly backwards first to engage their hind quarters, and they will spin much better to the right, as it is their stronger leg.

The exact opposite describes the athletic tendencies of the right handed horse.

Unless we really understand that the horse is born with these natural athletic tendencies, we may start going wrong from the very first time we put a hand on the young horse. So, before starting the mouthing process, it is very important to be able to identify the left or right hand tendencies and you will then be able to avoid causing resistance on the weaker side by simply understanding that this youngster needs more room to move in bigger circles on its weak side than on its dominant side. We often hear of a galloper needing a lugging bit to stop it from running out on the turns, when all it needs is to run in the opposite direction so that the strong leg is on the outside.

The well informed or observant trainer or rider or competitor will have already worked out that their horse performs better one way than the other but they also need to convey this to their farrier, who should then be able to work towards reducing the stress on the larger hoof and allowing the small hoof to develop and become closer in size to the larger hoof. It is so easy to get it all wrong by starting on the smaller hoof first and un-intentionally over trimming the hoof.

The correct sequence for hoof preparation on a left handed horse must always be NF, OF, OH, NH. And for the right handed horse it must be OF, NF, NH, OH. This system will result in us always dressing the dominant hoof first each and every time and will also give a better chance at getting all hooves even, as the aim is to achieve even hooves so that the horse will feel like it’s ambidextrous.

This recognition of left and right handedness can be seen in every form of horse activity, even at rodeos, where depending on which way the chute gate opens, the horse has to jump out to the left or the right, but when its fronts hit the ground, the left handed horse will buck to the left and the right handed horse will buck to the right, always to their strong side.

The truly ambidextrous horses are few and far between, but their hooves are all exactly the same size, they invariably have good conformation and correct leg alignment. They will usually be confident and competitive at anything you choose to set them to – however be aware that if they do buck they can do so very well either way.

There is always one exception to every ideal principle though – I have only ever found one horse which had the two big hooves on the same side, in this case it was the near fore and the near hind; it was a pacer and I still can’t fathom any reason why it was so for this horse.

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A NOTICEABLY RIGHT HANDED HORSE. CHECK THE CORONARY BAND, NOT THE GROUND SURFACE OF THE HOOF – YOU WILL FEEL ANY DIFFERENCE WITH YOUR FINGERS BEFORE YOU CAN SEE IT.

Horse Farrier