For the past 10 years I have traveled Australia teaching Hoof Care clinics to cattle stations and to groups of horse owners. Starting in late August 2007 I had scheduled a series of eight clinics around Queensland and New South Wales – planning for a series like this takes around four months to organize suitable venues, promote the courses and take bookings.

I had just driven 3,000 km to North Queensland to run the first course when my wife Anne rang to say that Equine Influenza (EI) had hit in Sydney and that I should head back home immediately as all hell was breaking loose.

In the Outback with no TV, and a car radio that was rarely in range, it was impossible to make any judgment myself, so I rather dubiously accepted Anne’s judgment and turned the car homewards, while she unraveled the courses, the bookings and the deposits. As I passed through areas with more radio contact, I could hear the news bulletins which were getting worse by the hour as more and more horses were quarantined. By this time I was thoroughly alarmed myself, and I drove through the night and got home in just over 24 hours.

The immediate impact on me was the loss of income from those courses. But it certainly wasn’t lost on me that I was at home, that I had no horses to worry about, and that I was one of the lucky ones. I had driven over 6,000 km for nothing, but that was a mere token compared to problems facing those in quarantined areas.

Competitors at the FEI World Cup Qualifier in Warwick, Queensland, were stranded when on the first day six horses were identified with EI. The area was quarantined and ultimately the Queensland Government declared it a disaster area with 253 horses, 100 people and 30 children in lockdown until a month after the last horse recovered – and every horse there ultimately became infected with EI.

The States immediately affected by EI were Queensland and New South Wales, with Purple, Red, Amber and Green zones immediately implemented for all areas, approval required for transporting horses, and for bringing horses together for any reason. In South Australia where I live, no horses were affected by EI, however immediate rules were brought into effect across Australia to ensure that the spread of EI was contained.

After a complete shutdown for two weeks or so, rules were relaxed in SA and farriers could then go onto only one property per day, and had to thoroughly disinfect all tools and wash all clothing after that one visit. The effect of this was that farriers then became very selective of their clients, choosing the ones with large numbers of horses and ignoring the owners of just one horse. The effect was much greater in the affected states and has caused an ongoing problem within the farrier industry, with many farriers deciding that farriery was too much of a gamble with EI on the cards, and moving to other trades or jobs and just doing farriery as a part time job or hobby; this will ultimately also affect the standard of farriery.

As President of the Master Farriers Association in SA, I was contacted by the Government Department handling the rulings on EI for SA (PIRSA). The department wanted all farriers contacted and made aware of the new rules, and it was an eye opener for them to be told that no such list of ‘all farriers’ existed. Membership of SAMFA is not mandatory, furthermore there are two associations in most states, the other association being the Farriers and Blacksmiths Association (AFBA), and then there are many farriers who don’t belong to either association, plus many many ‘backyard’ and part-time farriers who are not listed in the phone book, work only for cash and many of these have no formal training in farriery. Not to mention the barefoot trimmers.

As time passed, it became obvious that many of these backyard farriers were not adhering to the new rules, and that the horse owners were actually encouraging them as they were so desperate to get their horses’ hooves attended to. Human nature unfortunately always shows its initiative in tough times. To get around rules forbidding horses on floats, some owners even used furniture vans to transport horses. However some owners were so concerned for their horses that they made their farriers park at the gate and walk in – an excellent idea which probably should have been part of the rules anyway.

So I had a very light workload for September and October, as well as canceling more clinics in Canberra for October, as that area was still in lockdown, plus another two clinics at home because interstate participants were from lockdown areas! I more projected income during this time, but was able to capitalise in other facets of my business. And to have a rare break.

In the quarantined areas, many farriers went to work for the mining companies, as a general farrier cannot exist on the income from working at one property per day. Initially this was a temporary measure, but the money is good and many of them have stayed on. This has impacted on horse owners and given more work to backyard farriers doing substandard work.

Cancellation of equine events caused heartache for many – the Adelaide International Horse Trials, Sydney Three Day International Event and the Australian Championship for Jumping in Canberra were some of the first to be cancelled.

The effect of EI in Australia was very widespread, impacting on trainers, farriers, stable hands, massage therapists, saddleries, produce stores, even rural land agents who were unable to show horse properties for sale, the fodder and transport companies, and dozens of others. The NSW Mounted Police were quarantined, and agistment properties suffered a variety of problems. The Thoroughbred Yearling sales all over Australia were affected, as many mares missed the breeding season. It caused a shortage of yearlings for sale this year, as many owners retained the yearlings knowing there won’t be a foal this year, and the effects of this will continue for the next two or three years.

The Government assisted the billion dollar racing industry and allowed racehorses to be moved and trained at the racetracks and also given priority for inoculation while the pleasure horses which account for 80% of horses in Australia were totally disregarded in the inoculation programme, causing much dissent among horse owners.

At the beginning of 2008, while SA was back to normal, many areas in QLD and NSW were still zoned red and amber, so I still hadn’t done any scheduling for clinics for the year. The general opinion was that most zones would be green by March, so I scheduled courses for March and April throughout the two states, avoiding the amber and red zones. Once the courses were open for bookings, I was deluged by horse owners wanting to learn how to trim their horses so that they didn’t have to go through these problems again. But most of them were still in amber zones, plus they did not realize that I couldn’t teach in an amber zone, and that they couldn’t take their horse from an amber zone into a green zone. Many others wanted to attend but wanted me to supply a horse so that they didn’t put their horse at risk of EI by transporting it. Others rang me to say they wanted to attend but had been so financially affected by EI that they would have to leave it till next year. The end result was that this round of courses were also cancelled which was a loss of more projected income!

One realisation was the necessity of preventing passing EI on. If I as a farrier unknowingly came into contact with EI, I could have passed it on to dozens of horses within days. It is critical for farriers to keep up to date with news bulletins and requirements which may change daily, to take responsibility for disinfecting their clothes, tools and your vehicle, and not to allow any clients to persuade them to bend the rules.

EI has been a steep learning curve for all of us. If Farriery was a recognised trade with stringent conditions for anyone attending to hoof care on any horse, many of the smaller issues would not have arisen. Other than shoeing at metropolitan racetracks, there is nothing to stop anyone trimming or shoeing horses in Australia regardless of their lack of skill or qualifications. The recognised national qualification in Australia is the Certificate 3 of Farriery. I am a Level IV Trade Assessor for Farriery. However, if my next door neighbor decides tomorrow that he wants a life style change and feels like banging a set of shoes on a horse, I am totally powerless to stop him.

Furthermore, having two national farriery associations with no necessity to join either just causes division, and will add to the problems of building a national farrier register which is needed in the event of a further outbreak of EI. The so called barefoot trimmers distance themselves from anything to do with farriery, and what precautions these hoof carers took during EI is anyone’s guess, but they would certainly add to the number of unofficial hoof carers that should be brought under one umbrella.

EI should sound a warning to us all that we should not become complacent. I believe that too many farriers specialise in one breed, and it is wise to develop your business to shoe all disciplines for all seasons. It is also wise to look outside the square at what may eventuate.

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.

Many horse owners are now learning to trim and even shoe their own horses for a variety of reasons, and this has increased since EI. Farriers 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.

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, especially in country areas where farriers are scarce. Education of horse owners 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. Multi-skilling is a required part of all businesses today, and so it should also be for anyone associated with horses.

If the horse owners became more educated in hoof care, they would then demand a higher standard of farriery, which would then weed out the sub-standard farriers or encourage them to seek education themselves to achieve a greater understanding of farriery.

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. Far too much emphasis is placed on shoemaking and blacksmithing skills, whereas the simple basic principles of correct hoof balance are bypassed as being too hard.

The initial effects of EI are pretty obvious, but it is the hidden effects that I believe will have the most impact in the long term.