If the Shoe Fits

WAXAHACHIE, TX — Jerry Schwartz had cleaned and trimmed the horse’s front right hoof and was nailing the shoe on. Holding the upside-down hoof between his knees, he deftly hammered three nails into the left side of the shoe left- handed, then switched hands to drive the other three in. This was the tricky part, and he tightened his grip. The blade-shaped nails came up through the hoof wall to the outside, their points almost touching the leather padding of Jerry’s chaps.

In a moment the shoe was secured. Jerry stepped back over the horse’s leg with the hoof still in his hand. He was about to clip off the nail points when, without warning, the horse reared. Instinctively holding on, Jerry found his gloved hand nailed to the agitated horse’s hoof.

He remembers the incident in detail, but it was all in a day’s work for the second-generation blacksmith. “I’ve been kicked and stepped on, too, and broken bones in my arm and hand,” he said with a shrug.

Even on an injury-free day, shoeing horses takes a lot of stamina. The main tasks sound simple enough, much like a pedicure: clean the foot, trim and file the nail, put on a protective shoe. But the blacksmith does all this while standing bent over. “Miss Manners would not approve of my posture,” Jerry joked.

Meanwhile the horse, typically weighing 900-1,200 pounds, balances on its other three legs an inch from his shoulder. “You get horses that want to lean on you, or they’ll shuffle around. It’s kind of like being in a car wreck every day, getting pushed around like that.”

Everything about blacksmithing challenges Jerry’s stamina, right down to his heavy steel tools. At each stop they must be hauled out of the self-contained blacksmith shop hitched behind his red pickup. Both sides of the enclosed trailer are hinged at the top, opening up like a cowboy DeLorean. Jerry stows all his equipment inside, even a propane- powered forge. He usually shapes the shoes cold, but sometimes uses the forge for more extensive hot shaping.

To custom shape the shoes, Jerry hammers them against a 110-pound portable anvil, mounted on a wheeled cart. The shock from the metal-on-metal blows has taken its toll. “I can’t straighten my arms anymore,” he said. “But since I got an anvil with an aluminum base that absorbs a lot of the vibration, it is much easier.”

Another cart keeps his hand tools within reach. First, Jerry uses a pick to pry mud and stones from the hoof. Then, he uses “nippers,” which are shaped
like calipers. As he works the inch-wide blades around the hoof, the long handles offer enough leverage to easily trim a neat slice from the horse’s thick, fibrous hoof wall. Jerry also uses a sharp knife to remove dead layers from the “frog,” the central spongy part of the foot.

Next, he takes a coarse file and smoothes the bottom surface of the hoof. The angle of the hoof is important, since it affects the ligaments in the leg. He has a hoof protractor to measure it, and knows how to adjust the angle to relieve pressure. “It’s not rocket science,” he said. After he hammers and clips the shoeing nails, he bends down the remaining cut ends with a crimper to hold the shoe in place.

Jerry got his professional training 20 years ago, when he took the Oklahoma State Horseshoeing School’s six-week course. The program covered the basics, providing both classroom and hands-on learning. “But there’s no way, in six weeks, they can prepare you for everything you’ll see out there,” Jerry said. “It’s a learning experience every day.”

Jerry has to rely on that experience when horses with gait or lameness problems need corrective shoeing. This calls for some detective work and resourcefulness. “They can’t tell me what they need. I have to just read the bottom of the foot,” he explained. “There are two or three ways to treat every problem, and I have to figure out which will work best for that particular horse.”

Fortunately, Jerry inherited resourcefulness from his grandfather, George Schwartz. George was also a blacksmith. “I never got to meet him; he died when my dad was young. My dad didn’t learn much about horseshoeing, but he told me stories about his father,” Jerry said. In one of his favorite stories, George had to shoe a bunch of cantankerous mules. He could do nothing with them until he rigged a sling to hoist them up one by one. Once their feet were up off the ground, the mules froze. Thanks to their stiffened legs, shoeing proceeded without incident.

Now a third generation is blacksmithing. Jerry began teaching his skills to his son, David, a Greenville firefighter. David later went to the same Oklahoma school as his dad and now does horseshoeing part-time, between shifts.

Jerry also learns tricks from older horsemen. “My life is easier because of the advice I get from those old-timers. I may not use it that day, but I file it in my memory bank.”

One thing he has learned is although he faithfully wears chaps and gloves, a blacksmith’s best protection from injury is good reflexes. “I hold onto the hoof by the toe. That way I have the missile in hand,” he grinned. If the horse does pull its hoof out of Jerry’s grip, the movement gives him time to get out of the way. “You’re actually in more danger from the front feet than from the back,” he added, “because horses can’t see their back feet. When they kick someone behind them … well, they’re more lucky than accurate.”

In his worst accident, several years ago, a horse reared and fell on him. “I was all alone out there. It was an hour before I could get up and drive myself to the hospital,” he recalled.

But Jerry welcomes the challenges. “The tougher it is, the better I like it,” he said. He takes ornery horses no one else wants to shoe. “My goal is to have them liking it within six months.”

He acknowledged that his line of work is not for everyone. Clearly dangerous, it can also get lonesome. But horseshoeing fits Jerry. He enjoys solitude, his flexible schedule and the company of horses. “Even when I’m hurt, I never wake up
in the morning hating what I do. Besides, I can tell the horses any story I want, and they’ll believe me — and they won’t repeat it!”

Summing up his art, he said, “A good day of horseshoeing is not getting kicked, bit or crapped on.”

Written by Janice C. Johnson.