Monday, December 19, 2011

Millwater's Farriery: Farrier Competency.

   Over the years I've read and heard a lot of folks decrying the 'evils' of horseshoeing.  When I point-out that they are describing the effects of poor horseshoeing, they often deny that they cut corners, and claim that the work was done by "good farriers".  Which causes me to question just what some people think a good farrier really is.

   Admittedly, finding and recognizing a competent farrier isn't an easy task for today's horseowner.  You can ask your vet or trainer, but they aren't experts in applied farriery, and their opinions are often colored by how willing a farrier is to let them call the shots for shoeing without question.  You can get recommendations from other horseowners, and they will likely suggest a guy based more on likability than actual competence.  Many people are more concerned with price and easy scheduling than knowledge and skill.

   So what does it take to be a truly competent farrier, and how can the horseowner recognize these attributes?

Shoeing School Diploma...

   A lot of people seem to think that going to horseshoeing school is how one becomes a farrier, so a diploma means that a shoer is qualified to practice farriery.  Truth is that horseshoeing schools run the gamut from embarrassments to the trade through excellent programs run by highly credentialed instructors.  Courses range from a few hours to several months.  So all diplomas are definitely not created equal.

   The better schools are a great way to start training as a farrier.  But even the best are only a beginning.  A horseshoer advertising his horseshoeing school diploma actually strikes me as being like a neurosurgeon bragging about passing his high school biology class.


   There was a time, not all that long ago, when the big kahunas of the horse business in some parts of the country were the Ol' Horsetraders.  Their claim to fame was usually that they'd "been in th' hoss bizniss f' thutty-odd years!"  One didn't have to be a great mathematician to figure out that, factoring in their age, Navy service (not a whole slew of horses on battleships), etc., most of the Ol' Horsetraders where I grew-up were calculating their 'careers' from occasionally playing with their grandpa's retired plow horse as a kid straight through to thirty or so years later without regard to a whole lot of non-horsey time in-between.

   Of course, even some fellows who had actually been continuously active with horses for many years appeared to have originally learned 'horsemanship' from dime novels and Hollywood westerns, and never improved much from that point.  So clearly, experience doesn't guarantee competence.

   On the other hand, experience can provide insight and deep understanding that no amount of academic study can.  Especially in regard to horses, who take years to progress from one phase of life to the next.  It takes a full year just to observe an individual horse's 'normal' transitions across the seasons.  Developing a pathology, then re-stabilizing afterwards can take over a year.  Then another year is needed to observe the post-pathology 'new norms'.

   Ideally, would-be farriers should spend their first four years in apprenticeship under the direction of an established farrier while they gain the needed basic experience.  Unfortunately, this isn't practical in the modern horse world.  But a wise horseowner will understand that any horseshoer with less than a half-decade in the trade should be considered a trainee, and should be employed only on the advice of a real farrier who knows whether your horses' needs and the trainee's ability level are compatible.

   Let the mentorless  rookies 'practice' on other peoples' horses.

   Also keep in-mind that (for reasons I find rather disrespectful to the profession) quite a few middle-aged men decide to take up horseshoeing.  Having some gray around the temples doesn't preclude the shoer from being a green rookie.

Not necessarily an expert farrier.

Professional status...

   There was a time when setting up a horseshoeing business was a pretty big deal.  You needed a good-sized shop in a prominent location, forges, anvils, vises, stocks, and a crew of employees usually working in teams.  Not unlike a full-service auto repair shop today.

   Then came the crash of the horse population and the rise of automotive transport in the 20th Century.  The typical horseshoeing business devolved into a guy with a few tools in a truck.  Horseshoeing became a low-investment way for a dude to be able to claim to be in the 'hoss bizniss'.

   Despite the re-development of farriery as a profession since then, there are still plenty of horseshoers who treat it as an avocation.  A less than competent part-time horseshoer can stay in business indefinitely, since he doesn't have to make a living at it.  Being a successful, full-time farrier over an extended period of time may not absolutely prove competence, but it is certainly evidence in favor.

Journeyman level knowledge and skills...

   A competent farrier has to understand hoof and limb anatomy and biomechanics, including hoof flexing and growth, as well as gait dynamics.  He must have comprehensive insight into the effects of hoof capsule modification on protection and support of internal structures, as well as the functional balance of the digit...  In other words, he should know how to trim hooves to preserve or restore soundness.

   Unfortunately, this essential feature of farriery is under-emphasized.  This is partly because other aspects of applied farriery as so much more impressive-looking.  But mostly because hoof balance is a bit complex and inherently subjective, so that most laymen (and non-farrier professionals) can't easily recognize the quality of hoof trimming.  But horses who routinely come-up sore after trimming are compelling evidence that a horseshoer doesn't understand the hoof capsule sufficiently.

   A professional-level farrier must also have fine control over the prosthetic devices (aka horseshoes, pads, etc.) he applies to hooves.  This means the ability to forge good handmade shoes, including bar shoes.

   It may seem a bit archaic in this era of countless brands, styles, and sizes of quality factory-made horseshoes.  Indeed, many fully competent farriers rarely turn handmade shoes in the field, or even use the forge with many of their keg shoes.  But the ability to produce appropriate, well-fit shoes from raw bar stock demonstrates that the farrier is never limited by the factory shoe design, and doesn't have to compromise the good of the hoof to make it fit the shoe.  Real farriers have forges and know how to use them.

   A journeyman farrier must also be a horseman.  Able to handle and get-along with the animals, as well as to understand the demands their occupations put upon them, and how to best enable them to meet these demands.


   Because farrier skills are difficult for non-farriers to effectively evaluate, formal examination and credential systems would seem to be called-for.

   The American Farriers Association Certified Journeyman Farrier (CJF) level indicates an admirable level of technical knowledge and precision/efficiency in the forging and application of horseshoes.  In fact, the difficulty of the exam (due largely to tight time limits and exam procedures apparently designed to interfere with the normal flow of work) makes it almost more of a hazing ritual than an evaluation of practical competence.

   The AFA has tended to discourage the use of its certifications as field credentials.  Even CJF, their highest level, is available to hobbyists with only two years' experience.  (They have three lower level certifications as well.)  Their certification system grew out of horseshoeing contests which, for the sake of objectivity, require fixed standards.  This means their examinations are strong on testing the ability to perform operations to precise, pre-published parameters, but are short on variables which might insure the applicant has a wider array of skills than those practiced specifically for the examination.

   The Brotherhood of Working Farriers Association has actively promoted their certifications as field credentials for farriers.  Unfortunately, their lower level certifications don't approach anything that could be considered minimal competence, and irregularities with their higher level certifications render them unreliable as evidence of knowledge or skill.  There have been many good farriers in the BWFA, but BWFA certification doesn't tell you anything about a horseshoer's practical competence.

   The Guild of Professional Farriers was founded specifically to establish a formal standard of competence for professional farriers.  Its minimum credential, required for membership, is Registered Journeyman Farrier (RJF), which is available only to full-time farriers with over four years' verifiable field experience.  The exams include double-aspect written test questions (to discourage rote memorization), and practical skills tests designed to demonstrate both precision of work and the ability to effectively evaluate a horse's needs.

    The high minimum standard of the GPF tends to keep membership low, and most of the RJFs have full books, which limits the usefulness of the credential to horseowners.

   Two new systems have been announced.  The AAPF and FITS...  These are still in development and are unknown quantities at this writing.

   So, when seeking a really competent farrier, the horseowner should look for a full-timer with at least five years in the trade who can do hot shoeing with handmades (even if that's not what your horses need right now)...  Even better if he (or she) is an RJF or CJF.  'Extra points' for actively continuing education via clinics, symposiums, technical journals, and participation in farrier organizations.

   If you can't find anyone like this who can put you on schedule, at least try to find one who can recommend a protege or associate with abilities sufficient to meet your horses' needs.  They should be able to provide better guidance than the non-farriers horseowners often get recommendations from.

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Dave,

    Great article! I wrote a similar post on my farrier blog a couple weeks ago covering a lot of the same issues. Its incredible how some schools can offer two weeks of training and the graduates call themselves "certified farriers." So important for horse owners to educate themselves on farrier education and experience.