HORSESHOEING IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
One hundred years ago farriery was a booming profession in America. Farriers were respected and well-paid. Work was done in shops, which usually employed a number of farriers if located in a town of any size. The country was growing, its agriculture and industry was exploding. Most of this activity was powered by horses and mules, each of which had four feet in need of good shoeing
There were some good books on farriery around at the time. But many more written by non-farriers and anti-farrier upstart veterinarians, and thus were full of misinformation. For the most part, farrier education was imparted directly from one farrier to another without need of printed material. A young man wishing to enter the profession would (if he were lucky) secure a position in a shop as an apprentice. For 3-7 years he'd work in the shop, his primary compensation being the opportunity to learn from the more experienced farriers working there. If he survived the apprenticeship, the apprentice would become a journeyman... A skilled professional who could demand a competetive wage from the shops in which he was employed. Over a span of years, the journeyman might work in several shops, all the time learning from master farriers and his fellow journeymen and saving his money until he could afford to establish himself as a master by purchasing a shop from a retiring master or by building his own new shop.
The farrier support industry was also going full-tilt. There were trade publications, catalogs full of every kind of shoe, pad, nail, and tool imaginable. There were farrier unions which exercised considerable power in urban areas. Many of the concepts, techniques, and ideas that we consider "recent developments" were, in fact, old-hat to farriers at the end of the 19th Century.
After the first World War the party was over. Automobiles and tractors were putting horses and mules out of service. Many farrier shops began to transform themselves into auto garages. Others just wound down until the old master farrier retired or died.
The batton of farrier education was dropped. Masters stopped taking on apprentices. Journeymen became auto mechanics, welders, or machinists. The better books on farriery went out of print. Farriery was in danger of becoming a "lost art".
The farrier support industry disolved almost to nothing. Farrier magazines switched over to auto & machinist publications or were discontinued. Tool companies which were built on farrier products stoppped producing them in favor of regular mechanic's tools. Only a couple of basic "keg" horseshoes stayed in production. The once mighty master farriers national union crumbled, and the journeyman's union abandoned working horses in favor of race tracks.
Things started to turn around in the 1960s. The recreational, sport, and show horse populations began to grow faster than the work horse population was dying off. These horses needed shoeing, but the spread-out, high-traffic world of the automobile made getting them to shops impractical. So the horseshoers would have to go to them.
The farriers of the old boom years were pretty much gone. But new men were drawn into horseshoeing because it looked like "easy money". It was also a low-investment way to be able to claim to really be in the "horse business". All the wannabe horseshoer needed was a vehicle that could get him, a makeshift outfit of hardware store tools, and a few keg shoes out to the stables. With no masters to answer to or learn from, horseshoers came up with techniques which were based on ignorance of biomechanics, anatomy, and gait dynamics. Since most horseowners at the time were only interested in getting shoes that stayed on for a low price, there was little incentive for horseshoers to improve their education or the quality of their work. The only way to make more money was to get faster and shoe more horses.
To capitalize on the demand for horseshoers, short-course horseshoeing schools began to spring up. Although some offered good instruction, they all tended to create the false impression that farriery was a simple skill to be learned in a few short weeks... On the brighter side, communication between horseshoers was starting to improve through contests and the formation of associations. The range of horseshoes, tools, and other supplies gradually began to widen.
The 1980s and 1990s have been a sort of renaissance for American farriery. At first the horse population was growing rapidly, then the level of care demanded by horseowners began to increase. The former continued to increase the demand for horseshoers, the latter created a specific demand for quality farriers.
While some horseshoers still wallow in the ignorant practices that grew out of the previous era, many farriers began to seek the knowledge and skill to distinguish themselves by quality of work rather than quantity. New books covering anatomy and farrier science have been published. The better old texts have been re-released. Clinics, conventions, seminars, and symposiums for farriers have become big events. Through these kinds of events the scattered fragments of what it takes to be a fully qualified farrier have been gathered and recombined... The forgework skills which the gaited horse shoers had preserved out of necessity, the understanding of gait mechanics the harness track shoers had kept alive, the soundness-maintaining techniques that had allowed a few farriers to thrive shoeing high-dollar show horses while most shoers were doing cheap hackwork, and the scientific studies which had been done by vets and researchers.
Farriers are now expected to understand what is going on in the foot and limb down to the micro-circulatory level, and to have the skills and equipment to put that knowledge to practical use through shoeing. This kind of dedication to excellence is worthwhile now, because many horseowners are willing to pay a top professional farrier a lot more to shoe a horse than a ne'er-do-well horseshoer can charge in most markets.
The farrier support industry has regained, perhaps even surpassed, the diversity it had at the start of the century. There are several hundred styles and types of shoes available in all sizes. Pads, hoof repair materials, various types and brands of nails. Some silly gimmicks and some useful innovations. Countless hand tools, dozens of different anvils, portable power tools and forges. There are still many horseshoeing short-course schools, some of which continue to promote the notion that shoeing is an easy way to big money, while others are beginning to be more realistic and encourage post-graduate apprenticeship and continued education. There is a wide range of quality in the instruction offered by schools, with some giving students a good start on the way to becoming farriers, while others load students down with such dangerous misinformation that they may be considered menaces to the equine population. A Guild of Professional Farriers has arisen to establish and uphold a standard of competence for American farriers. There are no fewer than four national farrier trade magazines and several other newsletters. Educational videos and audio tapes are now commonplace, and farriery is even on the cutting edge of the Internet.
For those willing to take it seriously and approach it like a real profession, it is a good time to be a farrier.