by Linda Chamberlain
Here is the opening of a book I’m working on – see what you think.
I’ve made it a policy to avoid arguing with well muscled men wielding a hammer and nails. I’m not a tall woman; more a lightweight who can be pushed over easily but my stand off with the farrier that day required me to get in touch with my masculine side. Quickly.
You see, my requirements were simple; I wanted the shoes off my two horses and it was not a job I could do myself. He shouldn’t have started a fight over it but he had a jangling set of new shoes in his hand and he wanted to fit them. I wanted him to put them in the back of his bloody van and drive off – once he’d taken the old set off, of course. He was a nice guy. Young; lovely smile and the well-defined muscles of his trade but he had a natural desire to keep hold of his business. Even in the face of some daft woman who had read a tiny but controversial book about riding barefoot horses.
‘They won’t manage, love,’ he said, rubbing his chin and eyeing the sad state of Barnaby’s feet.
My daughter’s pony made him sigh but he placidly wrenched the old and worn shoes from their feet; gave them a trim and was ready to smooth their hooves with the heavy rasp that he could wield as if it was a nail file. He straightened his back, swept his hair from his head with one easy swipe and came to a decision without meeting my eye.
‘We’ll put shoes on their fronts; that’s the answer.’
I liked this guy; he was one of the nicest farriers I had used and we had shared a few hours over the years chatting about horses and drinking tea. He had been a competitive rider when he was younger and handled the animals with a sympathy and understanding that came from a genuine connection. But I was a coward and couldn’t find the words to tell him that farriers had become second to undertakers on my people-to-avoid-while-alive list?
He grabbed the tray of tools from the back of his blue van without waiting for my answer and was about to start up the furnace of his mobile forge. Years ago, I used to ride for miles to take my horse to the blacksmith but now the old forges have become bijoux dwellings and farriers have these little mobile jobs so they can hot shoe horses while they’re still in bed. The smell of burnt horse foot follows them like an invisible mist.
My voice was a bit too high pitched to be taken seriously. It needed measured base tones for men to know I meant business. So the first attempt didn’t quell the gas flame.
I needed to try harder since he wasn’t listening. I wanted my horses to be barefoot. We were only riding on the Forest, hardly any road work, so surely they didn’t need metal wrapped around their feet.
‘Nah, his feet will crumble. Look at that crack! White feet; they’re all the same. Weak and useless. He’ll never go barefoot.’
I took a look at the horse that had carted me around for the last five years. He was as strong as an ox and pulled like a tank; he had given me so many reasons to seek out good osteopaths who bemoaned the state of my weary and pulled shoulders. Every farrier that came within two yards of him warned me his feet were his only weak point. They cracked, they didn’t grow quickly enough and so they were full of nail holes with nowhere to fix a new shoe onto.
So his feet were in a sorry state even though I had done everything conventional wisdom had advised. Dutiful and regular shoeing every six weeks.
It might have been the hammer that did it; then again the sight of the nails goaded me. Sharp and shining. Lined up neatly in their trays ready to be driven into Barnaby’s feet if this man had his way; consigned to the history books if I had mine.
One word was all it needed. A two-lettered one.
I explained again. ‘We don’t ride them very much. We don’t compete, you know, so I really think they’ll be fine. I don’t want the shoes on.’
Frankly, I would have chosen not to ride if it meant driving nails into their feet every few weeks. For goodness sake, their feet can’t move with metal shoes stuck on them.
I didn’t like to say the shoes were bad for them; I was full of my new-found cause and brimming with facts like a cynic who’d found god on Facebook. Nailing metal onto a moving part of a horse caused injuries, shrank their feet and gave them life-threatening diseases. One lone vet was swimming against the tide and saying their lives were being shortened dramatically by the practice. The average age of a euthanized horse was about eight years old so my two had already passed their sell-by date. But I didn’t like to hurt this man’s feeling by repeating this revolutionary thought and I hated confrontation.
‘Well, what am I going to do?’ he asked.
He seemed shaken with annoyance but he was only losing two horses from his list; he wouldn’t miss them, would he? I mean, I liked them, but surely he hadn’t got attached on such a short acquaintance. His face was tight as if he needed to hold onto his teeth. Embarrassment crept inside me.
‘What do you mean?’ I said.
‘I lose the business then, do I?’
‘Perhaps you could still trim them for me,’ I suggested, apologetically.
This was more than ten years ago. A set of shoes cost about £45 and I have no idea what that has risen to now. I was offering him a job that would yield him £10 or £20 per horse every six weeks at the most. It wasn’t much and he knew it. These horses would need trimming but his business was shoeing. To his mind, it was better for the horse to wear metal shoes since the perceived wisdom was, and still is, that they protect the foot. It was also better for his pay packet.
The little veterinary book that had set me on this journey had warned me against getting the farrier to trim their feet. They trim the feet, it warned, to fit a horse shoe rather than to set a horse up for his barefoot life. But, there weren’t many specialist barefoot trimmers in Britain at that time – I had heard of only one and she lived more than a hundred miles away – so who else would look after their feet?
It was looking more and more likely that this guy wouldn’t be coming back for my measly few pounds.
He flung the rasp to the ground. He wouldn’t look at me and turned away with a hunch of his shoulders. I wasn’t as daft as he thought because I understood and I sympathised but I was too English, too polite to tell him what I really thought of shoeing. Perhaps, we both knew that I would be the first of many owners who would take this step. Neither of us could have envisaged that we were witnessing one of the first cracks in a tradition of metal shoeing that has held sway for a thousand years; a crack that would grow, with or without my contribution, into a worldwide movement affecting thousands of horses. There would be prosecutions, vilification and plenty of hatred. But there would be no stopping the change that was coming.
Horse shoeing. My farrier thought it was essential. I thought it was killing the animals in our care. The middle ground argued it was a necessary evil.
We stood eyeing each other. I kept hold of my thoughts and waited. I had the upper hand. He had to do the job I was asking. Take off the shoes and trim their feet. Nothing more. Or someone else would do it.