Friday, July 19, 2013


When I told my friend Bill that I wanted him to teach me to shoe horses, he rubbed his big red mustache and looked up at me.
“I’d don’t know, son,” he said. “A man as tall as you who can’t make a livin’ with his head higher than his butt is not a very smart man…”
Bill looked and acted like an incarnation of Yosemite Sam—redheaded, sawed-off, bow legged and fractious. I still think about him moving steadily around the horse, clucking and petting and sometimes even scolding as he worked. My height not withstanding, he let me apprentice with him for a little less than a year before pronouncing me fit to go shoe on my own.
My 75-pound horseshoeing anvil has a place of honor on our fireplace here in Alaska. I haven’t turned a shoe our drawn a clip on it for over fifteen years—though I’m looking forward to the day I can use it to tap out some rings for my grandkids out of horseshoe nails like I used to make for my kids. I do a lot or writing sitting here on the couch watching the fire, and looking at that anvil.
The first real fight I had after I’d started shoeing was nothing short of amazing. Compared to a squirming 900-pound horse, the wimpy little bad guy was a pushover. And, he couldn’t dish out a punch as hard as the horses I’d been dealing with could kick. I began to understand the ‘arms like iron bands’ line from the Village Smithy poem. It was like being paid to go to the gym.  For a while, I was shoeing two or three horses a week after work at the PD and as many as five on the weekends.
I’m not one to give animals human characteristics and rarely speak in absolutes, but I’d say there were a heck of a lot more problem people than problem horses. In fact, of the hundreds of horses that I trimmed and fitted for shoes, I only met a couple that were just plain un-trainable. 
Over time, I learned that I got along much better with horses than with many of the people that owned them.
Shortly before I was hired by the Marshals Service, I was shoeing a big molly mule that was one of the most spoiled animals I’d ever seen. The lady that owned her cooed and clucked and fed her treats and generally treated her like a baby doll. The mule kept jerking her foot away while I trimmed her. I should have known I was in for an adventure, but her owner smooched at her and assured me she’d be fine. The molly calmed down while I put the shoe on the first front foot, I believe purposely lulling me into a state of idiotic bliss. Then, she waited until I had tapped the second nail through to jerk her hoof between my clenched thighs. The curvy little horseshoe nail punctured right through my leather apron, hooked around the inseam of my britches and into the meat of the inside of my leg. Reach down, right now and pinch the inside of your own leg. Do it hard. Now, multiply that pain times a gazillion.
Not much for cursing, I yelled something nonsensical and lashed out with my shoeing hammer, trying to stand up, but trapped under the chest of the now dancing molly mule. Instead of pulling free, she curled her front leg inward, drawing me with it and bouncing me off her belly like some sort of punching ball. Finally, leather apron, cotton jean and bloody meat ripped away and I fell to the ground.
The lady owner clucked and smooched, still trying to calm her mule while I sorted through my shoeing box and mulled over how many germs had to be living in that old barn and pondered the effects of lockjaw. Forgetting my manners, I dropped my drawers and poured a half bottle of 7 percent iodine on the wound—which brought a new round of pain that got me considerably closer to cursing.
It was then that I developed my new pricing schedule. I would charge 35 dollars to shoe and 500 dollars an hour to teach a horse or mule to be shod. I never had any takers. 
 I learned a lot from shoeing and from my friend, Bill—important things like rasping a level foot, not trimming away too much sole and not dobbing the toe.
I learned my bride does not much care for the smell of horse feet on my hands.
I learned that just because a shoe is black doesn’t mean it’s cool enough to touch.
I learned that if you put a drop of water on the face of your anvil then smack a hot shoe on top of it with a three-pound hammer it cracks like a gunshot and makes kids step away from the forge to a safer distance.
I learned that a piece of steel can be tempered in the right fire—or burn to a crinkle if left in too long.
Bill taught me that the rule of thumb was that five times the price of a haircut was a fair price for a shoeing job if you didn’t have to light the forge or draw a clip.
I discovered that singing calms many an otherwise rambunctious horse—probably because it calms the horse shoer.
I learned not to rush things and the importance of the tiniest detail from the very beginning of a job.
Bill loved the old proverb and recited at least once a week, usually with a bunch of nails clenched between his teeth:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost;

For want of a shoe the horse was lost;

For want of a horse the battle was lost;

For failure in battle the kingdom was lost—
All for the want of a horseshoe nail.
            I moved the anvil the other day and noticed a piece of tape sticking out from the bottom. My youngest son’s name was written on it. He’s living with us for the summer, working an armored car route to earn money for college. He smiled when I asked him about the tape.
            “That anvil is cool, Dad.” He said. “I want to have it after you die, so I put my name on it.”
            Odd, I know, but that nearly brought me to tears. My son thinks my anvil is a cool as I do…
I drove my last nail through a shoe on someone else’s horse about ten years after I apprenticed with Bill. I was finally able to make a living with my head higher than my butt—Not sure if I ever became what Bill would call a smart man, but shoeing horses certainly taught me a lot.

Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He has published nine novels, six of them Westerns (several as a ghost writer and two under his pen name, Mark Henry).  His present Jericho Quinn series—NATIONAL SECURITY, ACT OF TERROR and STATE OF EMERGENCY features an adventure motorcyclist, Air Force OSI agent and renaissance man who spends his days sorting out his life and kicking terrorist butt.  Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle.
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  1. Now I'm happier than ever that I did NOT decide to make a living shoeing horses. But I sure enjoyed the blog. Thanks, hoss.

  2. Marc,
    I really did enjoy this. I had no idea you knew how to shoe horses! What an experience with that mule. Thanks for giving us some insight into your life and experiences. Although I was born and raised in Oklahoma, my parents had both had enough of country life from their growing up days and we always lived in town, so I never was around horses--though I constantly begged for one. I think shoeing horses calls for a lot of bravery, for sure--not certain I could ever get that close and do something like that to an animal that much bigger than me without fear in my heart. LOL

  3. Marc, what a great story, although the reading would be a whole lot more pleasant than the experiencing. As for four-legged critters, honestly, the owners who don't set boundaries have the least pleasant animals. My sis-in-law boards horses and while she has good boarders now, she'd agree that the horses are a lot easier to get along with than the owners. Boy howdy, she's had some doozies.

  4. Your post brings back memories of watching horses being shoed when young. Your way of telling the story had me hurrying to see what would happen, especially with the mule. Fun read, but the pain you felt was nicely described. Doris

  5. Great blog, Marc. A real keeper, one that I'll go back to.

    But...who's the old guy sitting around the fire in the reading glasses?

  6. Very interesting post, Marc. That anvil does indeed seem cool. And great to have a heirloom that your kids have ear-marked.

  7. Marc,

    Great piece. You capture the essence of a story in such a human and natural way. Great writing.


  8. Marc, Your post brings back some disdainful memories. With borrowed tools, and believing that I could do it. I trimmed my donkey's hooves. One time was enough for me. After that experience, I gladly paid the farrier his fee.

  9. Horseshoeing is becoming a lost art. My farrier (don't even call Jeff a blacksmith) is going to retire in a couple of years, and I don't know what Yankee and I will do without him.

    Marc, did you have a lot of dogs hanging around to grab the trimmings as you tossed them? For some reason dogs love those pieces of hoof.

    Farriers have lots of stories. Sam, my first horse, used to fall asleep while being shod, letting his nose rest on his farrier, Rich's back. Needless to say, Rick didn't appreciate that, because Sam's whiskers would tickle him. (I don't trim my horses' whiskers, inside their ears, or their tails. Those are all useful to the horse, and the tail is their only real defense against flies.

    Fascinating post, Marc.

    Jim Griffin

  10. Thanks for the kind words, guys. I had so many dreams about horse shoeing last night that my back hurt when I woke up.

    Pete, yep, I'm getting old, wearing reading glasses and carrying my writing stuff in a bison leather man-purse my deputies gave me when I retired.
    You can barely see it behind the notepad in the photo, but I do, at least, have my .44 strapped to my chest. A lot of bears up there on the Koyokuk where we were fishing.

    Jim, I once saw a shirt that said: "FARRY, FARRIER, FARRIEST" during a blacksmith competition at the Calgary Stampede. I considered buying it but decided I didn't want to do that much explaining.

    My blue heeler, Belle, generally came along for the ride and waited patiently for me to toss her some nice, stinky hoof trimmings.
    Good times.

  11. Oh the exotic life you live! I think it is awesome your son declared his prize far before the owner leaves it behind.

  12. Some years ago at a WWA conference, we all went to watch farriers shoe horses. The farrier explained everything as he went along, and I used it in my book "Pitchfork Justice." I wonder if I did it right.

  13. This was a wonderful blog post and fun to read. I own a donkey, so don't have to worry about shoes. The trimmer tells me she's well behaved, but I still like to smooch her once in awhile.

  14. Thanks, Charlie and Nancy.
    Yep, I get a kick out of a western writer who sprinkles in little tidbits about shoeing like "putting a nail in the white line," the "frog" of the foot and other details that show they've done some homework.
    Nancy, I never minded an owner holding their horse or mule (or donkey) as long as the animal wasn't spoiled. Sounds like you did a good job teaching yours the rules of good behavior.
    Several people have asked me on Facebook if I ever finished the job on the molly mule. I did, but only after I sent her owner into the house for a glass of lemonade.

  15. Awesome story. Awesome details. I'm wondering what kind of scar was left after that injury. How many stitches? WHOA.

  16. That's the bummer about this particular scar, Meg. It's now out there in the open to tell the story. It would have to be one of those Orca/Jaws/Robert Shaw/Richard Dreyfus moments where I was comparing scars with someone before anyone but my bride would see it.