By Andy Bryenton – For Canterbury Farming publication April 2014

Since the earliest days of civilized horsemanship, back in far antiquity, there have always been farriers. The oldest horseshoes found date from before the rise of classical Greece – they were found as grave goods in an Etruscan tomb dating back more than 400 years BC. Originally designed for military purposes, the horseshoe is one of the key inventions of human history, arguably as important to the rise of nations as the plough or the sailing ship.

With the advent of the automobile age, many people think that the role of the farrier is a lost one – a profession consigned to history along with the miller and the armourer. Even the word seems old and antique to those who haven’t seen the modern farrier at work, for of course the tradition of those hundreds of years lives on. The biggest surprise, to the uninitiated, is that the science and technology of this multi-faceted trade has also kept pace with other areas of equine care, and that the modern farrier bears little resemblance to the leather-aproned, hammer-swinging figure of historical myth.

Take for example Christchurch farrier Adam White. He’s been involved with horses his entire life, coming from a strong harness racing background, and he takes immense pride in the profession which has seen him help train and maintain champion horses here and overseas. Adam exemplifies the cutting-edge modern farrier – a key part of the team which makes a good racehorse great, and who works closely with trainers, drivers, owners and veterinarians to form the ‘behind the scenes’ crew for a winning effort at harness racing’s top prizes.

Adam grew up in an equine family – both his mother and father were horse owners, with his father riding as a jockey for many years. His first job at the age of 10 was not as a paperboy or mowing lawns – Adam became a stable hand for Murray Edmonds, and remembers watching his first boss shoe his own horses. Something started then and there, leading to a lifelong passion for learning the farrier’s art, and passing that expertise on to others. His father taught many of the basic showing techniques which are the foundation of that skill – more advanced methods came through hard work on the racetracks and in the stables of Auckland, where Adam was soon shoeing his own team as a public trainer. He credits many folks in the racing scene with helping him hone his art.

“I learnt a wealth of knowledge watching, assisting and working under Dave Smith and later with Steve Butler,” he says. “Around this time I went to Australia and furthered my shoeing knowledge by learning from world renown Farrier Karl O’Dyer”

And there is certainly more to learn in the work of a farrier than simply a calm manner around horses and a steady hand with a hammer! The nuances of corrective shoeing can make or break the chances of a horse in the top-flight strata of racing. Adam says that the biggest satisfaction in his line of work comes from taking a horse which is underperforming or even functionally lame and making it able to run again, to reach its full potential. This is achieved with a combined strategy of training and exercise combined with advanced shoeing techniques designed to correct anomalies in the hoof – issues lead on from here, and can be stopped here too.

Adam agrees that a good analogy comes from the world of motorsport. The most powerful, high-tech racecar is only as good as the tyres it sits on. Formula One teams debate endlessly about which tyre compounds to use on any given race day, accounting for the temperature, track surface and the sharpness of the corners. So it is too with shoeing a top level racehorse – though in fact it’s even more complex, as a horse is a living thing. The science involved in being a farrier at this level blends materials science with biology, veterinary medicine with biomechanics. Shoes made from plastics and even carbon are now used alongside traditional steel, and an in-depth knowledge of how horses move and run is enhanced with computer modelling and slow-motion video capture, both of which are now available to trainers as learning tools.

It’s not just about performance, either. A huge range of illnesses of the hoof can be remedied by a competent farrier’s attention, such as splitting, cankers, abscesses and corns. Left unchecked, problems in the hoof can effectively cripple a horse, and have knock-on effects in its gait and temperament. A good farrier can help heal and correct these issues at the source, improving the horse’s quality of life immensely.

To date, Adam says that the high point of his career has been travelling through Australia with champion horse Monkey King, winner of numerous top-tier trophies including the fabled Miracle Mile. Like a key member of any sporting entourage, he was there for the victories and the setbacks, but watching it all come together into a world-beating performance was something truly special.

Far from being a young stable hand, Adam now shoes fro many of the top stables in Canterbury. His knowledge is sought out by all manner of riders, trainers and owners, and it’s this precious legacy of hard-won skill which he would love to pass on to future generations. Many farriers working today aren’t young any more, and it’s vitally important to keep the trade vigorous and alive with young folks passionate to learn. It’s an exciting time to engage with this time-honoured trade as well, with technology and improvements in technique making the art of the farrier a decidedly 21st century discipline.

Andy Bryenton