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Sure Footing

A country farrier keeps horses on the right track


Published November 15, 2006 at 2:20 p.m.

Six-year-old Baby Tooey is docile as a lamb when Samuel "Randy" Snipes, Jr., lifts her foot, cradles it between his chaps and nails a horseshoe to her front hoof. It's rare for a horse that's never been shoed to behave this well around a farrier, or horseshoe blacksmith, which is what Snipes is. But the part-Belgian, part-Morgan draft horse lets Snipes carve deep into the soles of her feet with nary a whinny, fidget or snort of complaint. Good thing, too, because Baby Tooey tips the scale at more than 1300 pounds. The last thing a farrier needs is a horse with an attitude problem.

Snipes, 49, is an accomplished farrier with a knack for working on skittish and temperamental charges. Admittedly, he's on much surer footing with this one than with most - he's been Tooey's surrogate mother ever since her real mother died when she was 2 weeks old. Growing up, Tooey let Snipes trim her hooves at will, though she's never worn horseshoes before. But this winter Snipes plans to put her to work spreading manure, pulling sleighs and skidding logs. For that kind of labor, she'll need better hoof protection.

It's a muddy morning at the Red Osier Farm in Corinth, where Snipes and his fiancée, Alexis Smith, are readying the horses for a few hours of work. Snipes has been a farrier for the past 15 years. A 10th-generation Quaker from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he grew up around horses, but he never shoed one himself until he was an adult.

Farriers don't need to be licensed in Vermont, but Snipes still attended a six-week school in Arizona to learn the trade. "It's hard to imagine you can spend six weeks learning this," he says. Equine enthusiasts often call their farrier if they notice something unusual about a horse, such as a limp, an abscess or an unnatural gait. Tooey's had a tender foot lately, and has been walking funny. Today, Snipes discovers a deep pit in her rear hoof; it could cause her problems, including lameness, if left untreated.

After scraping away the dirt clods caking Tooey's foot, Snipes uses a short, hooked blade known as a hoof knife to shave the purple outer layer and reveal a clean, white surface. Next, he trims the edges of the hoof with a pair of nippers. "See, that's kind of soft," he says, pointing to a tender spot. "I can hit blood there real easily."

When the sole is flat and smooth, Snipes selects a horseshoe from a rack in the barn. Some farriers spend hours sizing horseshoes, but Snipes "eagle-eyes" it - he chooses one intuitively, then pounds it on an anvil to contour it by eye to the shape of the hoof. Next Snipes positions the shoe and drives about a half-dozen square-headed nails through the sole and out the front of the hoof. (If he drove the nails straight down, they'd hit sensitive flesh.) Where the silver nail tips emerge from the hoof, Snipes hammers them sideways and files the excess to create a smooth, clean surface.

Like any good farrier, Snipes works quickly, partly because the more horses he shoes in a day, the more money he makes. But it's also because a farrier's job is back-breaking and sometimes dangerous, and he doesn't want to spend more time under a horse than he has to.

The profession has seen a few technological advances in recent years, such as lighter-weight shoes, adhesives to replace nails, and rubber boots that prevent horseshoes from damaging asphalt roads. But the fundamentals of the trade haven't changed for centuries. The tools Snipes uses - hammer, nails, files, hoof knife and nippers - would be recognizable to an 18th-century farrier.

Finding a farrier in Vermont can be tough, according to Snipes, because a lot of people own horses these days. Plus, the rigors of the job take their toll on anyone who's been doing it for too long. "It's not an easy job, that's for sure," Snipes says. To demonstrate, he asks me to lift the leg of his horse Jonah. The female chestnut draft horse is as rigid as a fencepost. I can't budge her an inch. No surprise there; she weighs more than 1700 pounds.

Besides sitting hunched over for much of his work day, a farrier faces various challenges. For one, there's not much work during the winter, which means farriers have to find alternative forms of income - in Snipes' case, as a logger. Perhaps because of his disarming way with living creatures, Snipes says his clients often unload their troubles on him - especially women who don't get off the farm much. As his fiancée puts it, "Sometimes it helps when the answering machine doesn't work."

SEVEN DAYS: Why do you need to shoe horses?

RANDY SNIPES: Protection, and also for traction. If you've got a woods horse, they need to have major traction shoes for the ice or mud. General riding horses, their feet hit rocks and stumps. They'll get bruised up. Or, if they're on a hard road, they'll wear down. It's protection from getting too worn down. Mostly what I work on are trail horses.

SD: Are they the most common horses in Vermont?

RS: Yeah, I think so. There are definitely guys who specialize in the big barns, where Hanoverians [jumping horses] are, but I mostly do backyard pleasure horses . . . I used to stay busy in the winter just doing draft horses, because of all the loggers around here. Not a lot, but enough to keep you busy. But it just got so hard on me that I stopped doing draft horses altogether. They're so much harder.

SD: Why does a horse throw a shoe?

RS: If you leave the shoe on for too long, the hoof grows out, and the nail just loosens up and it flops off.

SD: Do you shoe other animals besides horses?

RS: They shoe oxen for pulling, but I don't do that . . . I trimmed [the hooves of] a cow one time, but that's a whole other specialty. You have to have a machine, a rack to do it.

SD: How often do you trim a horse's hooves?

RS: Around here, about every eight to 12 weeks. Out West, they tend to trim themselves because it's dry, rocky and sandy ground. In the East, it's muddy.

SD: You grew up on a farm but didn't become a farrier until years later. Why not?

RS: When I was 18, I rode around with a farrier that my dad used down there, and it didn't seem very appealing to me, riding around suburbia. Then I moved up here, got my own horses and had a really hard time getting a farrier to come out. You'd set up a date, then wait around and wait around and they would never show up. So one day I said I'd learn it myself.

SD: What's the hardest thing about your work?

RS [pounding the shoe on an anvil]: Getting there on time [laughs]. Draft horses are the hardest. And trimming an unruly horse is really not fun. . . That might be the hardest thing about shoeing: trying to do a wacky horse and [deciding] whether or not to say, "Sorry, but I'm not doing this horse." Keep the job or save your health. People think, "You're a farrier; you should be able to trim any horse." But if the horse isn't going to let you do it, you can't even hold a pony, because they're so strong.

SD: I suppose you've been kicked a few times.

RS: I got kicked by a borrowed horse once. That was the only time. He got me right there [pointing to his right leg]. There was a farrier down the road who got kicked in the head. Killed him . . . I've had some crazy things happen. Not too long ago, I had this horse on cross ties, and I was picking up a hind foot and the horse decided to rear up, so he had his entire weight on me. And it just flattened me to the ground. I kind of ricocheted off the wall and the horse came down on me, reared up again and came down on my leg again before I could get out of there. Hurt for a while, but I didn't break anything.

SD: What's the key to doing your job well?

RS: Just gotta keep doing it.

SD: Do you have to be fast?

RS: Yeah. Some horses become impatient if you take too long.

SD: Do you get a bad back after doing this job for a while?

RS: Yeah, this is a really stupid job [laughs].