Iain Ritchie learned at the forge of a true master – a seventh-generation farrier who kept the Ritchie family’s horses on solid footing east of Edinburgh, Scotland.
And if Ritchie didn’t appreciate the tradition, the honour, or the pride involved in the anvil’s ring back then . . . well, he sure does now.
“This was a very well-respected farrier in Scotland. When the opportunity came up to work for him, I couldn’t really turn it down. That would have been kind of daft,” reflects Ritchie, 38, who now calls Pitt Meadows, B.C., home. “Still, I was one of the first of my friends to start work. Everyone else finished high school, some went to university, but I left early and went straight to work . . . and I was pretty slow on appreciating this trade to begin with.
“But every year I’ve done it, I seem to enjoy it more and more, and I get a little more involved. Because it’s not just a job anymore, it’s a lifestyle,” adds Ritchie. “It’s not 9-to-5. You’re up early in the morning, answering phone calls, preparing tools, getting the truck organized, and late at night you’re talking to clients or running off to look at a problem horse. You’re pretty much on call, looking after your clients.
“You do way more hours than the normal 40-hour week . . . but it’s definitely worth it.”
Ritchie, a farrier who shoes hunter/jumper, dressage, eventing, trial, and Vancouver police horses in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, is one of 56 competitors from 13 countries worldwide who’ll be converging on the Calgary Stampede for the 32nd annual World Championship Blacksmiths’ Competition, which runs from Thursday, July 7 through Sunday, July 10 under the Big Top.
The WCBC, known as the “Olympics of blacksmithing,” has attracted modern-day Vulcans from England, Denmark, New Zealand, Scotland, Australia, Ireland, Norway, France, Wales, Belgium, Northern Ireland, South Africa, the United States, and Canada. More than $50,000 in cash and prizes are up for grabs, with the winner receiving a $10,000 cheque, a limited-edition bronze trophy, a Stampede hand-tooled buckle, and a champion’s jacket.
Steven Beane of England enters this year’s competition seeking his third straight Stampede title. Last July, Beane, from Northallerton, North Yorkshire, became the WCBC’s first back-to-back champion since Billy Crothers of Wales notched his second and third Calgary crowns in 1995 and 1996.
On Saturday night, after accumulating points in eight different forging and shoeing classes over three days, the top 10 competitors will advance to Sunday’s semifinal at 9 a.m. under the Big Top. The top five will return immediately for the WCBC’s final round under the Big Top at 11:30 a.m.
“We’re well-known all over the globe as the true world championship blacksmith competition,” notes Erik Swanby, who chairs the Stampede’s Blacksmith committee. “It’s the highest paying contest in the world. There’s no other like it.
“And we’ve stuck to our Western heritage with coke forges. A lot of other competitions, you bring your own forge, most often propane. But in our opinion, using coke forges is a better show.”
This year, WCBC organizers are also placing special emphasis on the four-man team championship, with the winning squad splitting a $10,000 pot. The competition’s forging and shoeing champs will each earn $1,000, as will the top rookie.
Ritchie is entering the Stampede on a hot streak. Back in 2009, he cracked the WCBC’s final, ending up fifth overall. And this past April at Stampede Park, he took another big step, winning the Canadian Horseshoeing Championships for the first time after finishing as the national bridesmaid for three straight seasons.
The Calgary Stampede Farriers Team of Ritchie, Matt Kuechler of Cremona, Alta., Nathan Powell of Water Valley, Alta., and James Findler of Langley, B.C., was selected out of the Canadian Horseshoeing Championships, and stands an excellent chance of winning the WCBC’s inaugural four-man team title.
“It meant a lot to me. That was probably the biggest win I’ve ever had. I put a lot into it; it seems that every spare minute, when I’m not working, I’m going to the shop, or preparing tools, or actually practising,” says Ritchie.
“I’ve been taking a slightly different approach this year. I’ve been working with different guys, practising with different people, and getting a lot of help from a previous (Canadian) champion, Ben Yager (of Victoria, B.C.). He’s quite an open book, gives me a lot of help,” adds Ritchie. “He talked me through his philosophies, and let me in on his strategy when he won (in 2008). I guess you could say I’m just that prepared this year.”
The Stampede will be webcasting all events being held in the Scotiabank Saddledome and the Big Top this year. Visit http://ag.calgarystampede.com/saddledome-ustream-2011 for live streaming of Saddledome action, and http://ag.calgarystampede.com/big-top-ustream-2011 for events under the Big Top.