Horses & History

Blacksmiths and Horseshoeing…a Trade as Old as Christendom

Should we believe the legend stating that the horse of Mohammed’s uncle wore shoes suggesting that perhaps horseshoes were invented in the Orient?

By: Horses & History |

Imagine the surprise when a horseshoe was discovered in the burial chamber of Chilperic I, the Monrovian King who ruled from 561 to 584. Could discoverers conclude that nailed horseshoes were used as far back as then? Questionable they concluded.

Or can we credit Eligius, the patron saint of farriers, horses and those who work with them around the year 600 as the first creator? Again doubtful as there is no evidence that he himself ever made shoes for horses.

Finally, should we believe the legend stating that the horse of Mohammed’s uncle wore shoes suggesting that perhaps horseshoes were invented in the Orient? Again, as a myth this is doubtful.

Celtic horseshoes

Celtic horseshoes.

The Celts as first creators of nailed on shoes now comes into question. Centuries ago, a horse was often buried with his master and evidence of horseshoes in human graves suggests that the Celts were perhaps the first to protect a horse’s hooves with nailed on shoes. However not all agree. Despite the term ‘Celtic’ shoes used to describe those with a wavy rim, those found do not date from pre-Christian times and are only about a thousand years old.

Hipposandals
Alexander the Great had no problem keeping his horses hooves in good shape until the creation of roads saw the need for hoof protection. The Romans dealt with this issue by making ‘hipposandals’ for their horses out of leather. However, these leather models wore out too quickly so a sole of iron was then created and attached to horse legs by leather thongs.

As time went on, the thousands of Roman army horses, measuring only around 13 or 14 hands high, needed a more permanent solution and the nailed shoe became commonplace. The blacksmiths were an important part of the army corps and they, along with grooms and trainers, were called ‘immunes’ and were exempt from going into active battle.

The Norman warriors created shoes that were heavier and broader since their horses were bigger and stockier. During this time farm animals were also shod as rocky roads took their toll on mule and horse hooves. A blacksmith’s role in the battlefield was becoming crucial so when Edward II took his army to the continent to fight in 1359 he also took along a forge so that his horses could be shod.

The Blacksmith’s Shop

The Blacksmith’s Shop, by Joseph Mallord (1807).

The business of blacksmithing was becoming an essential service and in 1356 in the City of London first established a fellowship to control their trade and protect customers, employers and employees by seeking out inferior work and punishing offenders with severe penalties.  As time went on the farriers honed their trade and skills while also treating horses for ailments.

In 1887, a court appointed committee was established and a registry of farriers was created with official exams for the creation of horseshoes and shoeing horses. Two years later the Registration Account and the Institute of Horse Shoeing was established for qualified farriers in London and throughout the countryside.

The Same but Different…
A blacksmith or ‘smithy’ as he was called in days gone by, is one who makes things out of iron or steel. The village smithy created and repaired household goods like plows, shovels, door hinges, gates, iron tires for wagons and hardware for homes, barns and stables. In the past he was also required to shoe mules and horses.

While many ‘smithys’ found new employment as mechanics for the cars that were beginning to find their way onto city streets at the turn of the century, the invention of the automobile created a huge dent in the number of blacksmiths. However, today many men and women have re-established this once essential service as an art form and proudly call themselves blacksmiths creating beautiful scroll work for gates, decor, fences, furniture and table frames, fireplace screens, tools and door knockers.

Today’s farrier is an integral part of a horse’s life, wellbeing and success and their expertise is honed through courses, practice and ongoing learning in farrier science. As a farrier’s job is mainly focused on the creation and setting of shoes and corrective shoeing, he may not be as skilled in the blacksmith’s arts although some manage to be accomplished at both.

So, is a blacksmith a farrier and a farrier a blacksmith? It depends where you are and who you ask: some people still call their blacksmith a farrier and others think of their farrier as a blacksmith.

Farrier Adam McQueen

Farrier Adam McQueen from Bognor, ON. Thanks to Phil Robinson, President of the Ontario Farriers Association (OFA) for this photo.

Today worldwide guilds and organization of blacksmiths continue to proudly promote blacksmithing as a high quality, creative and affordable art form while Farriers’ Associations also exist to promote member interests while educating about horse and hoof care.

Did You Know?
The name blacksmith comes from two words: black and smite. Black refers to iron as that was the colour of the metal and the word smite comes from the action of hammering so we have ‘blacksmith’.

The expression ‘hammer and tongs’ means to strike with great violence and it comes from a blacksmiths action of holding a piece of metal with his tongs while hammering it on the anvil to shape. He also has to ‘strike while the fire is hot’ as cold iron cannot be easily shaped. He might also have ‘other irons in the fire’ meaning that while he is doing one job he has other things on the go to be done.