Thousands of eyes gaze upon my slender frame as I jump the rails into a sandy show ring in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1973. I’m clutching four tools in my hands and have four horse shoe nails in my shorts pocket. I look up at the stands filled with spectators, many of whom are using their programs to fan themselves from the oppressive heat. My sweaty legs gather dust as I hurry toward my father, who is assessing a big stallion that has thrown a shoe during a final jumping round.
He gains the horse’s confidence by gently gliding his hand down the metacarpal bone and over the long pastern bone, where he slowly squeezes to encourage the horse to lift his hoof. He places the hoof between his knees and holds his rough calloused hand out in my direction. I quickly hand him a hoof pick. In mere seconds, he will need the rasp. I’m ready. The clock is ticking as he throws down the rasp, and opens his palm for me pass him the thrown shoe that had been collected by one of the show ring volunteers.
He looks for any defects or abnormalities in both the shoe and the hoof. He grasps the hammer I hold out to him, and removes a nail from between my fingers in one sharp motion. Within seconds, he pounds four nails into the hoof and throws the hammer at my feet. Finally, he grabs the clincher tool from my outstretched hand to remove excess nail and seat the nails into the shoe. As he finishes, I gather the pick, rasp and hammer, and hold them in my young, but experienced hands. ‘Another fine show by the blacksmith, Alfred Kuhnen, in record time,’ booms the announcer over the sound system. I was the forgotten 10-year-old apprentice.
Learning the Tools and Tricks of the Trade
Always at my father’s side, and always mistaken for a boy, I never wore dresses and wasn’t afraid to get dirty or do what my brothers did. I was usually covered in dirt, with many scrapes, bruises and scratches, but I was a quick study and wily as a fox. I loved being around horses and travelling. Little did I know that I was learning precious life skills and having exceptional experiences.
Many different types of horses came into my father’s blacksmith shop. I assisted him by making sure all the tools were available at the outset of each visit: pinchers to remove shoes, hoof nippers to trim the hoof wall, hoof knife, hammer, clincher to cut the sharp points of nails driven into the hoof walls, and a rasp to smooth or eliminate any sharp edges.
My father’s trained eye carefully assessed each horse. By observing their gait, musculature and conformation, he could calculate whether the horse was experiencing physical stresses that required corrective shoeing or traction devices to help enhance natural movements.
Most shoes were made of steel that could be forged and custom crafted to suit individual needs, but there were the exceptions. Aluminium shoes were predominantly preferred by dressage riders because they could facilitate the intricacies of movement by the horse. Synthetic shoes were made of solid rubber or plastic, which encased the entire hoof, and provided excellent protection for horses walking on a hard surface such as concrete, or those with hoof problems. Those who could afford it often requested the thicker, sturdier titanium shoes, which offered extra protection.
I distinctly remember the secret stash of shoes my father kept for elite riders in both show jumping and championship barrel racing. Sometimes customized shoes with borium or caulks (protrusions at the toe and/or heels of the shoe) were necessary to provide additional traction. Once in a while, my father made bar shoes when a horse needed extra heel support. He would measure the shoes to the hoof and bend them to the correct shape using his hammer and anvil.
Sometimes, situations required cold shoeing – bending the metal shoe without heating it – or the more time-consuming hot shoeing, where the shoe is placed in a forge before shaping it by flattening and bending the red hot metal until it fit the hoof perfectly. The mark he made on the hoof from the hot shoe would show how even it was, which allowed for more modifications, like a drawing toe or quarter clips if necessary. It was my job to make sure there was a bucket of cool water available to cool off the finished shoe.
It always amazed me how my father knew how to shape the nails in such a way that they bent outwardly, emerging on the sides of the hoof as they were driven in, avoiding the sensitive inner part of the foot. He always made sure all the sharp points were clinched off and bent to hold the nail in place. It was a time-consuming process, and I was always available to help make it easier for him.
I was skilled with a shovel and broom too. I put my desire to keep things neat and orderly to great use, especially when the shop was littered with clippings and the occasional pile of manure.
Another unusual skill I cultured was making horse shoe nail rings. My designs were basic, but popular. I used my father’s forge to heat the nails and bent them into elaborate shapes. Sometimes, I used the propane torch that was in the back of his truck to solder the ends together. I used vise grips, pliers and a chisel-like tool to get the shapes I wanted. I finished each one with a flux brush to get a glossy sheen.
Good Times on the Road
Horse owners would seek out my father and his services frequently, both at the horse shows and privately, so we travelled a lot. Some of my best memories of those days took place at venues like the Canadian National Exhibition and the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, where I spent fun time learning about the different types of horses and the requirements for their judging. Countries from all over the world attended these shows, and I met many prized horses and talented riders.
I thought the most beautiful horses were the Arabians, but I admired the strength of the work horses. One of my favourite memories was getting up close and personal with the Carlsberg Beer Wagon Hitch Team in 1973.
There were always interesting people at these events. At one show, a trick performer was scheduled to appear. Curious, I went around the barns to see if I could catch a glimpse of this guy. He was easy to find because of his loud brassy voice and cocky attitude. I was amazed by his unwavering ability to handle a lasso. My very social father befriended him and, before long, was challenging the performer to snag my leg at a dead out run. I was a fast and nimble runner, so I thought evading him would be easy. I got caught every time and was kissing the ground over and over!
End of an Era
The piercing ring of my father’s sledge hitting his anvil echoes in my mind today, 40 years later. Holding red hot metal with tongs in his powerful hands, as he easily flattened, ground and bent the black iron of a horse shoe, shaping it skilfully over and over until it fit perfectly. Even now, the sight of smoke rising and the smouldering smell of burnt hoof make me smile.
My father’s greatest expectation was that one of his six children would carry on the trade, but none of us did. Looking back though, I realize that being an apprentice at such a young age taught me about life in the most subtle ways – to embrace hard work, overcome obstacles, ignore stereotypes, and to be self-sufficient. I still love to travel, can effortlessly engage in the multiplicity of society, and most importantly, express gratitude for the many gifts and memories that are priceless.