A Solid Foundation: The Life of a Farrier

by | Feb 10, 2022

Shoes are an important part of our every day life. In much the same way that a runner needs special shoes to complete a marathon, horses also need specific shoes to perform the tasks desired of them. For example, a horse gliding through a Hunter Jumper course in barrel racing shoes is about the same as a runner sprinting a marathon in Crocs. “There is a different type of shoe for each horse and the task they are required to perform,” said N.C. farrier, Matt Hess. “It all depends on what they need to reach their highest potential both safely and comfortably.”

Farriers assess the feet of horses and other livestock to keep them in a healthy routine for their body, age and craft. Most farriers work within a specific state or region but mostly serve where they are called. Matt primarily works for the Triangle area, but will go anywhere across the state where a horse needs help. “I work for the horse, so I go where I am needed,” he said.

It is vitally important that horses and other livestock are routinely checked by a farrier to ensure high-quality health, comfort and confidence. “I’ve worked with horses, goats, sheep and even a few pigs and one thing is consistent with all of them, they function and perform better when their feet are cared for,” Matt said. Depending on the needs of the animal, most owners should have their horses and livestock checked by a farrier every four to six weeks. “This job involves a lot of learning and growing, which is one of the reasons that I love it,” Matt said. “I’ve met farriers that are nearly 70 years old who tell me they are still learning new things every day and that is what I hope to do throughout my career.”

Matt grew up with a love for animals and agriculture. Although he had a natural love for it that developed in school, Matt’s true love for horses came from his grandmother. “She grew up with horses and taught me all about them, including harness training, which really sparked my love for these animals,” Matt said. After graduating high-school, Matt continued his equine education through horse shoeing school in Oklahoma.

Many schools across the country offer courses and degree programs where farriers can obtain their training. Although the average horse shoeing program is twelve weeks, Matt attended a three-month program in Oklahoma before returning home to intern under a well-trained professional for three years.

“I always tell people to go to school to receive the education and book training that you need and then take some time to ride with various trainers that will give you hands on experience,” he said. “Learn from them. See how they do things. How they trust the animals. How they put different shoes on. Learn at the hands of the master and build relationships across the industry so that when you set out on your own, you have that experience to build off of.”

For those who don’t know, everything on a horse is diagonal, meaning that farriers have to use great caution when taking measurements for their shoes. “Horses are just like people. They have a certain shoe size and style that they need to not only function comfortably day to day, but also to perform the tasks required of them, such as jumping or racing,” Matt explained, “so I have to be very precise with their measurements to ensure that they get exactly what they need.”

Not only does he have to be careful to provide the right shoe for each animal, but with every appointment, Matt must be cautious of his attitude, tone and movements to ensure he stays calm and portrays trust to the animal. “My motto is to always stay calm, whether I am dealing with an animal that loves to have their feet touched or one who is prone to bite, kick or stomp,” he said. “Horses and owners alike have to learn to trust you as their farrier and the animals feed off of your emotions. So I not only keep my mindset and motions calm but I also talk to them and give them treats throughout the visit. This way I am building a relationship with them and gaining their trust all at the same time.” They always say that the way to a mans heart is through his stomach…or I guess in this case the way to a horses heart is through apples, carrots and other delicious treats!

In addition to routine checkups and horse shows, Matt often has to handle emergency situations such as lost shoes, injured horses and diseased animals. In fact, these appointments often require more peace in the midst of chaos and a higher level of caution when working on the feet due to soreness of injury. “Being a farrier is an art and everything that we do flows together from routine checkups to emergency situations and other aspects of our role within the agriculture industry,” Matt said, “We have to do our job to the best of our ability in every situation, with every client, to ensure both animal and owner are calm, comfortable and receive the best care possible.”

A common inquiry that farriers are forced to answer is “does their work hurt the animal.” The answer to this question, dependent on the situation, is no. During an initial checkup or cleaning, the farrier is checking the hooves for dirt and other debris that might be lodged into the hoof itself. When cleaning a horses hoof, it is essential to know the different parts. See the photo below for example. Do you see that “V” shape in the middle of the foot/hoof, also called the frog? Think of that section as the quick of your fingernail. If the farrier hits that part of the hoof with his pick, it would hurt the horse. However, cleaning around the outside of that V is just like cleaning the outside of your nail. Relaxing and painless.

With other aspects of the farriers job, pain is highly dependent on situation and technique. “My motto is less is more,” Matt said. “The quicker I can get what the horse needs on their hoof and spend less time messing with their feet, the better off they will be.” Removing old shoes and putting on new shoes is painless to the animal because, again, the outside of that hoof is not a tender area. Most of the time the horse can only feel pressure for a moment, not pain. However, if an animal is suffering from a disease, like Founders Disease, or has lost a shoe and injured themselves, Matt has to do his best to keep the animal in the least amount of pain possible while providing what it needs. “Sometimes in extreme situations it may hurt or be slightly uncomfortable to the animal to remove the shoe or mess with the tender foot but I do everything that I can to keep them out of pain and comfortable the entire time,” he said.

Although he can have long and hard days, Matt truly loves every aspect of his job. “At the end of the day, I am here for the horse. I love meeting new horses and owners and earning their trust and respect,” he said. “The horse industry is very much a family industry and you have to treat it that way. I take a lot of pride in what I do and I am very dedicated to my clients.”

Matt is currently in his sixth year of being a farrier, third year of being completely on his own. He works for a lot of the horse shows held at the Hunt Horse Complex at N.C. State Fairgrounds throughout the year, including the Hunter Jumper shows. He also contracts with a variety of barns across the state to care for their animals on a routine basis. “I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I would not have found this job,” he said. “It’s my dream. It’s my passion and it’s my life.”

When he is not working with clients horses, Matt can either be found training other animals or welding and molding a variety of items out of horseshoes, including this beautiful mailbox holder shown below. The next time you find yourself at the Hunt Horse Complex for a horse show, be sure to ask if Matt can be found in the farrier building and check out his latest work!