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Shoeing heavy horses in England

Note: this article was originally published in Hoofcare & Lameness in 1994 was accompanied by beautiful old and new photographs of Suffolk Punch and Shire horses.

Before we discuss shoeing the heavy horse for today, it would be beneficial to look back over the last 50 years to see how things have changed. Of course, the biggest change must be the numbers of heavy horses shod for agricultural and commercial use. The attitude towards shoeing heavies was different as they were the 'bread and butter' of many forges and a necessary part of the income. As cart horses were replaced by mechanisation, forges either had to adapt to modern change or close down. Unfortunately, many closed down. With regard to the Farriers' work the change to mild steel from traditional wrought iron made the forging harder work as iron was much easier to work, also as the amount of horses being shod decreased, so shoe making became a one-man job rather than the fire-man/doorman combination which lightened the work load considerably. In many forges where a lot of shoeing was carried out it was often two doormen to one fire-man.

In forges where a fair amount of shoeing was done, it was usual for them to make shoes for stock, as a varied stock of shoes ready made up was a great asset when busy. The fire-man made the shoes assisted by the doorman using the sledge-hammer. This took the hard work out of shoe-making. The doorman's job was not only to assist in shoemaking, but to remove the old shoes, dress the feet, nail on and clench up; thus you can see the work load was less than one man doing the whole job alone.

The fore shoes were usually made from new bar iron, the hind often made from 'doubles' - that is old shoes doubled over and welded in the fire and forged into new shoes. These were considered far harder wearing than new iron.

In forges where only one man was at work, machine-made shoes often took over from the hand made, and up to the early fifties many varieties were available. There is no doubt the nails were also of a better quality than the larger size available today. The farrier of yesteryear also had a larger variety of bar iron to choose from, i.e. 1 "x 1/2", 11/8" x 1/2", 11/8" x 7/16", 11/4" x 1/2", 11/4" x 5/8", 11/2" x 5/8", etc. Thus shoes could be made for every job or occasion.

So, how does shoeing the heavy horse today compare with 50 years ago? We first need to consider the role of the heavy horse in the 1990s - of course, there are still some working on the land, some in town work and a few engaged in the forestry industry. Many are used for promotional work and showing in harness, but the majority for breeding and showing in hand. The horse that was worked hard and regularly was seldom difficult to shoe as they were, in the main, handled by people who knew their job and not influenced by the 'gentle-giant' syndrome we know today. So, perhaps, the most difficult job is the actual shoeing of the horse.

Heavy horse shoeing is hard work but is made a lot harder by horses that have never been taught to stand and have their feet handled. If a farrier's first introduction to shoeing a heavy horse is to be thrown about, then there is no wonder many men refuse to shoe them. However, some horses, particularly Shires, especially if they are 'itchy', are made difficult by getting hold of the hair to lift the hind feet. It is far better to pull the foot up with the claw of the hammer then grab the toe.

Unclenching can be made easier by taking the foot forward onto a stool, and even knocking a few nails back with the buffer before starting to pull off. Again using pinchers with large jaws makes the job easier.

The toeing knife is a useful tool for heavy horse shoeing, the best ones are made from about 16" of old sword blade ground sharp on one end, and in the hands of a skilful doorman will reduce the wall to a level where the use of the rasp will be hardly necessary. A singe on with the hot shoe will afford a level bearing surface.

It would be a pity of the skill of using a toeing knife fell into disuse, as in the right hands it can save a lot of work, but it needs practise. If a farrier is shoeing heavy horses then at least a 14 oz. hammer is necessary for nailing-on and more important for drawing up prior to clenching up. The fireman requires a 21/2 to 3 Ib. turning hammer for shoe making and two or three pairs of tongs for holding the steel. Heavy tongs are not necessary as they are no stronger than light ones, it is a matter of balance, and no-one can make good shoes if the steel cannot be held properly.

Stamps and pritchels must also conform with the size of nails used, say a 10 or 12 will be adequate for everyday work. It seems a pity that today the bobpunch has taken over for clipping shoes.

How a shoe was clipped was the trade mark by which many farriers were recognised. I still think nothing looks better than a well drawn clip strong in its base and thinning towards the tip. Drawing a clip with a crosspein or ball-pein taught the apprentice a valuable lesson, that is hitting the material in one place, as noone can make a clean shoe until this has been mastered.

It is said a good tradesman can work with any kind of tools. This is nonsense. To do good work, one needs good tools as well as the skill to use them. I am in no doubt that the apprentice benefits by learning to make a good clean plain stamped shoe, well balanced in shape, nail holes spaced and pitched correctly, heels nicely trimmed and a neat hand drawn clip. This is nothing special, but it is the foundation of all shoe making.

We will now discuss the types of shoeing with regard to the heavy horse. I have noticed in shoeing competitions there are very few indication of what type of work the horse is doing. Now that we are losing our experienced cart horse men, I feel that judges of shoeing competitions will, in some cases, have to broaden their knowledge.

Let us start with shoeing the horse for agricultural work. In most cases these horses are shod far too long and heavy. We need to appreciate the type of work done by the horse.

Often it is practical to work a horse in wet, sticky conditions as they would not make as much mess as a heavy tractor. Therefore the horse is best shod with a light shoe that would last at least six weeks. The horse can be shod slightly longer than the last bearing surface of the foot and any shoe protruding must be well boxed to the foot. I like the inside branch of the hind shoe narrowed about a third of the width, and well safed off. Often if the horse is used as a furrow horse and walks in a 9" to 10" furrow they are apt to brush if this precaution is not taken.

Not only do we have to safeguard the horse from standing on his own shoes but many horses on farms are worked as pairs or triples so this increases the chances of pulling a shoe off. Also if a shaft horse in a vehicle needs an extra pull then a trace horse is hooked on the front. If they are turning in tight stackyard then there is a chance of the shaft horse standing on the trace horse's heels.

In parts of the Eastern Counties it was customary to forge twisted wedges on both heels of the hind shoes for grip and support. If there is a doubt about the benefit of setting the horse up behind, one only has to look in a stable with a line of horses at rest. In most cases the horses will stand with the toes in the drainage channel with the heels elevated.

The main problem with farm horses that do not 'wear' their shoes, is the length of time the shoes are left on. This can cause the same problems as for any other horse. In some cases horses doing land work can be shod in front only, or in some cases, no shoes at all. As an unshod horse loses a lot of draft power, if heavy work is undertaken then shoeing is essential.

Shoeing is best undertaken before the horse becomes foot-sore, especially colts first put to work, as this can, of course, make them troublesome when it is not their fault.

To end on an interesting note, my mentor, as a young man, contracted to shoe farm horses at 13 shillings and 6 pence (671/2p) per year. To make this viable, shoes were taken from his Uncle's town forge as the half-worn shoes were plenty good enough for land work.

The town horse requires another style of shoeing as their work is different to the farm horse. Again it is beneficial to the wear and tear if the shoes will withstand a months work without wearing out, whilst not being too heavy. These horses can be shod a lot longer than the farm horse. Of course, the shoes can be well boxed to prevent treading them off. It can be said that in some cases these horses are shod too long, and can cause a shoe boil. This can be prevented by shortening and spooning the inside heel that does the damage.

I like a wide bold toe on the front shoe, the toe can be rolled slightly to help the brake over, as most cart horses are pigeon-toed, the clip can be drawn a little to the outside as this makes him look a little better. As most wear in the hind is taken on the outside toe quarter, then a shoe with plenty of width in that area will help with the wear. If the shoe is driven across the foot in the act of draft, then a strong quarter clip will help with the wear. The toe clip can be drawn a little to the inside as this will complement the front feet.

I like to see a cart horse standing on his shoe well under hemmed. This must be taken into consideration when stamping the nail holes and fitting the shoe. The feet should be dressed leaving a little more foot than the farm horse, but trimmed for balance and comfort of the horse. With regard to no-slip devices, I prefer two plug studs in each shoe, one in each heel quarter. I have bought horses off the streets that have been shod with four prominent studs in each shoe, it may stop them slipping but the effects on the joints are far too traumatic. Often these horses benefit by pulling the shoes off and given a run on a water meadow for 6 months, 'Doctors Time & Green'.

We will now discuss the shoeing of heavy horses for the show-ring. With regard to shoeing these horses, there is a lot of hot air about how they should be done, often from men with no experience. Here we can have something of a problem. The horse owner thinks he knows how the horse should be shod and the farrier says he knows best and is not willing to compromise.

As a young man I was very lucky to have worked on a farm where top quality heavy horses were shown. This enabled me to not only work with a good stud groom who could feed a horse and show one as well, but also the benefit of helping a first class farrier, who took a great interest in preparing a horse for the show ring. Here again we have the situation of two people working as a team. A good farrier to shoe the horse and a good stud groom to show it.

Often the farrier is blamed by the owner or groom when the horse throws his feet whilst giving his 'show'. In a lot of cases this is because the person showing the horse has never properly learnt their craft, as many horses will appear to go straight if properly paced and shown. It is all a matter of homework. I like to watch my own horses that we show run out by someone else - this way one can judge at what pace the horse goes best. Some horses that are pigeontoed and are inclined to dish, do in fact appear to move straight at a certain pace.

Again we find horses that are in natural condition move straight but once brought up to show condition this exaggerates faults in stance and gait. Having a horse in top condition and keeping his feet and legs right is certainly another element of the art of showing heavy horses.

So how should a heavy horse be shod for the show-ring? This is a matter of good management as if the horse is to have sound feet he must be prepared well in advance. At the end of the showing season I am a great believer in pulling off the shoes and trimming the feet prior to a run at grass, preferably on some moist low meadow. Too often we see horses left with their shoes on, the shoes become loose and the horse pulls them off, often breaking large chunks out of the wall and putting the feet in a state of imbalance. The horse should be trimmed again during the rest period and as soon as he is brought up a set of light shoes should be put on.

It must be remembered if a horse has run barefoot for a time it is probably a month before his feet start to show even the smallest signs of growth, so shoeing early is important if we are to have strong feet for the forthcoming show season. I will, at this point, say that I do not approve of the long feet beloved by some Shire exhibitors and judges. To me a strong foot needs to be deep in the heel, short in the toe with bold quarters with bars left strong. With Suffolk and Percheron horses the foot conformation is certainly different and needs another style of shoeing and light as possible.

The secret of keeping feet strong and sound is the way the shoe is holed, fitted and, of course, nailed on. The shoe should be nail-holed for the type of shoeing and foot conformation, thus the nails are stamped to correspond with the white line - you are then sure of nailing through the thickest and strongest part of the wall.

With regard to the pitch of the nail holes, I find that the 'competition' type of shoe where the nail holes are stamped fine, but pitched to correspond with the slope of the wall never seem to keep the feet strong and often we find the heel nails sheared off on the shoes foot surface. The cause is usually the amount of expansion in these type of feet, whereas if the nails are stamped coarse and straight this very seldom happens. Also with coarse nail holes one can box the shoe up well to the foot and if under-hemmed with the rasp when clenching up, will give the appearance of the horse standing on his shoes. The hind shoes need to be narrowed up slightly on the inside branch. This should be well hot rasped to give an almost rounded edge.

I always advise owners, especially if the horse goes on the road, to occasionally take the rough edge off with an old rasp. This helps the horse, if a Shire to keep his feather, as it is surprising how they will shave themselves if the shoes inside edge is sharp. I like the outside branch thickened to encourage the horse to keep his hocks together. If he is inclined to turn his toes out, then fit the clip on the inside of the middle line. if the horse is a bit sluggish in his hock action, then fit the shoes with plenty of length, it certainly will make a difference.

Some people are critical of shoeing a horse with bevelled shoes for the show-ring, saying that it serves no purpose. If one is preparing the horse for the showring a set of bevels, in my opinion, puts the icing on the cake, and if carried out by a good craftsman is almost an 'art-form' in shoeing. The main purpose of bevels is to either exaggerate a good foot or help to enhance a poor one. The bevel should be to the angle of the hoof wall, exaggerated at the heels and well boxed to the foot. It is important to shoe a good length, especially the outside heel which can be slightly donkeyed, if required to give more appearance of width at the heels.

Again with the fore-feet, the clip should be positioned to make the horse stand square. Of course, it is important to have the feet trimmed and balanced before the shoe is fitted. If the nail-holes are stamped coarse enough then the shoe can be fitted slightly wider than the foot. It is surprising how the feet will pull out when the shoe is nailed on and drawn up. If a horse is shod light and prior to the show shod with heavier bevels, this will exaggerate his action.

Whilst some Judges, especially of Shire in-hand classes, continue to put horses with long or oversized feet at the top of the line, this practice will carry on, but there must be some compromise. I am not in favour of bevels on horses competing in harness classes, but a plain shoe, well boxed to the foot, a 'semi-bevel', will suffice.

So, to try and sum up the Heavy Horse shoeing scene today, I would think the most difficult thing for some horse owners is to get the horse shod. It is a pity that although heavy horse shoeing competitions are so well supported, not many of these men would shoe one heavy horse in a normal days work. Many men seem to think cart-horse shoeing is a daunting task which it can be on ones own, but, working as a team can be very satisfying. It has given me a great deal of pleasure over the years to see a red ribbon given to a horse that I have shod.

Roger Clark is a fellow of the Worshipful Company of Farriers and a member of the Examinations Board. With his wife, Cheryl, he runs a shoeing forge and farms using heavy horses. Together they have been prominent in showing heavy horses, both in-hand and harness classes for the past 25 years. Roger is a Panel Judge for the Shire; Percheron; and Suffolk Horse Societies, and is past President of the Suffolk Horse Society. For relaxation Roger turns to hunting. He was joint Master/Amateur Huntsman of the Essex and Suffolk Foxhounds for three seasons until 1992 when, along with Cheryl they founded The East Anglian Bloodhounds. The pack consists of 11 couple of hunting hounds, 3 couple of unentered hounds and 3 couple of puppies, which are all kennelled at home on the farm. Naturally, Roger and Cheryl are joint Masters, with Roger as Huntsman and Cheryl as Quarry Master.

This article originally appeared in Hoofcare & Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science and is available for your personal use only. Re-publication is prohibited without the express written permission of Hoofcare & Lameness.

Detailed information on this and many other hoofcare topics can be found in Hoofcare & Lameness publisher Fran Jurga's award-winning guide to hoofcare, "Understanding the Equine Foot".  

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