Horse sense

By Megan Lehmann 16 June 2009
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Queensland farrier Tom Driscoll performs a service unchanged through the ages, but his tools of the trade include the best of modern technologies.

In today’s wired world, where the technological landscape is updated hourly, mobile farrier Tom Driscoll practises a craft that predates the industrial revolution.

The tools of his trade are medieval, and the job has changed little in centuries: Tom spends his days hot-shoeing thoroughbreds, trimming the feet of dressage horses and breathing in a heady mix of burnt hooves and forge fire.

“I’m not an office person,” the knockabout 45-year-old says, piling clinching block, hoofing stand, hammers and rasps into an electric-blue ute.

The boundaries of Tom’s “office” extend from his home in Beaudesert, south-eastern Queensland, and across the Gold Coast hinterland.

He has several horses under contract that he re-shoes every four to six weeks. Today he’s been up since dawn. After applying corrective binding to the hooves of a couple of foals, he’s stopped at a lush property outside the quaint hinterland village of Mudgeeraba. There’s a touch of the horse whisperer about Tom as he gently lifts the back leg of an imposingly large chestnut onto a hoofing stand, murmuring as he does so: “Whoa, mate, whoa,” and “Take some weight off, buddy.”

Australian Farrier’s – enhanced by modern technology 

Being attuned to a horse is as vital to a farrier’s work as blacksmithing and veterinary skills. “Farriers are horsemen,” Tom says. “If you’re going to last, you’ve got to have good instinct and a passion for horses. Not for shoeing – for horses.”

The president of the Australian Farriers and Blacksmiths Association, Bob Sim, estimates there are thousands of working farriers in Australia. “It’s the world’s second-oldest profession,” he quips, “and it’s thriving.”

In the late 1940s, with the phenomenal rise of cars superseding horses as the principal mode of transportation, the number of farriers nosedived and apprenticeships fell to an all-time nationwide low of about six or seven.

Since the 1960s, however, a burgeoning horseracing industry and the rising popularity of recreational riding have stimulated a growth in the number of apprenticeships to the point where there are now 50 or 60 new farriers joining the workforce each year.

“Far from it being a dying art, there are a lot more people shoeing horses than there ever were, and a lot more horses around,” Tom says. “But the game hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. They tried gluing on shoes, and zip-up boots, but [they] still come back to nailing them on.”

The most notable improvement in farriers’ work has been the introduction of lighter and more malleable aluminium shoes and implements. “I think the money side of it has taken over,” says Tom, pointing out that an ill-fitting shoe can cripple a horse worth millions of dollars.

Technology is edging its way into the craft. A computer software program – Equinalysis – can identify subtle changes in a horse’s gait before they’re visible to the naked eye, and some farriers in Australia are now starting to use the technology to customise their shoeing.

Tom has never been seriously injured, so he’s able to joke: “It’s a great job – you can go to work every day and you know you’re going to get a kick out of it.”

Tom grew up a “typical bush kid” on a 150 ha grazing property in Leeton, in the Riverina region of southern NSW. His grandfather was a farrier, blacksmith and wheelwright, and his father shod dozens of horses on the property.

In 1980, Tom enrolled in a 12-month pre-apprenticeship farrier’s course at Hawkesbury Agricultural College (now the University of Western Sydney) in Richmond, NSW, studying under Neville Carpenter. “He’s phenomenal,” Tom says. “He’s been a farrier for 60, 70 years; worked on milk-cart and fruit-barrow horses in the old days. He still makes draught-horse shoes for horses in the Royal Easter Show.”

In more than a quarter of a century of shoeing, Tom – a member of the NSW Master Farriers Association – has seen a welcome change in horse owners’ attitudes. “A lot of people won’t let you get knocked about these days,” he says.

Still, he can’t see his sons, Caz, 19, and Kodi, 17, following in his footsteps. “In this game, you need a strong back and a weak head, and they’re too smart for it,” he says, laughing.

Tom finishes the morning with a sweet-natured bay thoroughbred named Pierrot, who has mismatched eyes and, bizarrely, four different-sized feet. The previous owner had neglected the thoroughbred’s feet and Tom estimates it’ll take at least a year to get them back into top condition.

The day has morphed into a 37ºC scorcher and beads of sweat speckle the farrier’s forehead as he fires the forge.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do this job; you’ve just got to have common sense,” he says. “But you get to know the horses and owners well, and that to me is the best part of the job.”

Source: Australian Geographic April – June 2009