If the shoe fits – Farriers on fire
Striking that crucial balance between speed and perfectionism is what earns you respect – and hopefully a blue ribbon – in the Farriers and Blacksmiths competition at the Royal Adelaide Show.
Or so I’m told by seasoned farrier David Cookson, who’s just won the Open Shoeing category.
Assigned an unshod horse and a portable forge, he’s had 65 minutes to turn two straight pieces of steel into a front and hind pair of horseshoes.
The process would normally take two hours.
“It’s very much an art form,” David says.
“The aim is to craft a shoe that perfectly fits the needs of the horse but to do it well under a tight timeframe is what makes it a contest.”
You won’t find electric grinders or mass-produced shoes here.
Competitors make each shoe from scratch, pounding them into shape with a hammer and adding the finer details with metal files, rasps and wire brushes.
They are judged on precision at each stage of the process, from trimming the horse’s foot in preparation for shoeing to the fit of their finished product.
“You’ve got to split one bloke from another bloke somehow – it might just be one little thing, one particular swipe of the rasp that makes the difference,” David says.
It’s hot, hard, noisy work.
The marquee is abuzz with the dull clang of hammers striking steel, the hiss of gas forges and acrid fumes as hot metal presses against hooves.
Competition judge Barry Billingham says keeping the horse relaxed in this lively atmosphere is one of the marks of a good farrier.
“Their hand-eye coordination and time management skills have got to be first class and then their quietness and their sensitivity around the horse plays a huge part,” Barry says.
“You’ve got to have good horsemanship skills to keep that animal calm and happy and comfortable.”
It’s not all about practicality; the Artistic Blacksmithing category tests competitors’ creative flair.
Farrier Dean Lewis takes out first place in this class with a gate hinge he’s decorated with the Southern Cross stars.
“The competitions make you think about how you can improve your work every day,” Dean says.
“And of course the better skilled you are, the better you’re going to serve your clients and your horse.”
Ribbons and prize-money may be nice motivators but, in an industry where word of mouth is king, it’s a winning reputation that most competitors are seeking.
“Blokes who are serious about it are in the shed practising every day,” Dean says.
“We’re a very tight-knit little community and we know nearly everybody’s work.
“You have a skill set that is unique to you and sets you aside from the run-of-the-mill guy that wants to take a shortcut – so you develop that and you get that seen.”
New South Wales farrier Andrew Atkins has driven 13 hours from the Southern Highlands, where he works the rest of the year.
At 23-years old, he’s in the competition for both the experience and the camaraderie.
“I came down for my first Adelaide Royal in 2012 and since then I haven’t missed one,” Andrew says.
“When we’re not competing we go down the back in the shed and drink beers and make shoes and have all good fun like that.”
Andrew’s been burnt, kicked and knocked the end off his finger with a sledgehammer in the lead up to the Show but sees these as only minor drawbacks to the profession he loves.
“It’s a good trade – you’re outside all day seeing different people,” he says.
“You can be sore at the end of the day but I wouldn’t want to do any other job.”
It’s this eager attitude and love for the craft that started the winners’ success and will in turn forge young entrants like Andrew a positive future.
Images: Brenton Edwards