Friday, June 10, 2011

Getting to the Belmont Stakes one hoof at a time

Joining Post University equine students for some trimming!
Twelve of the U.S.'s elite Thoroughbreds will race this weekend at the 2011 Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in New York. Each of them has earned this right with the help of a team of skilled professionals who have worked together to raise, train, and condition them for this final leg of the Triple Crown.

The horse is a natural-born, gifted athlete. But the elite Thoroughbred racehorse is a wonder in itself. While this animal is bred and born for speed, it still takes a team of skilled professionals to turn it into a stakes-winning competitor.

The owner, trainer, groom, and exercise rider prepare the athlete for the race. The jockey and the horse run the race together. But back at the stable, a veterinarian and farrier have also brought their knowledge and skills to the team.

Without strong legs and hooves, that natural-born athlete just won't make it to the top. Especially hooves. Keeping the racehorse's feet in shape is no easy task, and the farrier who can do this is a master of the craft.

I bought my first professional-quality hoof nipper in 1987. For the uninitiated, this is a cross between a hardware-store hand tool and a precision surgical instrument. It's designed for the expert removal of precise bits of very hard horn from a horse's hoof in the interest of maintenance.

Little did I know that this purchase (it cost me less than $100 at the time because it was rebuilt) would be the beginning of a lifelong obsession. The knowledge and skills that I have acquired, and the equipment used to apply them, is a collection that has grown ever since.

Several years after that purchase, I began studying farriery -- the art, science, and craft of shoeing horses -- with William Winchester, CJF. Bill was a brilliant farrier who was so kind as to share his knowledge and experience with me. I was the only student he ever had, and am proud to call him my mentor. His words of guidance echo in my head to this day, though he is long gone.

Shoeing and hoof trimming (a component of horseshoeing that stands well on its own) are skills that have traditionally been taught through apprenticeship. We learn from a mentor, we venture out on our own, and we add to what we know and can do through practice and further training. In time, we take on a protégé or two, or more, and pass the torch to the next budding professional.

In fall 2009, Post University offered a short course called "Introduction to Hoof Care" for the first time. We learned very quickly that this overview of the subject was not going to be enough! Some students in the class were immediately hooked by the material, to the point where we knew we would have to expand our program to include professional hoof care courses.

Last month, two students graduated from our Equine Business Management Program with a concentration in Hoof Trimming. They met the trimming challenge head-on, and in the process took their own torches to carry forward.

One of these graduates said to me on the last day of class, "This program takes you so far out of your comfort zone on the very first day, that there's really nothing else to do but go along."

On that first day, the students were forewarned that this is a profession that is one part art, one part science, and one part blood and guts (mostly your own). The investment begins at the very beginning, spending a sizable chunk of money on professional-quality tools. The students have no idea what to do with these tools, but are assured that they will never regret the cost.

Every day in class, and every day at work as long as we practice, is physically demanding, risky to both horse and human, and for some reason absolutely compelling. By the time they had completed all the concentration courses, my protégés had taken their first steps as professional hoof trimmers.

This experience is, of course, why I became a teacher to begin with. What is so curious to me is that I am not teaching some academic subject that I learned in a giant college lecture hall. This torch being passed to these students has been burning for centuries, and has been passed through one pair of hands at a time. Bill and I will both be honored when these students become mentors in their own right, and pass the torch again.