Garden City Horseshoeing isn't the oldest profession, but it's close.
The modern-day craft gained popularity in Europe before the end of the first millennium, when it became more common to use horses on the farm.
Roman and Chinese soldiers had been outfitting their horses' hooves with animal hide or straps made from leather and metal for centuries before that. The craft, however, hasn't changed much in the last thousand years, or so.
It still takes a red-hot forge, six-to-eight nails and someone who's not afraid to hold a hoof while they shod the fingernail-type feet of the large animals. The practice isn't without its risks.
"A burro jumped and kicked and split my lip and broke my tooth out," Garden City farrier A.J. Griffin said with a grin that reveals a false tooth.
"I won't do burros any more."
The practice isn't without rewards, he said, which is what keeps Griffin and thousands of other farriers like him in business, and keeps the nation's horses working.
For Griffin, getting into the business was a byproduct of his rodeoing.
"I needed a horse shod and couldn't find a horseshoer," he said. "So I put shoes on him, and whether they were right or not, he had shoes on him."
After shoeing horses for a while as an amateur, Griffin spent $4,000 and six weeks at a horseshoeing school in Ardmore, Okla.
"It's the best school in the country," he said. "If anyone's looking for a shoeing career, that's the way to go."
Russ Wiegers, a farrier in the Leoti area and owner of a farrier supply store, said good training and education were keys to choosing a good horseshoer. He estimated there were a couple of full-time farrier's in most western Kansas counties, and plenty more part-timers doing it for side money.
"Experience and a good reputation is a good place to start," Wiegers said. "Look for a farrier that belongs to an organization, and one who's trying to improve his education each year."
Tools of the trade
Wiegers, who has been shoeing horses since 1978, said what had changed the most was the quality in tools farriers had at their disposal, and the variety in shoes. Most American horses can get by with one of three sizes, Griffin said: oughts, double-oughts and ones. Larger shoe sizes would fit horses weighing about 1,300 pounds or more. Racing horses wear aluminum shoes that feel feather-light compared with the iron shoes working horses wear. Griffin uses a hammer and clinchers or a shoe puller on a normal job, and a rasp to file the horse's hoof down to get it even before he fits the new shoe.
It takes him about 15 minutes to shod one hoof with a normal shoe. The fastest he's ever shod a horse is in 30 minutes, he said, but it typically takes about an hour. If Griffin has to fire the forge, a gas-fueled oven the size of a bread box that he keeps in the back of his work trailer, it can take a bit longer. Heating up the forge to 4,000-degrees can take a while, and longer still to keep the shoe in the flame until it comes out glowing red.
Once it does, Griffin slaps it on the anvil with his tongs and gets to work, hammering out the toe clip, a lip in the shoe that can sit in the front of the horse's hoof to hold cracks together. He also can use the forge to put pegs on the bottom of shoes for icy or snowy conditions, or make corrective shoes for horses with bad gaits.
It's that combination of physical craftsmanship and anatomical know-how that makes horseshoeing so unique. But Wiegers and Griffin both say that's not what keeps people away from the business.
"It's a hard business to get into," Wiegers said. "It's hard on your body, and it's demanding."
Out of the people who set out to go to shoeing school, Griffin says, only about 3 percent of them actually go on to become farriers.
"It's a dang-sure lot of work," he said, "but it's fun."
Like any job, Griffin says there are a lot of afternoons where work is the last thing he wants to do after lunch.
For Wiegers, it's become a way of life.
About seven years ago, he realized there weren't any suppliers in the area, so he and his wife, Cathy, started their own supplier, Double Bar One. Their first order was for 500 pounds of supplies. Now, they order between 20,000 and 40,000 pounds of material each year, and their sales have doubled annually, Wiegers said.
And Griffin says it's a business he wants to stay in for a while. "I'll shoe horses the rest of my life," he said. "I don't like somebody telling me what to do, and I get along with horses better than people."