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1600 Exposition

A visit to Ye Olde Cal Expo Blacksmith Shoppe

One aspect of history that has long appealed to me is what pertains to manual arts across the centuries. Looking back prior to the Industrial Revolution, say perhaps from thousands of years ago up through the Renaissance, there was a long stretch of time by which basic, everyday necessities were managed all in manual ways. Innovations such as the first printing presses were still manually-driven. A part of horse racing that I find fascinating by result is the work of a shoeing blacksmith, also known around the track as a farrier. The work of the farrier retains many elements of the manual arts that have changed little over time. Perhaps those stoves and coal and woodpiles lit within a stone pit have evolved into propane-fueled boxes resembling toaster ovens, but it's still the same tongs, likely the same two-thousand plus degrees of heat you can literally taste even many feet away from the source, and the same hammering and lifting and filing by rasp, the classic anvil standing at the ready, and all the preparatory work every time. In an era when even your soft drink cup is filled automatically while you sit at a drive-thru window, this is one of those few places where there is a complete lack of robotics. It's not easy work, and unlike that day when a trainer wanted me to experience the work of driving, there was absolutely no way I was going to do much more around the blacksmith's shop than stand back, hold my recorder and a camera, and watch something brave and sure-handed take place from about six feet away.

Larry Goshman has been a farrier for close to thirty years. There are two distinct farrier positions at a full racetrack complex with resident horses and stables. The farriers who work in a position like Larry's, where they see their clients in a shed row, and the job of the paddock blacksmith on race night. The paddock blacksmith has exactly one major job and must be able to do it rapidly. This is the person responsible for providing last-minute replacements if the horse "threw" their shoe while warming up or scoring down, or otherwise came to race without metal beneath all four of their hooves. As for Larry, his involvement in the sport of harness racing has taken him across other areas, such as horse ownership and in years past when breaking into a career as a farrier, acting as that paddock blacksmith earlier mentioned. While acting as one of the popular farriers on the grounds and often having a strong daily workload, he was quick to inform me that the job has certain significant hazards and that one only has to experience them once in order to learn very fast to stay safe. In between pounds on the anvil, Larry was quick to tell me about a rough moment of the past: "Getting stepped on. It hurts! You learn to get out of the way quick."

The horse acting as our subject was Sun On The Rocks. Sun On The Rocks has been with us at Cal Expo for a while and stood extremely well for the project. Getting all the way around on a horse's four hooves takes anyplace from forty to sixty minutes based on the amount of work that needs to be done. After removing the old shoes and tossing them into a growing pyramid of metal, the bottom of the hooves are scraped clean and completely flat. This is clearly of no pain to the horse. It's exactly like trimming one's fingernails and Sun On The Rocks looked, for lack of better words, remarkably bored throughout the affair. The tools are basic and few. Physical labor is the job here. A device that looks like a part of a shoe tree holds the horse's hoof in place as the farrier brings the hoof between their legs to brace. The old shoes are popped off one by one with relative ease. Then, with a rasp in hand, a firm rotating motion pulls off the excess and cleans the area to prepare it for a new shoe. A fair amount of communication between the farrier and the connections of the racehorse occur through time, such as areas of the hoof to cut across or not cut based on personal preference. Some trainers want certain aspects of the hoof left alone Larry juggles numerous requests and styles and preferences: "Some horses get shoes every week, some horses every two weeks, and some horses every three weeks." There is no set prescription for shoeing past the personal preference of a horse's connections. Requests of the farrier also include shoe selection. There are almost a half-dozen styles that accommodate situations a racehorse might face, including the height of their stepping at top speed. Certain shoes will help a high or low stepping horse grab the appropriate amount of racetrack, and rounded shoes assist trotters. It's a new shoe each time. Even still, shoes have a recyclable life. Individuals seeking old shoes for arts and crafts come by from time to time to collect them.

The forge was fired up to twenty-three hundred degrees Fahrenheit in mere seconds and the show was on. After under a minute, the shoe was malleable and easily pounded into a shape based on visual estimation that would match the unique shape of the hoof. It can and often does take a couple tries to get that exact match. Just like our human feet and hands, no hoof is the same. The shoe, in order to provide optimal service to the horse, must match the outer perimeter of the hoof bottom. The common image of a horseshoe and the symmetrical arcing curve is not the final outcome.

The time glided by rapidly. Sun On The Rocks was ready to go and Larry moved forward to get the next horse. Upwards of a dozen times on the busiest days, this procedure is repeated with other clients.

- Leighton Worthey