Dave Turner was another farmer who loved his time in the
mountains. It was summer, the field work was caught up, and
he was itchin' to get off the dusty dry flats and into the
cool, green, lush mountains. So Dave gave me a call and said
he had four or five horses to shoe.
The day I headed up into his area I had a car-full. Along
with a few of my kids, my dad came along on this trip. Dad
was raised on a farm himself, and has plenty of his own
tales about livestock. It was through his genes that I
received my love for horses. But the Great Depression had
shown him the value of an education, and he had chosen to
spend his life as a professor.
Now, you understand, there hadn't been any pressure on me to
be a teacher. Really! All the opportunities were provided,
of course. But I wasn't pushed. And for twenty years, my
folks supported me in my choice to be a cowboy.
Being a professor, Dad had the summer off, and the folks had
stopped by to visit us for awhile in Montana. So today, Dad
was in the Suburban with me and the kids, on the way to shoe
horses north of Cut Bank.
I don't know where the conversation had been headed, but Dad
had a thought he was compelled to mention. "You know," he
said, "if you were a teacher, you could still have your
summers off to shoe horses."
My kids just hooted! "Dad?! A teacher?! You've got to be
kidding!" And that was the end of that subject.
We finally got to Dave's place, and I questioned him about
the "four or five head." "Well," he said "I have five head,
but I don't think you can shoe the fifth one." I just
grinned at my kids. Of course we could shoe him. I could
shoe anything with hooves and hair.
The stock was typical 'farmer' horses: only half-broke, and
the other half spoiled. The kind of horses that really make
a shoer work. They couldn't decide whether to lean on me or
pull away. But I'm a cowboy, and I advertise "mules, broncs,
and colts a specialty."
Most times, a shoer's visit is a good time to catch up on
doin's around the country, and I usually work with an
audience. We swapped stories all around while I worked, and
we had the first four horses done just in time for dinner.
I was moving a little slower when we went back out to finish
up. I really hadn't needed that second piece of pie.
Dave was a little worried about that last horse. He told how
his buddy had attempted the job last year. It had been quite
a fight. They'd been upside down and right side up and all
tangled in rope. They'd finally gotten iron all around, but
when the dust had cleared, the horse and the shoer were both
too lame to go to the mountains!
This horse was a good one to ride, Dave said, and he'd
really like to have shoes on him. But it wasn't worth
getting someone hurt.
For me it wasn't a question of if I shoed the horse, it was
a simply a matter of how much gear was involved. My outfit
was well-supplied with ropes, hobbles, straps, halters, and
nerve lines. The last man to try this horse was an amateur -
rough horses were my business. I had enough sense to be
careful, but not enough to quit.
I moved slowly as I began work on the grey's feet. He was
snorty, he was goosey, and I didn't trust his teeth. He
never relaxed a muscle. I had to keep talking, and move slow
so as not to startle him. He made me work to pick up a foot,
then he leaned on me. I was holding up nearly half of his
weight. Through the whole process, the grey was a tightly
coiled spring. Any time I tried to shift his weight off of
me, the horse would pull away and snap his foot back to the
The grey was dangerous. They say ignorance is bliss; if Dave
hadn't been so ignorant, he would have been afraid to ride
him. But I had three shoes on. I'd managed this horse with
sheer finesse, and I was nearly done.
Things deteriorated pretty fast as I worked on the last
foot. I was getting tired and the horse was getting
I eased my hand from his hip down the leg and picked up the
foot to trim and level it. My knees struggled to hold up the
weight which he transferred onto them. A few times there was
a mutual decision between us to set his foot down quickly.
But we were almost done!
The fuse on this horse was slow, but his powder was dry, and
suddenly I was knocked to the ground by the force of his
explosion. I hit the ground crawling to avoid his heels.
There was an explosion of splintering wood and clanging
metal as a hoof hit dead center on the box that held my
I lay in the dirt amidst the nippers, nails, and pieces of
wood that were blown in a thirty-foot radius in back of the
horse. My Dad was quiet. Dave was white. I don't know who he
was more worried about - me or his horse.
I checked myself over to see if I was hurt, and gathered the
scattered tools into a bucket. I stifled the urge to imbed
the claws of my nailing hammer into the grey's forehead,
right between his eyes. The time for gentleness had passed.
I was determined to teach this horse to stand for shoeing,
so I went to my trailer and pulled out a war bridle. With it
I could put pressure on the horse's mouth whenever he pulled
away. Most horses quickly learn to avoid the pain by
standing still. But not the grey. I jerked so hard on the
line that it broke.
There is no question but that horses weren't domesticated
until after rope was invented. My next step was a
half-hobble on his pastern and a rope knotted in his tail. I
started pulling up the slack, planning to pull the foot up
into a handy position and let the tail hold the weight of
the foot while I nailed on a shoe.
But rather than the foot coming up off the ground, his hip
started to drop down. A slap on the butt got the horse
upright again. That's when he began to kick.
He jerked his leg forward then kicked out back as he tried
in vain to reach whatever it was that had a hold of his
tail. When he slowed down, I tried again to pick up the foot
to put in some nails. But the action of his hoof matched the
look in his eye - he was out for blood.
Another trip to the trailer for a rope to cinch his leg up
toward his neck and shorten the travel of his kick.
It's hard to say which one of us was working the hardest.
Sweat was dripping off both the horse and me in about the
same proportion. I was working against his 1300 pounds, and
he was working against the ropes.
With his leg immobilized, at least he couldn't lay on me.
But his foot was at an awkward angle, and I was working
upside down. I could have thrown him all the way to the
ground, but then I'd be working sideways. And I never
figured a horse learned anything on his side.
When I reached under the horse to grab his now-immobile
foot, he pulled it further away from me - and sat right down
on the ground!
We slapped him with a rope. We kicked him in the ribs. We
bounced on his chest. But the grey just lay there and glared
Finally I grabbed his nostrils and pinched them shut. A
horse is strictly a nose-breather and it didn't take him
long to run out of air. With a violent heave he was back on
The horse was starting to weaken!
With my sweaty shoulder against his heaving ribs I leaned
under and grabbed his foot. Laying the shoe on the bottom of
the hoof, I stuck in a nail and gave it a whack. With every
blow of the hammer the horse would jerk, but each successive
pull was less violent.
It took five raps apiece on each of the eight nails, then
twist off the excess. The grey's head was drooping. Another
round with the hammer to tighten the clinches, and he hardly
flinched. Pull the nail-ends down with the clincher, and
dress off the hoof with the rasp, and I was done.
All the fight was gone from the horse as I untied the ropes.
We gathered all the equipment and packed up the ropes. Dave
handed me a beer along with the check. He would go to the
mountains with all five horses this year.
Dad was still quiet as we drove away. It was a couple of
miles down the road before he finally spoke. "You know," he
said, "the next time someone tells you a horse can't be
shod, maybe you shouldn't take it as a personal challenge!"
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