Thursday, March 01, 2012

Silent Anvil: J. Scott Simpson

The late J. Scott Simpson, horseshoeing icon of the Great West, is in the center of this photo, flanked by Danny Ward on the left and Walt Taylor on the right. This was taken at an American Farrier's Association demonstration in 1988. There must have been more than 1000 farriers watching them that day.

I'm writing this while I'm snowbound and icebound in my little house in New England. I should be 1000 miles away in Mobile, Alabama at the American Farrier's Association convention.

Today I found out I'm not the only one who's missing from the annual gathering of the hoof tribe.

Farrier educator, author, entertainer and raconteur J. Scott Simpson of Arizona and Montana has died but it's too soon to know much. All I can tell you is who Scott was. Or is, since his place in the farrier world is not likely to change just because he's not around. He's part of the fabric, the folklore and the family.

Scott was and always will be revered by possibly thousands of people who went through his farrier training courses at Montana State University, Walla Walla State University and his own Northwest Horseshoeing School.

He magnified his effect on the farrier industry by authoring several farrier books, including one of the overlooked classics of all time, The Mechanics of Shoeing Gaited Horses.

I may be snowbound, but I had these two photos of Scott on my laptop's hard drive; they were taken at Diamond Tool and Horseshoe Company's first "Working Farrier Demonstration", held on a big stage at the AFA convention in 1988. I'm not sure why I have them so handy 25 years later, but I'm glad that I do.

Scott was completely at ease--you could always hand him the microphone and he'd take it from there, whether it was at a shoeing demonstration or in the ballroom at night when he'd sing and play guitar.

Scott began shoeing in the 1950s in California; he learned at Ralph Hoover's famous horseshoeing class at CalPoly University in San Luis Obispo, in the class of 1959, along with his long-time friend, Montana's farrier tool wizard, Mike Williams.

A few years ago, Mike and Scott organized a reunion of horseshoers who had been in Hoover's classes between 1959 to 1961, and they managed to pull together 27 graduates and get them to Montana to take a photo.

Scott started teaching at Montana State in the early 1970s and left there in 1983 for a stint at Walla Walla before starting his own school. He wintered in Wickenburg, Arizona, where he seemed determined to play tennis and team rope in spite of repeated operations to replace things like hips--he was perhaps the first bionic farrier. It seemed like he was always in for replacement parts.

He was vice-president of the American Farrier's Association for several years and was an original mastermind of the AFA's certification program. No, he didn't always agree with people--especially people from east of the Mississippi.

But one of the things that Scott gave the farrier world is also the most enduring and most valuable: his simple, catchy "eagle eye" system of using visual memory to recognize five basic hoof shapes--good old Norman, Spike, Tag, Stubby and...well, everyone knows who the fifth one is.

By my records, J. Scott Simpson was 78 years old. In the last email I received from him, he told about his return to the Catholic church after a long absence and how much he enjoyed two perspectives on Catholicism between Montana and Arizona as he traveled back and forth.

I don't know what sort of funeral plans are being made, or where, but people will not just be saying good-bye to a great friend and farrier. They'll be saying good-bye to a legend of horseshoeing embedded so deeply in the great western tradition that his name is as close to a horse-hold word as you can get.

Ralph! That's the fifth shape from Scott's eagle eye discipline for recognizing hoof shape. How could I ever forget? That's how good a teacher Scott Simpson was. He helped me and countless others cut through the clutter at a time when farriery was getting very cluttered, indeed.

They ought to name a hoof shape, and a lot of other things, after our friend Scott Simpson. Not that anyone who ever met him is likely to forget him, ever. Some of us think of him, subconsciously, every time we pick up a foot. And we always will.

--Fran Jurga

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