Monday, September 17, 2012

Hoofcare History: Unravelling the Tangled Past, One Horseshoe at a Time

You'll need a half hour to watch this video. Then you might need the rest of your life to read, research and do your part in documenting the unwritten history of horseshoeing. Thanks to the University of Pennsylvania for videotaping this talk of Pat Reilly, farrier at the University's New Bolton Center.

Horseshoeing history is full of gaps, as Pat Reilly mentions again and again in this talk. It resembles nothing less than a wheel of Swiss cheese. It is full of holes. In fact, it contains more holes than cheese.

Remember that the next time you buy some cheese. Or buy into anyone else's interpretation of the history of horseshoeing.

The Coast Guard employed plenty of
farriers during World War II when US
beaches were patrolled on horseback;
they were looking for German
U-boats. (© US Coast Guard image) 
Part of the problem, of course, is that once you start reading it, you realize that it was written by outsiders looking in. Veterinarians who had a theory to prove, or a position to defend. Intellectuals who considered themselves horsemen, and wrote opinionated tomes on hoof theory that, when read today, invariably get lumped together with legitimate volumes of valuable hoof knowledge.

How many people stop to actually read the old books? Most are satisfied with the drawings and plates, and never read the text. Much of the "wisdom" we quote today was not written by farriers at all, but by commercial promoters or agricultural societies bent on improving horse husbandry by advancing farriery...sometimes without ever consulting a farrier.

Pat Reilly lumps together the history of farriers and the history of horseshoeing and while it seems that the two are flip sides of the same coin, they are both huge and separate subjects. The history of farriers is a metaphor for the history of human labor, and can demonstrate all the industrial phases of mechanization of labor, the social and political side of Labor, and the role and status of the specialized laborer within the military of various nations.

Possibly the first non-military
farrier schools in America
were the "Indian
Schools" like this one in
Carlisle, Pennsylvania. These
Sioux boys were shipped east to
learn to be horseshoers.
The history of horseshoeing, on the other hand, is one and the same as the history of horses and their domestication, and the farrier's status in the horse world mirrors the waxing and waning and ultimate re-invention of the horse's role in western life.

People have poked at building a better horseshoe with the same interest as the cliche of building a better mousetrap: if it could just be done, life would be easier, and the animal would benefit from a kinder device.

But here we are, more than 2000 years from those ancient first horseshoes dug up in Europe, and we're still at it, trying to get to the root of hoof problems in horses.

No archeologist has ever jumped for joy at discovering an ancient mousetrap. But the evolution of the horseshoe is a way of documenting progress across centuries.

We can't see where we're going if we can't see where we have been.

I know a lot of people are interested in farrier history, but yet there are not enough of them. Of you. Of me. If you have read this far, you must be interested.

It's not enough to be interested, you have to have a plan.

Old farrier books are great, but you
need to research the credentials of 
the authors. Figuring out why a book 
was written can be an education 
in itself.
I would caution people not to be like me and charge headlong into trying to learn everything about everything. The holes in the cheese will swallow you up. The files and boxes and notes will pile up in your life and mock you when you look across the room. "You'll never get to the bottom of this," is their taunt. "No one ever has."

So you want to learn about farrier history? Have at it. Pick a hole in the past--any hole, on any continent, in any period of history, in any language--and start researching. Stay in that hole until you fill it in, then move on to another one. But when you fill it in, stop and share it with the rest of us.

Why doesn't anyone know
or care who Jack Mac
Allan was? Where did
his shoes go? Michigan
State doesn't even know
it ever had a farrier
school,or that its Scottish-
import farrier was the
first US shoeing champion. 
There are plenty of holes to go around.

Farriery has no headquarters. It has no library building with ivy-covered walls. The answers we need are not in books, however. The farrier books are just soldiers at the gate.

The answers are buried in the books of military, social and labor history. They're in the patent office records. They are in the town and state historical museums where old blacksmith shops and horse nail and shoe manufacturers' records are watched over by amateur historians who don't even understand what was manufactured in their own towns.

The answers are buried in footnotes and appendices and boxes of clutter marked "unreferenced manuscripts"--boxes that no one has ever asked to open.

I've always wanted to start a Horseshoeing History Society, but feared it would disband before it even started, out of the sheer weight of the mission, or be dismissed by academic historians who purport that there is no way to validate the lost "history" that farriery lacks, just as we are finding it so difficult to come to grips with the oxymoron of "evidence-based farriery".

Why did the World's Fair in
St. Louis have this building
with a horseshoe theme?
But if each of us identified a specific hole and spent time trying to research it and fill it in, we might move forward. It sounds like Pat Reilly has; the fact that he singlehandedly resurrected the  Podological Museum for the University of Pennsylvania is reason to celebrate.

 If academic historians knew about the gaping cheese holes, they might send graduate students our way. And perhaps, one day, farriery might be freed from the curse of cyclically repeating--or prolonging--its past.

If you're with me, claim your hole in the cheese wheel and climb in. Surround yourself. Nourish yourself by studying the solid cheese that does exist. Then jump off the cliff. Pick a date on the calendar and pledge to report back on what you find. You might come back defeated, you might come back haunted by ghosts, you might come back cynical and confused.

Then again, it just might change your life.

No one--and no profession--moves forward without coming to grips with the past. Remember this, too: It's entirely possible that farriery needs to turn its back on the past, to hold a funeral and declare itself once and for all defunct, so that the real future can begin. If that is so, the past might tell us where to go from here.

Click to order now for immediate shipping; it will look great on your wall!
© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing; Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. Please, no use without permission. You only need to ask. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a digest-type email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). To subscribe to Hoofcare and Lameness (the journal), please visit the main site,, where many educational products and media related to equine lameness and hoof science can be found. Questions or problems with this blog? Send email to  
Follow Hoofcare + Lameness on Twitter: @HoofcareJournal
Read this blog's headlines on the Hoofcare + Lameness Facebook Page
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any direct compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned, other than Hoofcare Publishing. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.