Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Farriery: More Than Meets the Eye to Duckett's Blindfolded Shoemaking

“Gotcha!” Farrier David Duckett FWCF used the worst horseshoe he ever made to prove his point: there's much more to forgework than meets the eye. Or was it: "the eyes have it"? His exploits launched a great tale that will be passed through the farrier world and probably cause many a farrier to burn a forearm. In this photo, he's balancing a coffin bone on the end of a pen at "Duckett's Dot". Photo used with permission of FORGE Magazine and Gill Harris (thanks!).
Farriers love to play “Gotcha!” and, as long as there is a laugh at the end for all involved, it is the game of wits that gives us so many of our great “tall tales” in the horse world. Add to the fact that farriers are great storytellers (or story enhancers) and you can see that today’s little story on the Hoof Blog is tomorrow’s legend in countless bars, barns and vet clinics around the world.

Farriers have also been known to master a party trick or two.

Since the story involves the eye-twinkling mischief of farrier educator David Duckett FWCF, you know you’re in for a party trick with a punchline.

Duckett, for the uninitiated, was and is the force behind a paradigm shift in the practice and study of hoof balance. Most people refer to it simply as “Duckett’s Dot”, but what the Philadelphia-area farrier managed to do back in the 1980s was to get farriers to stop looking at the outside perimeter of the bottom of a horse’s foot, and look at a foot as a three-dimensional object that has a center point where ideal hoof width, length and vertical dimensions cross axes. Known as “the dot”, this point was Duckett’s reference; the goal of restorative balance trimming and shoeing would be to establish that dot as the center of weightbearing.

It was so enormous in its simplicity that people have spent 30 years trying to make it as complicated as possible, when the truth is that it is something Duckett developed to make hoof balance easier--not more difficult or more convoluted--to understand.

Can a blindfolded farrier shape a shoe from bar stock, then punch and pritchel the nail holes? (photo courtesy of Dan Etheridge)
Dave Duckett has been living in the USA for 30 years; he returned to his native England for a two-day clinic for Billy Crothers’ Handmade Shoes Ltd. this fall. Master farriers brought their apprentices, who must have wondered what all the fuss was about. But the masters remembered Dave Duckett as their teacher years before at the Hereford Technical College farrier course and felt that their proteges needed to check out what he had to say, even though Duckett’s Dot is now a forgehold word on both sides of the Atlantic.

“It was such a great honor to meet the sons and apprentices of so many of my former students,” Dave recalled.

But did the farriers guess that they would also be entertained?  Before the event, someone dared Duckett that he couldn’t make a horseshoe blindfolded. Which, of course, he did. It wasn’t a beautiful shoe, but he did feel...and apparently didn’t burn himself, either.

On Dave’s mind was his theme for the clinic, which was to be the importance of eyesight to a farrier, and the critical step of wearing safety glasses. In fact, Duckett used his safety glasses to hold on the blindfold, a thick pad of tissue.

Duckett’s description of how he made the shoe include that the hot steel was handed to him, that he used concave so he didn’t have to crease the shoe, and that he used his hammer like his eyes, to feel the shape of the shoe as he forged. He also said he noticed that he raised his head whenever he was sensing the shape of the shoe via the hammer on the shoe's edge, and that that is a natural thing to do when you envision your work...if you're robbed of your sight.

“There are no spare parts for your eyes,” he said at the clinic, as he talked not just about safety aspects of the eyes but also the need for especially good vision. He said that he noticed over the years that not all farriers have the same types of vision. Depth and spatial perception as well as sharpness of vision may enhance farrier skills, he thinks, and super-vision may a shared asset of many of the world's top competition farriers.

“Great skills aren’t enough; you have to have great eyesight, too. It’s like a hawk and a sparrow,” he said. “You need to have the eyesight of a hawk. I think (Grant) Moon and (Billy) Crothers have that type of eyesight.”

Just as important, to Dave, are a farrier's ears. He said he couldn’t shoe if he couldn’t hear the nails going into the foot. He recalled that old timers had always told him that deaf men couldn’t become good farriers because they couldn’t "hear" their nails, and that that was such an important part of a farrier’s ability to shoes successfully.

But when the blindfold was removed and the shoe was cooled, Duckett did something no one expected he’d do: instead of throwing the shoe away, he tossed it in his bag. It was no doubt the worst shoe he had ever made.

During the clinic, Duckett turned his attention to the apprentices gathered in the audience. He said the time had come to discuss how to critique a shoe. An apprentice volunteer was pushed toward the stage. He encountered the closeup, blinkless stare of David Duckett.

Duckett handed the apprentice a horseshoe and asked him how he would evaluate it.

Would the glass be half empty or half full?

In this case, it was pretty empty. Just as most of us would do, the apprentice went through a mental checklist in his head and pointed out all the things that were wrong with the shoe. Duckett listened to each fault the young man pointed out.

Then he took the shoe back and looked at the apprentice again. “Well, who do you think made that shoe?” he asked.

The apprentice shrugged.

“I did,” said Duckett with a dramatic icy tone in his voice.

The apprentice winced until Duckett’s “gotcha” moment arrived after a pregnant pause and he continued, “What would you think of it if you knew I made it...blindfolded?” His eyebrow arched.

It was the apprentice’s turn to look surprised. Maybe that shoe deserved a second look.

Every day, we all see the less-than-perfect way horses are trimmed or shod, the lopsided way shoes are nailed, the sloppy way riders ride, the lackluster way trainers train, the convoluted knot that secures a horse to a trailer, the socks that don’t match, the breeches that aren’t quite white anymore, and the gloves that have holes.

What we see are the defects. Our eyes go to them, our minds dwell on them. We keep score based on the faults, not the merits.

Duckett said that what he was trying to teach the young farrier--and the entire audience--is that judging something begins with what is right, not what is wrong. Don’t criticize someone else’s work, he said, “because you don’t know the circumstances under which they were working.”

You wouldn’t expect anyone to attempt to make a horseshoe blindfolded, but apparently it does happen.

Duckett and the apprentice may have been looking at a horseshoe, but they were actually talking about life.

Next time, Duckett said, he’ll nail a shoe on a horse while blindfolded, too, as long as his ears aren't blocked.

And that’s how legends start.

Pass it on...

To learn more:

Special thanks to Dan Etheridge and Dave Duckett for photos and assistance with this story.

A full account (and a less-embellished version of the blindfold horseshoe legend) of Duckett’s British seminar can be found on the website of British Farriers and Blacksmiths Association (BFBA) web site, from the pages of FORGE magazine, which kindly loaned the photo of Dave Duckett at the Handmade Shoes seminar. FORGE is available in electronic form via the app Yudu, and you can read the full account of Duckett’s British seminar on pages 30-31.

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