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Monday, May 12, 2014

Badminton's Best Shod Horse: Irish Farrier Takes Home the Worshipful Company’s Plaque

Irish rider Clare Abbott trotted up the 10-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding Euro Prince for the 4* Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials last week. Not only did the horse complete the extremely difficult test in his first outing at the highest level of the sport, he also won the "best shod" prize for his farrier. (Photo courtesy of Professional Riders Organization, used with permission)

Whether it’s the list of those who have shod Kentucky Derby winners, or the list of the farriers behind (or underneath) the “Best Shod” horse each year at England’s Badminton Horse Trials, these are two lists that define the hard work that farriers do, and one of the few times in the year that the horse world notices shoes or shoers.

The Badminton list grew a little longer yesterday when not just a new name was added, but a new nation. Neil Dickson took the plaque of the Worshipful Company of Farriers aboard a plane last night and headed back across the Irish Sea to of County Down, in Northern Ireland.

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Dickson was recognized for his skill in shoeing the 10-year-old Irish Sport Horse Euro Prince, ridden by Clare Abbott and owned by Cormac McKay, who also received a plaque. It was Euro Prince’s first four-star event and it happened in a year that saw many of the world’s top riders not finish at all. Euro Prince and Clare finished 24th out of only 32 riders that were able to complete all three phases, out of 85 who started.

With luck, Euro Prince proved his worth to represent Ireland at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France this summer. And Neil will go along, since the rider is also his longtime girlfriend.
Ireland's Neil Dickson had the honor of winning the Farriers Prize, given by the Worshipful Company of Farriers at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials in England last week. Photo courtesy of Nigel Perrott.
Neil Dickson had plenty to say about Euro Prince. He has shod him since he was four and it was always in the plan that this horse would carry Clare higher and higher in the world standings. And in the back of his mind, Neil knew that when the horse shipped over to England for Badminton, there was a Farriers Prize to be awarded.

The problem with the Farriers Prize, which is awarded by the Worshipful Company of Farriers, is that it is not clearly defined and the judge isn’t publicized, so it is difficult for farriers sending their horses to Badminton to do much about the competition. Instead, they have to keep to doing the best job for the horse to complete the world’s most grueling triathalon-for-horses test. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Euro Prince's award-winning and pleasingly symmetrical front shoe is handmade from concave steel, hunter-fit, with a toe clip. (photo courtesy of Neil Dickson)

Neil said he watched the judge from a distance, believed to be Jim Blurton. He said he didn’t know Jim, or have any idea what he might have been looking for as he picked up hoof after hoof. “I just stood back and let him do his thing,” Neil laughed.

When asked why he thought he won, Neil said he thought that Euro Prince was one of the few horses--and perhaps the only horse--with handmade shoes. “I just kept it simple,” he said of the concave shoes he crafted. “It was a basic hunter fit. I have to say, this horse has the best feet of any that I do. If you were going to do your diploma, this is the horse you’d want to shoe.”

Euro Prince's handmade hind shoe has side clips and is slightly asymmetric in the heel fit. Neil said it was Clare's decision whether or not the stud holes were kept plugged or not and she chooses not to plug them. (photo courtesy of Neil Dickson)
He shod the horse a week out from the competition, on May 1.

Neil Dickson trained in Ayrshire, Scotland with Jim Ferrie. He teased Ferrie on Facebook, “I guess you taught me something!” Neil earned his Diploma of the Worshipful Company of Farriers in 2006. He rides with the hunt at home, but says he doesn’t compete.

"The Plaque" is difficult to photograph.
Jim Ferrie was delighted to hear the news about his former apprentice's success. "Well pleased!" he said in a message on Monday. "Great to see he has maintained and even raised his standards through hard work."

Neil’s sole-proprietor business serves mainly what he calls “happy hackers”, along with about 15 eventers. He said there is not much call for handmade shoes where he lives, and there are few competitions for farriers, so the only horse with handmade shoes around is his own.

But that changed when Euro Prince qualified for Badminton. Neil decided the horse should arrive at the Duke of Beaufort’s stables with handmade shoes. So he set out to make them. But they wouldn’t do. Nor would the next set. Or the next. He made four sets of shoes before he was happy enough with the work to nail them on.

Jim Blurton judging the shoes on a Portuguese rider's horse in 2011. Badminton Horse Trials photo.
The specifications for these shoes are fronts with toe clips, hinds with side clips, all drilled and taps in the heels for studs. The fronts are from ⅞ x ⅜ and measured close to exactly 5 ¼ x 5 ¼”; the hinds were 5” wide x 5 ¼” long.

Neil’s been shoeing Euro Prince for six years and in that time, the horse had never pulled a shoe--until a fortnight before the biggest competition of his life. Neil was very high on Euro Prince, whom he described as “a surefooted wee horse” who was able to get through the demanding cross-country on Saturday that saw 45 horses retired, eliminated, or withdrawn.

The Duke of Beaufort's Hunt Stables are used to house the eventers during the horse trials. The complex contains a working forge, run with great character by Bernie Tidmarsh. (photo courtesy of Nigel Perrott)

Badminton was won this year by Sam Griffiths riding another Irish horse, Paulank Brockagh; she is shod by New Zealand eventing team farrier Andrew Nickalls, who lives in England to be close to the team riders who train there. Andrew won the Farrier Prize at Badminton in 2009 for his shoeing of Vortex, ridden by New Zealand’s Tim Price.

Detail from a painting of Bernie Tidmarsh at work in the forge at Badminton House by Jack Russell, used with permission of the artist's gallery in Chipping Sodbury, near Badminton.
Badminton’s Farrier Prize is one of the best kept secrets in the horse world, but a source of great pride for those whose names are “on the list”. Jim Blurton and Bernie Tidmarsh have each won the prize three times; horses ridden by New Zealanders have won four times since the Horse Trials office began keeping official records of the winners in 1993.

Jim Blurton and Jim Hayter both won it two years in a row, but Jim Hayter was the only farrier to repeat with the same rider/client, Emily Llewellyn. Rider Mary King has won it twice with two different farriers, on two different horses, and under two different names, Mary Thomsen and Mary King.

The winning farriers range in age, background and specialty. Some are eventing specialists, others are not. Two former world champions--Billy Crothers and Jim Blurton--grace the list along with several leading competition farriers for Wales and England.

To learn more:

Read the Worshipful Company of Farriers Conditions of Best Shod Horse Awards.
2013 Badminton Best Shod report (David Smith)
2011 Badminton Best Shod report (Jim Hayter)
2009 Badminton Best Shod report (Andrew Nickalls) Part 1 and Part 2
2008 Report on "Best Shod" Concept (Paul Gordon won at Badminton)
2007 Badminton Best Shod report (Martin Deacon)
2006 Badminton Best Shod (Jim Blurton); Lucy Diamond completes 4-star event

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George Geist said...

This is a great thing for the industry. I'd really like to see something like this get started in USA

Fran Jurga said...

Me too, George. I know of one draft show in California that has done it, and I *think* they still do. I think you should start it!

George Geist said...

Would love too, not sure where to begin on a project like that though.
Would it be better to start at HITS and Devon? Or you think it would work better at some small county fair deal someplace?

Fran Jurga said...

Maybe try an experiment or two or three and see how it goes, with an eye toward developing a program you could promote to a big show?

There's a program for awarding grooms now at a lot of the big shows and it seems to be working, but of course they are at the shows anyway and farriers are not, usually.

Go for it, George!

George Geist said...

I'll think on it. Might need the assistance of some of your superior intellect. Happy St Dunstan's Day!

Fran Jurga said...

Go for it!

And happy St Dunstan's Day to you, too, I had no idea!