Thursday, September 10, 2015

Kiwi Farrier Finesse: What's Underneath the Burghley Horse Trials Best Shod Horse?

Tool and fullered front horseshoe on Best Shod Horse at 2015 Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials
When is a horseshoe more than a horseshoe? When this much work goes into it. This shoe looks like other British-style shoes nailed onto event horses, but it was specially crafted for the winner of the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials last week. Ringwood Sky Boy, ridden by Tim Price, and shod by Andrew Nickalls, won the Best Shod Award from the Worshipful Company of Farriers. This article describes how this horse's shoes were different from the other 60 horses who competed. (photo of Ringwood Sky Boy's front foot courtesy of Andrew Nickalls)
As is becoming a custom, the Hoof Blog's articles about a "best shod" winner at a major three-day event is split into two parts. First comes the announcement, and the inevitable curiosity about whether the best shod horse is also one of the top-finishing horses. That's the easy part, once the winner is announced.

And then a second article details the horse and how it was shod. That information can only be published after the farrier is stalked to his lair, somewhere in the rural countryside of Great Britain (or Ireland, in the case of Badminton for the past two years).

Some farriers are very organized and have photos on hand of the hooves, just in case they win. Most don't. Some have to turn on the headlights and take cellphone photos in dark farmyards, which they kindly do, figuring that Photoshop will do its magic on this end. Even in this selfie age, few farriers ever stop to take photos of themselves, let alone have a photo with the rider or the horse, so it's a struggle to show readers the farrier. But they can always turn the headlights on and send over something. It's traditionally a great surprise, and a delight, both to see what they send and how they send it, as well as to see how the horse was actually shod.

Most of the time, the horses are shod pretty much alike. There's a style of shoeing event horses in the British Isles, and the farriers stick to it, for the most part. How does the judge choose one horse among 60 or 70 that are shod almost identically?

But this time it was different.

As previously announced, the winner of the award was Ringwood Sky Boy, a 12 year old Irish Sport Horse ridden by New Zealand's Tim Price. Price's groom shared the news during the dressage phase, but it wouldn't be until Sunday until we found out that his shoes really work. He finished a close second behind Olympic champion Michael Jung of Germany in one of the most challenging events in the sport.

New Zealand farrier Andrew Nickalls winner of 2015 Burghley Horse Trials Best Shod Horse Award
New Zealand farrier Andrew Nickalls cares for the hooves of Team New Zealand when they compete internationally. He shod Tim Price's Ringwood Sky Boy for the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials last week, and was awarded the Worshipful Company of Farriers "Best Shod" Prize.

The man behind the shoes and hooves of this exceptional horse is Andrew Nickalls. A native of New Zealand, Andrew has cared for the hooves of the New Zealand eventing team horses since 2002. Andrew travels with the team to championships like the World Equestrian Games and Olympics.
Andrew has lived in Dorset, England with his wife Jemimah since 2004; they have Icelandic horses and sheep.

This is Andrew's second "Best Shod" feature in the Hoof Blog. He won the Best Shod award at the Badminton Horse Trials in 2009 with Tim Price's mount Vortex.

Andrew was characteristically low-key about his victory. "Really happy to have won best shod at Burghley this weekend," he said. Burghley is a four-star event, putting it in a class with a handful of other events, such as Badminton in England and Rolex Kentucky here in the United States.

Price's horses have benefited from Andrew's care since 2005. Andrew shoes for both Tim and his wife Jonelle, who finished fifth at Burghley, after being third after cross-country. Both have represented New Zealand at international events. "Tim and Jonelle Price are great people to shoe for, because they always make it easy for me to do my job to the best I can," Andrew said. "I'm very lucky to shoe some top-end event horses and all the riders I shoe for make my job so much easier."

Ringwood Sky Boy hind horseshoe made by Andrew Nickalls
On the hind foot, the creasing does not extend around the toe; this is termed a "three-quarter fullered" shoe. This uncreased portion is called a "safe toe". If you look carefully at the ground surface, you will see that the shoe is flat in the fullered section. Inside the crease, the shoe surface recedes from the ground. It's probably never been tested in research, but the purpose is probably to aid with acceleration on soft ground. The overall coverage of the foot is the same as with a full flat shoe, but the subtle mechanical aspects of the shoe add functionality. The extra stud hole is explained below. (photo of Ringwood Sky Boy's hind foot courtesy of Andrew Nickalls)

"I've shod Ringwood Sky Boy for many years now, ever since Tim has had him," Andrew shared, adding that the gelding's barn name is Oz. He confided that the horse has very straight-forward feet to shoe. "I can't even tell you when he last lost a shoe!"

What did the judge see in this horse's feet that made it stand out? More than 60 horses' feet had to be lifted and evaluated. Only one could win.

Ringwood Sky Boy's shoes were handmade, and even the steel bars that were used were customized, through a farrier process called "tool and fullering".

"This horse has great feet so can easily take strong shoes like this," Andrew said.

British event horses are traditionally shod with a "full crease" shoe. The crease extends from heel to heel and the nail holes are punching in the crease. There are three ways that you could present a horse shod British-style for eventing. First, you could buy the shoes already made, sometimes even with side clips punched and stud holes drilled. Just add nails.

In a more ambitious second situation, or if the horse required it, the farrier could cut a section of creased concave bar stock and make the shoes by hand, then finish the heels, punch the nail holes and clips, if used, and drill and tap the stud holes.

This is a tool block similar to the one
used by Andrew, courtesy of British 
farrier Nigel Fennell, who makes them.
Hot square steel is pressed through the
groove, which reshapes it so the shoe's
ground surface can be multi-level, with
a thin bearing surface but adequate 
coverage, support and protection. Many
shapes can be forged with different
blocks for front, hind and special
The most ambitious way to get a creased shoe onto an event horse's hoof would be to transform a piece of straight, square steel. The farrier inserts a block into the hardy hole of the anvil called a tool block or, in American terms, a swage or swedge block. This is how racehorse shoes were made on US racetracks for many years, although with much lighter steel than an event horse requires.

The effort level is akin to deciding to have fish for dinner...and going out and catching the fish first.

Hot steel pressed through the block changes the square shape on the side of the steel that will meet the ground. Farriers have a choice of blocks for different dimensions of steel and different shapes of the groove to alter the angle of the steel. Andrew used a block made by Nigel Fennell of Foreman Tools in England.

Irish Sport Horse Ringwood Sky Boy and rider Tim Price of New Zealand put the handmade tool and fullered horseshoes to good use at the Burghley Horse Trials, and came close to winning. They finished in second place. Price's wife Jonelle finished in fifth place on Classic Moet, also shod by Andrew Nickalls. (Rolex photo by Kit Houghton, used with permission)

Once the entire length of steel has been "tooled" to the new shape, the shoemaking process begins. The farrier uses a creaser, called a "fuller" in the United Kingdom, to make the crease. For the front shoes, that crease goes from heel to heel.

Finally, the farrier adds nail holes, which sit inside the crease, and the clips. The stud holes will need to be drilled and tapped, as well.

If you ever watched a farrier make a tool and fullered shoe, you might wonder, "Wasn't the Industrial Revolution supposed to make all this obsolete?" But, they still do it. In Great Britain, in fact, farriers are required to master the process as part of the upper level examinations in shoemaking for the Worshipful Company of Farriers.

A farrier doesn't need to know how to tool and fuller, anymore that you need to know how to make pasta from flour and eggs, or to knit your own mittens. But when you do it, and do it well, the results are special.

To Andrew, tool and fuller shoeing is more than something he needs to know for a test. "Most shoeing competitions in the UK will have a hunter class. You'll have to make tool and fuller (shoes)." 

In 2013, Andrew Nickalls competed for New Zealand at the Calgary Stampede's World Championship Blacksmiths' Competition for farriers and made it to the individual top ten, or semi-finals. This short interview, hosted by UnbridledTV's Susan Kayne, gives insight to Andrew's "can do" attitude toward his profession--and life.

"To make and fit them is a real skill and tradition of our craft," he continued. "Farriers who make them will have blocks that they've changed and used for years. My first block came from Gary Darlow,  then over the years I've gotten others, which make wider or narrower sections, from my good mate, Steven Beane."

On the hind shoes, the double stud holes on the outside are for "just in case" situations. Sometimes studs break or threads in the hole foul. A spare hole means that a stud can always be inserted into that shoe, in case a farrier is nowhere to found.

"Shoeing is best kept simple and done right; that's when a farrier's skills are at their best," Andrew stressed. He said he had really enjoyed his time with the New Zealand team, and was looking ahead, hopefully, to more.

Why put this much effort into shoeing a horse? As it turns out, Andrew lost a bet on how Tim Price's horse Wesko would do in the USA, at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in April. The penalty was having to make tool and fullered shoes for Ringwood Sky Boy. Who would have guessed that his penalty shoes would turn out to be prize-winning shoes?

To learn more:

Part 1 of this story: Burghley Best Shod Horse: Who Won the Worshipful Company of Farriers Prize?
Forging skills: Tool and fullered hunter hind calk & wedge shoe video from Mustad with Grant Moon
Kiwis Trot Off with Badminton's Best Shod Horse Award for 2009

Thanks to Jim Quick for consultation, to Nigel Fennell and Foreman Tools for photos and to Susan Kayne for permission to use the video of Andrew Nickalls.

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