Saturday, April 28, 2018

History on the Hoof: Who Shod Dan Patch?

Who was the farrier for harness legend Dan Patch?

It doesn’t seem like a holiday, but there it was, noted on the calendar. “Dan Patch born this day, 1896.” I wondered, "How many people know who Dan Patch was?" And then I remembered that I've been meaning to write about his farrier.

Welcome to the story of the greatest horse you’ve probably never heard of.

Hoof Blog story by Fran JurgaDan Patch was not only a famous (and undefeated) racehorse; he was America’s first superstar of sports. Before Babe Ruth, before Knute Rockne, and before Muhammad Ali, the rituals of stardom were defined by a horse. One horse. Every imaginable product and conveyance--from chewing tobacco to a railroad line--bore his image and name.

Dan Patch paved the way as well for racehorse stars to follow, such as Man o' War and Seabiscuit. But not even those two famous Thoroughbreds could match the fame of Dan Patch.

But Dan Patch wasn’t a Thoroughbred. He wasn't a trotter, either. Dan Patch paced.  He couldn't or wouldn't trot.

Dan Patch is remembered for the crowds he attracted, his blazing speed and the records he broke--many of which he had set himself. He is also remembered for having legs and feet and horseshoes that were almost as famous as he was. President Theodore Roosevelt treasured his framed souvenir Dan Patch shoes.

Early days
Dan Patch was born on April 29, 1896 in Oxford, Indiana. He suffered from a deformity in one hind limb that would define his course in life. He had to be held upright in order to nurse. He did not appear to be destined to become a racehorse and was used as an ordinary delivery horse instead of being sent to train for the track.

He finally got a chance to race when he was four years old, and he prepared for his racing career by pulling a sleigh on the road the winter before. The two-minute mile for pacers had just been broken, and Dan Patch started shaving fractions and then whole seconds off that milestone.

Ren Nash was Dan Patch's longtime horseshoer or farrier.
Dan Patch was shod for most of his career by R.E. "Ren" Nash, who moved to Minnesota to live
on the Savage Stock Farm with the famous horse. Ren invented shoes for Dan Patch and other trotter and pacer champions. Interference problems were his specialty. (Image from Grand Forks Evening Times)

Soon, no one was willing to race a horse against him. For years, he raced against only the stopwatch in exhibitions, and continued to lower the world record.

Fixing the cart before the horse
But the horse was complicated. While interviews claim that he had perfect conformation, his trainer and horseshoer had to deal with interference problems. His trainer had a special sulky built for him that was wider than normal, so he wouldn’t hit it. With a conventional rig, his leg would hit the axle, or even the spokes of the wheel. The horse kept on going.

The trainer knew that one of two things was going to happen: either the horse was going to get his foot caught in the wheel, and be badly injured, or else the horse was going to hit the wheel hard enough to send it flying right off the cart. The driver, other horses in the race, or spectators might be killed.

His interference problems were legendary and it took special shoes -- of several types, over the years -- to keep him from hitting himself.

But what about those shoes?

souvenir Dan Patch horseshoe
A souvenir shoe from the 100th anniversary of "Dan Patch Days" in Minnesota is supposed to be a fac simile of the horse's shoe, which did feature a long continuous calk from toe to heel, and a trailer.

Dan Patch’s first owner/breeder, Dan Messner, began shoeing the colt with light five-ounce shoes with trailers. The theory behind trailers is that they modify the timing of the foot on the ground. His early shoes are credited to Guy Taylor in Indiana, who promoted himself as practicing “scientific horseshoeing”, perhaps in homage to famed horseshoer William Russell of Cincinnati.

In fact, Russell wrote about and illustrated Dan Patch's unusual shoeing in the 1907 edition of his book, Scientific Horseshoeing.

Dan Patch traveled in style in a custom railroad car
In 1904, Dan Patch traveled in style, in his own stately custom-built railroad car staffed by grooms dressed in white. Notice the Taj Mahal-like dome of the Savage Stock Farm's famous horse barn behind him. (Public domain photo)

Another farrier credited with fixing Dan Patch's problems was Thomas Eleazor Fenton in Pine Village, Indiana. He was known in the harness horse circles as "the blacksmith of last resort" and may have been the first to add the extended outside calk or rim to the shoe.

Some accounts describe Dan Patch having his toes cut very short, and his heels elevated by "high-heeled shoes".

As expected, many people claim to have shod him once he became famous but the horseshoer who receives most of the credit is Richard Earl “Ren” Nash, who was the farm horseshoer of the horse’s ultimate owner, Richard Savage, in Minnesota. Savage built his lavish stock farm with a covered training track, a barn described as the "Taj Mahal" for horses, and included a house for Nash on the property.

J.F. Hanson horseshoer for Dan Patch Allentown PA
J.F. Hanson also claimed to be Dan Patch's horseshoer. He was quoted in the Capewell Horse Nails ad in the International Horseshoers Magazine of the International Union of Journeyman Horseshoers in March 1906.

Nash had a solid reputation for shoeing champion racehorses, including Dan Patch's sire, Joe Patchen. According to the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Evening Times, "He has shod more world's champions than any other man alive or dead."

While early hind shoes made by Nash for Dan Patch were described as having extremely high heels, later shoes featured a severe calk or outside rim extending from toe to quarter. The front shoes had three calks. 

Harness horse shoes from 1915 edition of Care and Training of Trotters and Pacers included two shoes attributed to champion Dan Patch

This collection of trotting and pacing shoes was featured in the 1915 edition of  Care and Training of Trotters and Pacers, compiled by Arthur C. Thomas and William H. Shields.  Two shoes are labeled as related to Dan Patch. First, #7: "The three-calk pacing shoe. This is a good shoe for a bold, high-going paver; the calks minimize the concussion and the toe rim furnishes a firm foothold. This is the style of shoe worn by Dan Patch in all of his fast miles." (The authors) and #11: Hind pacing shoes. This hind shoe, like the Style 7 front shoe, is for use on a bold, high-going pacer. The toe grab runs down the outside pretty well and if the foot is properly dressed, the grab prevents a horse from going over to the opposite quarter and cross-firing. This shoe was worn by Dan Patch in his trials against time. When the horse has a long sloping paster and the low heels which usually go with it, it is advisable to use a long high side-calk on the outside heel or else let the toe grab follow the outer edge of the shoe all the way to the heel."(The authors)

According to the interview with Nash in the Evening Times, each of the colt's shoes weighed exactly five ounces. "The corks which I make one-eighth of an inch high are of the finest tool steel and are brazed on at toe and heel...I always shoe him for each exhibition and to protect his feet he wears a leather pad under each shoe." Nash admitted that it took many months to figure out how best to shoe the horse.

According to the reporter, Nash took a piece of steel at random from his shop and made a shoe for him. Then he put it on the scale; it weighed precisely five ounces, within 1/32 ounce. "I've got money that says I can make up a shoe from wrought steel quicker and come nearer to a given weight than any man living." No one took his bet.

Later in his career, Nash penned an article for The Crow Bar, a horseshoeing periodical of the day. He stated his philosophy of working with horses’ feet. He believed that everything stemmed from the care a horse received early in its live.

Minnesota's Archie Florence is mentioned as having been horseshoer to Dan Patch
Minnesota horseshoer Archie Florence was mentioned as someone who shod Dan Patch; this photo of him appeared in The Garage Dealer magazine in 1921.

About Dan Patch, Nash wrote, “I was familiar with Dan Patch (1:55 ¼) from the time he first came to (trainer) M.E. McHenry until he ended his career on the track in 1909, shoeing him for practically all of his great miles.

“When he came to McHenry, he was a very hard horse to keep from hitting his arms. As is well-known, he was an extremely wide-gaited pacer behind, having an outer swing in his stride and using a sulky with wheels 56 inches apart.

three-calk harness horse front shoe by Henry Asmus, Cornell vet school
In harness racing lore, this shoe is linked
to Dan Patch's front feet. It's called a "3-
calk shoe", for obvious reasons. This one
is from the Cornell University vet school's
shoe collection, made by Professor of
Horseshoeing Henry Asmus. Ren Nash
describes the braised calks as being "made
of finest steel". (Photo courtesy of Michael
Wildenstein photo archive)
“He could never go in a low sulky, as he would hit his hocks, especially if the grabs on his hind shoes were worn down the least bit. Even when they were but slightly worn, he would scramble and take hold of the bit in order to balance himself.

“We had got along as far as Readville, Massachusetts and McHenry knew by this time that he had one of the greatest horses that ever lived, but also realized that there were still things that could be done to improve Dan’s gait. ‘This horse is pulling me a ton,” said he at Readville. “He’s hitting the wheels and sprawling all over the track.’

“I take no credit for shoeing of Dan on that occasion for McHenry suggested it himself. ‘Let’s try him with a sharp calk running from the inside toe around the outside of the shoe to the outside heels, as close as you can have a calk, then calk the front shoes and make them sharp; also shorten his toes as much as you can and leave the heels alone.’

The great horse was shod according to orders. That afternoon he paced a mile in 1:59 ¼. He did not sprawl at all, nor hit his arms or knees from that day on, and he could page in 2:00 any time without a runner in front.”

similar to Dan Patch shoe; hind harness horse specimen shoe by Henry Asmus, Cornell vet school
This hind pacer shoe was made by 
Professor Henry Asmus of Cornell 
University's vet school and in on
display in the farrier school case. The
calk is not as continuous as Dan Patch's
but the design is somewhat similar.
(Photo courtesy of Michael Wildenstein
Nash went on to describe feet with frog creases that point to the center of the toe of the foot, versus creases that point to the outside, commonly seen in toe-out conformation. “You will find that it does (point straight) if you will examine the feet of range (wild) horses or matured ones that have not been shod and their feet subjected to unnatural conditions...If all racehorses were blessed with feet the toes of which were in line with the creases of their frogs, we could have very little trouble in balancing themselves and making them clear themselves. It is such feet...that are responsible for many of the faults in gait we have to contend with.”

Nash ended his interesting essay with this: “Personally, I love my work--I was about to say my profession. I have been shoeing racehorses for 25 years, and every year I add to my store of knowledge. The possibilities are unending and the successful farrier is the one who is constantly striving to learn new things.

“It is a great trade, requiring skill not only in a mechanical way but also giving an opportunity for the exercise of the brain.”

H. H. Walters of Medford, Oregon was another farrier who added shoeing Dan Patch to his resume. The great champion spent days in his railroad car en route to exhibitions where he raced against the clock--and his own time records--since no trainers would enter their horses to race against him. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress "Chronicling America" collection)

Dan Patch would have made any shoe famous, just by wearing it, but his elaborately calked shoes have gone down in history as playing a critical role in making miraculous feats possible. That's one powerful horseshoe, and one amazing horse.

To learn more:

Do you have a Dan Patch story? Maybe you have seen some of Dan Patch's shoes or have verified photos of his shoes? Contact

Dan Patch will not be forgotten if one Minnesota lawmaker has his way. Last month, State Senator Dan Hall filed legislation to have Dan Patch declared the official state horse of Minnesota.

There is also a campaign for a statue of Dan Patch to be built on the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair. It has been designed by Alexa King, the sculptor of the Barbaro statue at Kentucky's Churchill Downs.

Links to Dan Patch are everywhere, but here are some suggestions:

Hoofsearch monthly index of peer-reviewed equine hoof science and lameness research
HoofSearch is the monthly live-linked index of peer-reviewed papers, proceedings and patents related to hoof science and equine lameness. Click here to subscribe.

HoofSearch equine research index cover February 2018
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