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The quirky nature of horseshoers

Column by Hal Walter

Agriculture – August 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

A neighbor who owns horses called recently to ask for the name of my farrier. It seems her horseshoer had decided mid-season to blow off the job of keeping steel under her animals. Now she was really in a bind and had run out of farriers to call.

I told her the name of the guy who had been shoeing my burros. “I really like his attitude with my animals,” I told her. “But be patient. He sometimes shows up late.” Actually it’s been my experience that if farriers aren’t late, they aren’t coming. Usually it’s not their fault and it’s not the fault of the last horse. Rather, it’s the fault of the last spoiled horse’s owner. This alibi, by the way, has become even more popular with horseshoers since the “horse-whisperer” phenomenon.

This makes whisperers out of animal owners such as myself. Only it’s not nice things I’m saying under my breath, and it’s not directed at horses. Usually the wait’s not long, only an hour or so. However, the aforementioned highly recommended farrier has the distinction of being the only horseshoer I’ve known to show up almost exactly one full year late.

I originally called him because I was looking for a new farrier. On the phone he was enthusiastic, so we set a date and time. At the appointed time, I had my animal tied to the hitching post and began waiting. Two hours later the critter had long since been returned to the corral and I was making phone calls. I left messages, but never heard back from him. I ended up hiring my previous horseshoer for another summer.

I have come to believe that things can go awry when a person spends an inordinate amount of time bent over with his head upside down beneath a large animal that isn’t exactly keen on having steel rims nailed to its feet. This also explains why I quickly discounted the notion of do-it-yourself blacksmithery some 20 years ago.

This is just one bit of wisdom that’s part of a larger body of knowledge I’ve gleaned from hiring no fewer than a dozen farriers over these two decades. All of these horseshoers were very nice, personable guys. But all of them had quirks. Of the farriers I’ve known I would say several were prone to either strong drink or strong religion. One farrier had a fascination with J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” and another raised miniature horses. Several had day jobs in law enforcement, which says a great deal about the profession too. Escapism seems to be an overriding theme for them all.

My favorite horseshoer story is about a farrier who showed up and talked my ear off for a long while about how he doesn’t like it when customers try to tell him how to shoe a horse. When he finally started banging steel I discounted all he had just told me and asked if the shoe he was banging might have too wide a rim for a burro. He said no and continued to bang away. Then he held the shoe up to the foot, said something about having to make some modifications in the shop, and told me he’d be back tomorrow.

But he never came back. Never called.

Horseshoeing is not like other businesses in which the customer is king. If you don’t believe me check the yellow pages under farriers or horseshoers and you will quickly understand that it’s a privilege when a farrier makes time to work on your animals. There are a lot more horses and horse owners than there are horseshoers.

Few horseshoers waste their hard-earned money on advertising. They love their jobs for the freedom of setting their own schedules, the relatively high rate of pay, and the almost endless opportunity in western states. The only thing farriers seem to dislike about their work is the actual shoeing of the horses. That and the regular visits to the chiropractor and other health-care professionals.

I decided to give the no-show farrier another chance. He apologized for the fiasco the previous year and explained that he got lost while trying to find my place, though he never said why he didn’t return my calls. We made an appointment to meet at the highway this time to ensure he didn’t get lost.

And that’s how I found myself waiting in vain at the highway. That night I had five messages of apology on my answering machine. He had taken a wrong turn before reaching my turnoff. He would be here tomorrow. I laughed it off, called him back and said, “I’ll see you then.” It’s not like I had an appointment with another farrier the next day.

This time he actually did show up. He had a good attitude. He didn’t smell like booze. He showed patience when my burro acted up. He didn’t preach the sermon of the lord and wasn’t tired from working at the prison all night. He did an excellent job and didn’t make me feel like it was an inconvenience. This fellow rose to the top of my horseshoer list in just one visit.

A few weeks later I made an appointment with him to have another set of shoes put on my burro. The morning of the appointment he called and left a message. He had tweaked his back and couldn’t make it.

He’ said he’d be there tomorrow.

I called back and left a message on his machine: “You know how to get here, I’ll see you then.”

Hal Walter keeps burros and exports words from a small ranch in the Wet Mountains.

Like many Custer County residents, I felt an intense sense of loss when I learned that Michael O’Hanlon had died in a hiking accident during a descent of 13,931-foot Mount Adams in the Sangre de Cristo range on July 10.

Michael had explored the Sangre de Cristo mountains for more than 25 years and climbed more than 60 peaks in the range. He was a very quiet and unassuming guy, the sort of person who you just knew without a doubt was a wise and kind soul. When he spoke it was always with careful choice of words. And it was the same way when he wrote.

His The Colorado Sangre De Cristo: A Complete Trail Guide was written so thoughtfully as to give a person a good idea of where and how to get someplace in the mountains without spoiling the sense of adventure. It was also thoughtful in the way that it persuaded visitors to distribute their impact by avoiding camping in traditional heavy-use areas, especially around the high lakes.

For several years Michael served on the Custer Search and Rescue First Response Team. Years ago I was on an assignment for one of those glossy yup-sport magazines to write a review about several models of aluminum-frame snowshoes. I had enlisted friend Patrick O’Grady so that we could carry several pairs and switch off for comparison. One very cold day we broke trail through fresh powder up South Colony road and spent the better part of an afternoon trying out snowshoes. In doing this we had broken a trail in the powder a good ways past where the road crosses the Rainbow Trail.

It was getting late in the afternoon when we headed back down the steep road. We ran into three snowshoers led by Michael, and learned that they were on a search and rescue mission for a guy who had walked in before the storm with the idea of climbing some of the Crestone group at the head of South Colony. They were carrying heavy packs and were prepared to spend the night.

I felt sort of bad to head off down the hill and I thought about those guys that night as the temperature dipped below zero and I ate a hot dinner in front of the woodstove back at my house. But at least I felt good about having broken some trail to make it a little easier for those guys to find the lost hiker.

A few days later I was in Hungry Gulch Bookstore, which Michael owned with wife, Susan Tichy, and he told me how he and his team had just made camp at the Rainbow Trail when the lost climber came stumbling into their camp. After I left I thought about how Michael talked about the episode as if it were just another day in the woods. And I guess for him it probably was.

It’s always a wonder to me when someone actually leaves this life doing something that he or she loves. I wonder if it’s just an idea that eases the sense of loss, or if there really is something to it. Few of us will ever know for sure.

When I reviewed the third edition of his book two years ago I wrote that “A person would have to do a lot of hiking in the Sangre de Cristo Range to find all the trails Michael O’Hanlon knows about.” I can only hope that Mike has found a new, yet-to-be explored route that leads to a place where the air is crisp, the sky is blue, and wildflowers color the tundra.