Sparks and hammers fly as ancient art of horseshoeing enjoys a modern resurgence
Randy Luikart wipes the perspiration from his brow, peers for a split second at the red-hot chunk of metal on his anvil, then delivers a staccato of sharp hammer blows. Miraculously, to his gawking onlookers, a flawlessly shaped horseshoe begins to emerge from what had minutes before been a nondescript bar of steel.
In a blur of swift, ordered movements, he grabs the shoe with tongs, plunges it for a few seconds into the coal forge blazing in the back of his camper-style truck, pulls out the now glowing piece of curved iron, gives it a quick, spark-scattering whisk with a wire brush, and sets to work pounding again.
''It's an art, really - it's like sculpture,'' whispers Fran Garvan, one of a small crowd of admirers surrounding Mr. Luikart's forge. And Luikart, a wiry young man from Ashland, Ohio, is one of the true artists, she says.
The comment is a well-qualified one, by a veteran observer of horseshoeing competitions like the southern New England championship held recently at the Bolton Fair, some 30 miles west of Boston.
As editor of Farrier's Journal - a magazine serving a growing readership of horseshoers (who often go by the traditional name, ''farrier''), trainers, and veterinarians - Ms. Garvan has attended many such gatherings of horseshoeing's finest over the past four years. More people are coming out to watch all the time, she says. There are over 30 contests each year in the United States alone, and a number in Europe as well.
Garvan says no one knows for sure just how many horseshoers are pounding out their products today, but there's little doubt their ranks are growing. The sharply increased value of horses has been the key to revived interest in shoeing, she says. The animals - some 8 million of them in the US - are sizable investments, and owners generally want good care.
There was a time when horseshoeing almost disappeared as a profession, says Bob McCarthy, a longtime farrier from Medfield, Mass. ''The trade died off when the automobile came on - in the last 20 years, though, it's come a long way,'' he says.
One nice thing about contests like the one at Bolton, he points out, is that horseshoers have a chance to compare notes on tricks of the trade - such things as different ways of bending a shoe.
''You'll be here watching, then go home and try it,'' Mr. McCarthy says, recalling that there was a day when horseshoeing was a very solitary existence.
At Luikart's truck-borne forge - one of 30 or so backed into a smoke- and ash-spewing semicircle situated in a newly mown meadow - the competition has shifted to the two-man draft event.
Luikart's partner is an amiable, powerfully built Texan named Jack Miller. He wields a sledgehammer to help pound the big draft horseshoes into shape. Garvan points out that Mr. Miller is ''one of the flying farriers.''
In a profession that routinely requires travel within a 200-mile radius or so to service far-flung stables, farms, and ranches, Miller's itinerary is extraordinary. Just before arriving for the Bolton contest, he had finished a shoeing job in Pittsfield, in western Massachusetts. When the fair here is over, he's scheduled to catch a plane for Wisconsin to shoe one horse (whose owner will have no other farrier), then go on immediately to Virginia. It's all in a week's work for Jack Miller.
Behind this kind of travel, explains Garvan, is the high degree of specialization within the profession. Miller, for instance, does only show horses and jumpers - horses whose owners insist on the best shoes.
Garvan points out a fellow with a dark beard wearing a red sweatband, toiling at the forge. That's Rockwell Irons from Nova Scotia; his specialty is draft horses. A few forges farther around the semicircle, lanky Steve Teichman from Westchester County, Pa., is hard at work. He makes orthopedic shoes for horses whose hoofs have been damaged.
Mr. Teichman's wife, Betty, explains that they've worked out a rather unusual traveling arrangement. Her work in the veterinarian business also demands travel.
Now Mrs. Teichman flies their own four-seater aircraft to places as widespread as Maine, South Carolina, and Ohio. With the back seats removed, her husband's portable gas forge and other equipment fits in just fine, she says.
As the morning's competition heats up, editor Garvan takes a few moments to explain the nature of the competition: The overall winner is the farrier who shapes the best shoes in a number of classifications - standard-bred, draft horse, and saddlebred, for instance. There's also an event called ''eagle eye,'' in which contestants take a quick look at a horse's foot and then hustle to their forges to craft a customized shoe. The best fit wins.
Three divisions, novice through master, are represented. Contestants' blacksmithing experience ranges from one year to many decades, or even centuries.
Take John Kriz, for instance. His family has been shoeing horses for eight generations, the last five in America, before that in Czechoslovakia. He's the image of an old cowboy, in wide-brimmed hat, boots, jeans, and Western belt.
A smile breaks across Mr. Kriz's well-lined face as he talks about his business in Bethany, Conn., where he, a brother, two of his sons, and 10 other farriers work. One of his special projects is shoeing the famous Budweiser Clydesdales, all four sets of them. ''I shoe 'em wherever they are,'' Kriz says, adding that the huge draft horses need new footwear every five weeks or so.
Among the most loyal fans of shoeing and forging contests like Bolton's are horse owners. ''They cheer on their horseshoer,'' says Garvan. Then there are the many fairgoers who simply enjoy watching an exquisitely skilled craftsman at work.
Bolton's overall winner was Vernon Hornquist of Lockport, N.Y. The solidly built, curly-headed Mr. Hornquist, wearing a leather apron and red bandanna, seemed to one spectator to be the embodiment of the village smith.
Garvan notes that farrier competition has grown increasingly international in recent years.
Shoeing competition culminates in a world championship held at Canada's renowned Calgary Stampede. As many as 3,000 spectators crowd the grandstands there to watch the hammers and sparks fly, Garvan says.