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Rex and I stepped up to the forge

`WANNA make a horseshoe?'' The question came as a surprise. We had been talking nail holes as Rex finished shoeing Lani, our 18-year-old mare. You see, my wife had discovered some handmade shoes in his pickup and wondered how he made them. ``Yeah,'' I answered eagerly, always ready to learn something, even at the risk of looking foolish to an expert. I respected Rex's work; he had triumphed where others had failed in repairing the large crack in one of Lani's front hoofs. But I little imagined that ``expert'' really meant ``artist.''

Rex pulled a bar of steel from his pickup. One-quarter of an inch thick, three-quarters of an inch wide, and several feet long, the bar was distinctly unshoeish. Two one-foot lengths were measured and bitten off with a chisel against the anvil.

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``This one's my shoe ... this one's yours,'' Rex drawled as he handed me the slightly rusted metal. He fired up the forge, placing his piece inside. ``Watch how I do it, then it's your turn.''

When the bar was bright red he turned off the gas (much easier to control than coal forges as long as you don't burn up the gas hose, Rex explained, with the sour note of experience in his voice). With foot-long tongs, he smoothly pulled the glowing metal out, laying it on the anvil. It looked easy enough so far.

``You first want to round the heels of your shoe. So you hammer on the tip here, like this, while you raise the other end up like this.'' With graceful ease, the blunt, square end was beaten into a smooth round edge. I could see the first glimmers of shoe. Back into the forge went the steel. To keep the metal soft and workable, a shoe needs repeated heatings (my shoe more than Rex's).

As the forge blasted we talked of the Arizona Rex knew. He is not very old - under 30, I would guess - but his Arizona is very much one of cows, ranches, and rugged country. ``Gatherin''' (what countrified city-folk like me would call rounding up) is still a horseback-roping-branding job in much of the state. Rex talks a good story; I can smell the juniper and sage. But the metal's red again.

``Now to bring round the branches. Put the tip of the bar right into the notch of the anvil here, and with the round end of the hammer smack the bar right near the middle here, then down a might right here. You don't want to hit it hard - it's good and soft - just tap it solid and you get what you want.''

Flying tongs, well-placed ringing blows, and a shoe emerged slowly, beautifully. A few trips to the forge, a few more hammerings to correct the ``center of the toe'' and ``evenness of the branches,'' and the straight bar was a shoe. Now for the nail holes that started the whole thing off.

Three tools: a forepunch, a drift, and a pritchel, used in order, create the perfect hole, with bevels situated for each taper in the square shoe nail. It certainly looked as if the holes were the easiest part.

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My turn.

I turned on the forge more or less correctly (who needs hair on his fingers?) and heated up the bar like an ``expert.'' From then on, though, I felt I was trying to make the shoe while wearing mittens. Rex had said something about using the tongs to ``lock onto the bar.'' Of course that was mentioned in passing as he manipulated his red-hot metal the way a prestidigitator tosses and locks those shiny big rings. I, of course, used the tongs primarily to pick up my metal from the ground. I saw keeping it upon the anvil as a big first step.

By the time I was finally able to keep a hold on the bar with the tongs and simultaneously hit it with a hammer, Rex diplomatically suggested it needed to be heated again. Many, many heatings and beatings later, I mauled a reluctant shoe out of the steel bar. It appeared more an abstraction worth several thousands of dollars in New York City than a horseshoe, but with a few gentle taps Rex corrected it into the real thing.

My wife came back from her chores to watch the denouement of the nail holes. Holes I can punch. Holes of the right size, shape, angle, and orientation I can work toward.

``We'll call it a right front shoe,'' Rex said, ``You can tell people that's why these holes are off-center on this side.'' I like him.

Later, we had talked more of horseshoes and shoeing than I had imagined possible. Here was a man, I came to see, whose whole trade was an art. Every shoe was an individual creation - different in ways only a trained eye could discern. Yet the finished shoe was in his mind from the very first hammer fall, formed to match a particular hoof.

Rex's art, unlike Art, is literally trod upon, rarely seen or appreciated. But he knows it is art, and now I know it is art. Maybe that is all he needs: his creativity expressed in a healthy horse foot, and a happy owner, not in social accolades.

But I'm not Rex. My shoe is on the mantle in the living room, right where I can pull it out in front of unsuspecting guests. I'm not sure what they think of my art nor of my verbose recitations about the arcane world of blacksmithing. But I like it.

``Of course the holes are supposed to be that way, it's a right front shoe, don't you know.''