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How Do I Tell If My Farrier is Doing a Good Job?

This is a question often asked by novice and experienced horse owners alike. It is a difficult question to answer, in much in the same way as it’s hard to answer the question “How high is up?” There are many factors that influence the quality of a farrier’s work. Knowledge, skill, experience, attitude, working conditions, the horse itself can all influence the quality of the work your farrier does.

The most basic answer to the question comes in the form of another question. “Is your horse sound, comfortable and happy with his work?” If the answer is yes, then you can bet that your farrier is doing at least a fair job. The flip side of that answer is the lame horse. The problem here is that many farriers get blamed for lamenesses having nothing to do with their work. Others get blamed for not fixing something that isn’t a farrier problem. To further complicate the situation, much of the quality of a shoe job is covered up by the shoe. One cannot answer questions like “How flat and level was the foot before the shoe went on?” and “How flat and level was the shoe before it was nailed on?” without pulling the shoe and examining the foot and shoe separately. I don’t recommend pulling shoes to examine a farrier’s work.

A Word of Warning

If anyone takes the words written here out to the barn, evaluates their farrier’s work by them, then gets high and mighty pointing fingers like an expert, they are likely going to get a snoot full of unsavory comments from their farrier. Most farriers do the best job they can with the skills they have. They are proud of what they do. They work hard, and quite rightfully get pretty bent out of shape when a layperson starts telling them what they are doing wrong.

Remember, only trained farriers are trained farriers. Vets are not farriers. Trainers are not farriers. The feed salesman is not a farrier. The horse owner who hires the farrier is not a farrier.

The bottom line about judging the quality of a farrier’s work is this: Anyone other than another farrier is venturing into unknown territory. You would not expect an electrician to be able to tell if an orthodontist did a good job with braces; nor could the orthodontist tell you much about the wiring job the electrician did on the barn. You have to be careful because you may see something you think is wrong that turns out to be perfectly proper. Conversely you may miss something really important that is wrong.

So, take these words with a grain of salt. Use them as a guideline, not an absolute. After all, the only absolute in the horse business is that there are no absolutes. If you find things in your farrier’s work that differ from what is written here, ask him/her about it nicely. If s/he's worth the rust on the anvil, s/he will gladly explain what s/he did and why.

Starting at the Beginning

There are some things the horse owner can look at to determine the overall quality of a shoe job. Let us start with the premise that we are dealing with a sound horse that has no problems. From there we can begin to see what basic good quality work looks like.

First, take a look at your calendar and see when your horse was shod last. If it’s been more than a couple of weeks, evaluating the shoeing is unfair to your farrier. Rule number one in judging horseshoeing: All old work looks bad. Look at a fresh shoeing for the best results.

Start your evaluation by looking at the front feet from the front with the horse standing square on level ground. Both hooves should look like they are the same length. Next, check the level of the coronary bands. Across the front of the feet, both should be parallel to the ground and each other. If they are not, you may be dealing with a medial/lateral balance problem, or a jammed or sheared heel. Look at the sides of the feet. Are there any noticeable flares? Ideally the walls should be straight from the coronary band to the ground. The angle of the wall depends on the conformation of the horse. Some horses will have perpendicular inside walls and very angled outside walls. Others will match fairly well. Most will be slightly steeper inside than out. It is quite normal for one foot to be slightly bigger than the other, just like with us two leggeds.

While you are standing in front of the horse, check the hind feet the same way.

Next, go the side and step back several paces. If the horse is in a barn aisle, it might be wise to turn him perpendicular to the aisle so you can get far enough away from the horse to get a good look.

With the horse standing square, look at the angles of both pairs of feet (fronts and hinds). Each pair should match fairly closely. If you have a horse with a club foot or one with collapsed heels, you may see an unavoidable difference. The club foot might be slightly higher and/or the collapsed foot slightly lower. It is rare to find these kinds of problems in hind feet. Usually, what affects one affects the other the same way.

From the same vantage point, check the angle of the pastern as it compares to the hoof. Make sure the horse is standing square with all four legs perpendicular to the ground. Ideally the hoof and the pastern should be at the same angle. If you see a minor difference you needn’t worry too much. Simply ask your farrier about it at the next visit if it bothers you.

While you are looking from this position, look for any dishes or flares at the toes. Ideally you should see straight lines on all four feet. Minor flares are usually ok. Major flares could be a sign of a problem.

Many farriers (myself included) set the shoes back under the foot slightly to gain a quicker breakover. Farriers have been doing this on hind feet for over 100 years. There it’s called a square toe. If the wall is straight at the toe, and the shoe is set back, the excess toe hanging over the shoe should be beveled off neatly. If it has just been whacked off with a rasp or nippers and looks really sloppy, this might be a clue to the quality you are getting from your farrier.

The next place to look for signs of quality (or not) is by picking up each foot and examining the shoe itself and how it fits the foot. This can get a bit dicey because everybody sees something different when they look at a horse’s foot, but what you are looking for is a smooth well shaped shoe. You don't want to see a lot of kinks and bumps and dents. The actual shape depends upon the shape of the foot.

Some general guidelines: The front shoes should have a full rounded broad toe in most cases. A pointed front shoe is not a good thing to see. All the text books say front feet should be round. Many are not. Many are squarish. Many more are kind of triangular on the outside and straight on the inside. But the broad round toe is something they all have in common. The hind feet are more triangular, so a slightly more pointed look is ok. Even so, the toe (between the two sets of nails) should be fairly broad and flat. A truly pointed shoe is not good here either.

Next look at the fit from the last nail to the heels of the shoe. Ideally there should be about 1/8 of an inch of shoe sticking out the side at the heel, gradually tapering to flush at the last nail. Some horses need more room for expansion than this, others will rip their shoes off in a heartbeat if there is even 1/16 of an inch extra shoe out there. When in doubt, more is better than less ... usually (remember, no absolutes).

While looking at the heels, see how much shoe is sticking out the back behind the heel of the foot. On a perfect foot, that 1/8 inch should be there. If your horse has underrun heels, there may be much more than that, up to a half inch or more, depending on how bad the underrun condition is. This is ok. A general rule of thumb is that the shoe should stop at or slightly in front of the widest point of the frog. (This guideline does not apply to therapeutic shoes such as bar shoes and the like. They may extend way past the widest point of the frog for support reasons.)

For heel length, the guideline is the more upright the heel, the less shoe there needs to be sticking out to support it. The more underrun the heel the more shoe there needs to be to support it. How much is an individual thing between your horse and your farrier. If you have questions, ask your farrier.

Heel support in the hind feet is a bit different. A farrier can (and often should) leave a good bit more shoe out behind the foot on back feet for support. After all, this is where a horse’s motor and steering are. I have often heard the phrase “Ahh, the back feet will go where the front feet go, don’t worry about it.” This is true in the same way the back wheels of your pickup will go where the front wheels go. But the front wheels won’t go anywhere unless the back wheels push them there. Therefore, the shoeing on the back feet is just as important as the shoeing on the front – more so in many cases.

With this in mind, you may see extended heels on the hind shoes where both heels of the shoe (the last ¼ to ½ of an inch) are turned parallel and point straight back. They may come well past the widest point of the frog and may come back as far as the hairline. This is fine if your horse needs that much support. I’ll repeat myself: if you have any questions, ask your farrier. S/he did what s/he did for a reason and should be willing to explain things if you ask.

The last thing you should look at is the over all visual impression you get from the work. Does it look smooth and clean? Or ratty and sloppy? Are the clinches all lined up fairly well? (They don’t need to be perfect.) Are the clinches well up the wall? A good guideline is the clinches should be about the width of the shoe branch (about ¾ to 1 inch on saddle horses and up to 1 and a half inches on drafters) up the wall. Are the clinches finished smoothly? Or would you cut yourself if you rubbed your hand over them quickly? Are there major gashes left by the rasp, or is the wall nice and smooth, like a piece of fine furniture? Is the general impression you get that of quality, or sloppiness?

If you have taken a good look at your farrier’s work and are still uncertain of the quality, there might be some validity in getting a second opinion. Doctors and vets are frequently asked for second opinions. Why not farriers? If there is another farrier in your area you feel you can trust, ask if s/he would be willing to give you a consultation on your farrier’s work. Expect to pay for it.

Don't be surprised of you get turned down though. Many farriers are reluctant to evaluate the work of other farriers in their area. If one farrier gets accused of badmouthing another farrier (regardless of the truth behind the accusations), it can be tough on a person’s reputation, and damaged reputations don’t feed the kids or pay the mortgage very well.

If you do get another farrier to evaluate your farrier’s work, keep the results to yourself. Spreading negative information around the horse community is like shooting yourself in the foot. It will come back to haunt you. You will get a reputation as a gossip and a trouble maker and find it difficult to get along. Farriers, vets, trainers, etc. will avoid you out of fear that you will badmouth them like you did the other guy. So be careful what you say and to whom.

If you find you are dissatisfied with your farrier, the next step is to decide if you should change farriers. This can be a difficult decision. Many people are quite loyal to their farriers and have become friends. More often than not, if you fire your farrier, you will also lose the friendship you may have built.

Make the decision carefully and thoroughly. Going back is a lot harder than staying put. Most farriers will take a client back who quit them, but that first phone call and appointment are tough and often embarrassing for the horse owner. The phrase “I told ya so” comes to mind.

Once you decide to fire your farrier, it is a good idea to line up a new farrier before you send the old one packing. That way you don't get caught short. It is quite rude and down right mean to call your farrier the night before your next appointment and fire him/her. It is a much better practice to give them a couple of weeks notice. Be prepared to explain yourself if asked. Now, let me tell you a story about one client who fired me some years ago. She called the night before her appointment. She said she needed to change her appointment because her work schedule changed. Annoying, but not a problem. I accommodated her. The night before the rescheduled appointment, she called again to reschedule, something about a doctor appointment for her mother. The day before the third appointment she called to leave a message that her schedule was a mess and she’d call me when she got things straightened out. I gave her a week, called her back, got her machine, left a message and never heard from her again. I have to wonder why she never had the courage to tell me the truth.

This kind of slimy behavior is quite common these days. If you fire your farrier, please have the courtesy and dignity to face your farrier and tell it like it is. Your farrier might learn something from the experience that will make a better farrier out of him/her in the long run. S/he will respect you for it, and you will sleep better for having done it right.

If, on the other hand, you find your farrier’s work is up to snuff, be happy, tell a friend, and go read our piece How Do I Keep My Wonderful Farrier Happy.

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