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February 16, 2010

Three Days Three Ways Interviews Sean Crocker, Part 1

Before becoming a farrier, Sean Crocker competed at the highest levels of eventing. Photo courtesy of Sean Crocker.

I had the luck to sit down with Sean Crocker (as some have said, Farrier to the Equestrian Stars) in the kitchen of his and his wife’s “Just Enough” Farm in Middleburg, Va., right after he’d flown back from Wellington, Fla.

Our conversation began amidst a toddler clamoring over a snoring Doberman and surrounded by your not-so-average pictures, like the one of Sean show jumping with Blenheim Palace in the background. But these, to Sean and Shannon Crocker, are standard fare given their history as top young riders and advanced three-day eventers who trained with the likes of Karen O’Connor and Jim Wofford.

Sean has a way of making you feel right at home, and that’s why for two hours we talked about eventing, shoeing and horses. 

Q. Where did you grow up?

A. Massachusetts. We moved to the Cape when I was seven. My parents built a house on the Cape, and my dad was into horses. He was on mounted police. We had an eight-stall barn and four acres. A lot of land for Cape Cod.

The lady across street had horses, and I would sneak off across the street to ride them. I was nagging her everyday. I started in show hunters and with summer camps, and then I started going to unrecognized events and got totally hooked after doing cross-country.

When you did jumping you got judged for clearing jumps, not how pretty you looked. In show hunters, if your horse touched a rail you got a penalty; you have to look really pretty and have good equitation, which I never really had.

My first major three-day event trainer was Mike Plumb—he was in Dover, Mass. After that, I worked with Iimmy Wofford, and that’s when I moved here. From Jimmy’s I went to Southern California and worked for a wonderful family out there. They had a farm in the middle of suburban Los Angeles. The father was a landscape designer and architect. They got a lot of horses off the track and were into racing for some time. They were a big influence on my life as far as getting me exposure in eventing and experience riding and training a lot of young, green horses—or trying to train them!

I got to a certain age, and I thought it’s hard to make a decent level trying to be an upper level event rider. At that time I was living in Pennsylvania, which is probably the most competitive event trainer area. Phillip Dutton and Bruce Davidson are both there. A great vet friend of mine put me in touch with a guy (who’s actually Phillip’s farrier) to apprentice with him.

I did that for three years and then moved down here. I met Shannon before I started my apprenticeship in the winter of ’03. She was wintering in Florida with the O’Connors, which I think she had done two or three times.  

I apprenticed in Pennsylvania with a guy named Dave Kumpf. It’s very similar to this area with lots of sport and performance horses. A lot of really good farriers too.  There’s a world-renowned farrier school at the University of Pennsylvania at the New Bolton Center that started in the mid to late 60’s or early 70’s. A lot of really good farriers came out of that program, and Dave was one of them.

I apprenticed with Dave, and when I moved here I apprenticed with two local farriers. The more people you work with the more you learn. It’s kind of like riding and being a competitor: The more people you clinic with the better rider you’ll become. There are plenty of ways to skin a cat, so to speak.

Q. What do you learn when you apprentice?

A. It depends on what farrier you apprentice with. I was fortunate enough to apprentice with mostly event horse farriers. It gave me knowledge on how they should be shod.

There is definitely a difference between disciplines on how you shoe them. You have to fit eventers that are constantly going over all kinds of terrain differently than, say, a dressage horse, who will be ridden in a dressage ring.

With event horses you want to keep the toes a little shorter, keep the break-over further back since they’re traveling at higher rates of speed. But at the same time, you have to leave plenty of heel support because of going through mud and sometimes rocky terrain. It varies so much.

You can actually get away with shoeing a professional’s horse a little differently than the horse of someone with a little less experience. You know, the professional is riding the horse always in balance and well put together. Being in balance allows you to fit the horses a little bit fuller, which means putting them in a little bit bigger shoe. You’re always striving to get the feet bigger and want to allow for expansion of the hoof capsule, which helps them with soundness and movement.

Q. What’s a Journeyman?

A. Journeymen is a certification program through the American Farrier’s Association. It’s an examination with a pretty detailed written part and a forging part where you have to make certain types of shoes and traction devices. It’s not an easy examination. I’d like to do it at some point.

They have also a plain certification where you shoe a horse up front or behind and they judge you on trimming the foot, the balance of the foot, shoe shape and shoe fit. You have to do it within a certain amount of time.

Journeymen have to shoe a horse all the way around and make all four shoes from straight steel. The shaping is actually really good practice and experience. There are thousands of different shaped feet and sizes.

Q. What do clients need to know?

A. What sticks out, and it’s one of the simplest things on the planet, and I was brought up with it, is I’m amazed at how many people don’t pick out their horses feet. It does help tremendously. All that mud gets caked up in their foot; it can dry out the hoof capsules. It’s such a simple thing that people seem to have forgotten. Pick out their feet when they come in from field. I always joke around: The horse’s feet get picked out once a month—when I come!

Also, a lot of people tend to bathe excessively. I know it’s hard not to do that, especially not in Northern Virginia in the summertime. One of most important things for feet is controlling moisture—as far as having too much moisture in the feet in the summertime. Combine the hard ground with humidity, and their feet will practically disintegrate, and that makes it hard for shoes to stay on.

You also need to make sure that there’s enough moisture in their feet in the wintertime when everything gets so dry. I remind people that it’s like taking care of your hands—moisturize in the winter. I tell people to use Cornucrescine. It’s like a paste that you rub or brush on at the coronary band. That seems to help keeping their feet moist in the wintertime.

In the summer I discourage people from doing that. When their feet get really soft, it’s the difference between driving a nail into an oak board versus corkboard or balsa wood. That’s pretty difficult to deal with as a farrier. It goes back to the shoeing and making sure the fit is pretty precise. When their feet are that moist, if they’re going to pull a shoe off they’ll take ton of foot with it.

I think this is by far the hardest area to shoe horses mostly because of the climate. Virginia is unique. There’s even a huge difference between Virginia and Pennsylvania. There the soil is more loam-based: a sandier soil. The feet will hold up better in an area only three hours north. Red clay becomes pretty much concrete.

Q. How much do clients need to know? What resources are useful?

A. The American Farriers Journal is a pretty good resource. It’s hard. You want them to be educated, but you don’t want them to recite articles off the Internet about what needs to be done with their horses’ feet. There’s a time when they need to know what’s going on but then step back and realize that you’re the professional and need to do your job, to allow me to do what I need to do to help the horse.

Check back soon for Part 2 of Sean's interview. He'll discuss the most challenging foot to shoe, what it's like to be a part of the eventing world, and the one thing you can do to make your farrier love you.

Courtney Young conducts in-depth interviews with the elite of the equestrian world on her blog Three Days Three Ways. Check it out for a behind-the-scenes look into three-day eventing.

 

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