We don’t talk enough about safety in farriery and the necessary precautions required for farriers to work effectively and with the least risk. Farriers should communicate with horse owners and barn managers about safety issues because many of them really do want to improve situations; they just don’t know how.
To begin, we have to acknowledge that, in the view of a horse’s psychology, there is no such thing as an ideal barn. Horses evolved for open spaces and herd life, so life in a stall is already counter to their nature. Trimming and shoeing is an added layer of stress for them, so we must be mindful and take an approach of mitigation to the work we do as farriers—and the spaces where it happens.
Every farrier knows the danger of being sucked under a horse while working on a hind leg. In my case, all it took was dropping a metal tool on concrete and wham, next thing I knew I had been sucked under and kicked back. That startling sound was the straw that broke the camel’s back—and luckily not mine. The horse was edgy and socially isolated, and the barn was dark and cave-like, so sounds were amplified.
Farriers and horses are at each other’s mercy, but only one can be an outspoken advocate for both. Those who own horses and facilities may not know the best conditions for us to work in, hence here are some suggestions.
1. Have A Handler And Two Sets Of Cross Ties
Having someone to hold the horse perhaps does more for the safety of the farrier than any other single factor on this list. (That said, don’t discount any of them.) In more extreme cases, sedation might be necessary as well, but sedation alone is not an ideal replacement for a handler, neither for the horse nor the farrier.
In many cases, the horse’s herd psychology makes him calmer and safer when another horse is present, so having a second pair of crossties for a horse companion during trimming and shoeing is also ideal. Horses can bond with other animals (goats, for example), so the companion animal doesn’t need to be a horse.
Naturally, companion animals can be left out with horses that are traumatized or aggressive with other horses, but there is no exception to the rule regarding handlers. Farriers should always have one, and we communicate in advance to see if one is available or if we need to bring our own hired help, especially with more troubled horses.
2. Feed The Horses First
It’s not just a courtesy to the horse; it means that they will be more content instead of upset (and potentially dangerous) when we start work. Of course, waiting can throw off our schedules, so we can’t always make this accommodation. We also realize that feeding schedules are not easy to move, so while we really appreciate when barns plan ahead and make sure that times do not coincide, we also recognize that this isn’t always possible.
3. Offer Ample Lighting, Including Lighting From The Side
The best lighting for shoeing is ample natural light, but it’s rare to see barns that are built to allow that into the interiors where shoeing usually takes place. There are obvious reasons why ample light makes things safer, but it also helps us better assess the hoof as we work on it. And, in case anyone has forgotten, the hoof is under the horse, which means that a bright light directly overhead may not be all that helpful.
Having light sources from multiple angles is a huge help. In some of the best barns we work in, there is lighting on the ceiling and along stalls at waist height, allowing farriers to see what they are doing with more clarity.
4. Provide Proper Shelter And Ventilation
To start, adequate overhead shelter needs to be solid and leak-free—not tarps or tents. The whole shoeing area needs to be as dry as possible, so the shelter should be broad enough to maintain that state even in rain. The ceilings and light fixtures should also be high enough that horses can’t strike their heads against them, even if they rear slightly.
Barns should also be well-ventilated. As I mentioned before, horses like open spaces, so anything that makes a place feel less claustrophobic is really good for them, and that includes air flow. Hot shoeing generates smoke, and horses are very sensitive to this as well. Getting smoke to pass through quickly will mitigate their agitation, not to mention be much more pleasant for everyone.
5. Have Level Flooring
There are so many reasons that level flooring is important for farriery and horse safety beyond tripping hazards. For one, we need a level floor to properly check medial lateral balance, bone alignment and more. The ideal setup is large rubber mats on concrete. The rubber mats give the horse added comfort, and they can be tender after a trim, so this is a matter of safety and courtesy.
These mats also dampen harsh sounds and mitigate the cave-like acoustics of barns. This is good for horses psychologically, especially during a shoeing, when a lot of clanging is hitting their sensitive ears. In the story that I mentioned before, I probably would not have been sucked under that horse if my tool had hit rubber instead of concrete.
That said, it’s important that the mats run fully across the floor, not partially. Horses can pull nails and tear hooves if their feet land at the edge of a mat or partially on it.
6. Position The Horse To Face Toward The Exterior Work Area
The ideal barn will be set up such that the horse can face outwards toward our truck and forge. Even horses who are accustomed to trimming and shoeing are less nervous when they can see what is happening.
Our farriers take our time to interact with the horse, reassure it, and get it comfortable with us before we begin. Even when trust has been built, horses like to have an idea from where the farrier is coming and going, and what is causing all that noise when we start forging.
7. Provide A Properly Equipped And Decluttered Work Area
Farriers ought to have easy access to water and electrical outlets in the work area at a barn. If the work area sometimes has tools, buckets, tack trunks or clutter, then all of that should be cleared before a farrier arrives. The less noisy, boisterous activity there is before a shoeing, the better.
8. Use Proper Barn Etiquette
The last but incredibly important piece in this list isn’t infrastructure but training for other barn staff members. If the barn has other horses, it’s ideal that they be brought in and out via alternative paths. Even if a person is walking by oneself, one should never pass horses when farriers are working underneath them. Always ask for the farrier’s permission to pass so that they have time to move.
Hay lofts also require advance notice. Barn personnel should always give farriers warning before climbing into a loft and throwing bales. Wait for an all-clear from those on the ground and say how many bales you will drop. Farriers need time to move their tools and themselves in case a horse startles from the commotion above.
As a rule, any potentially disruptive activities near the shoeing area or stalls should come with advance notice. That includes power tools, loud music, landscaping, and clipping and training other horses.
A lot of safety issues boil down to a lack of communication. Between horses and humans, there is more room for misunderstanding, especially if one hasn’t had the time to bond with an animal. We don’t have that excuse as farriers, barn managers and horse owners.
For farriers, be assertive about safety precautions so that you can be most accountable to yourself and the horses you serve. For those hiring farriers, do your best to provide a safe environment, and ask your farrier what their contingency plans are in case of accidents. At our company, we have health insurance and liability insurance for all our farriers.
Like the horses they service, farriers do better when they are not agitated and have peace of mind. In this light, being insured is not just preparing for a worst-case scenario but yet another precaution to prevent it from happening.
Seth Noble—owner and operator of Noble Farriery in the Seattle area—attended Oklahoma Horseshoeing School in 1995 after he fell in love with horses while working on ranches in Montana and Wyoming. He started his farrier business in Ellensburg, Washington, in 1996 and immediately became interested in collaborations with trainers and rehab specialists.
He has worked with an array of pleasure riding, western and English discipline horses. After fine-tuning his skills, his clientele among the competitive English discipline horses grew, requiring him to move to Western Washington in 2004.
As a natural artisan, making handmade shoes and forge work is important to Noble, allowing him to meet the needs of each horse. His horsemanship and regard for the equestrian culture give him a respectful approach to these long-standing traditions.
This article ran in the December 2021 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
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