The hands behind the horseshoe

by Andy Bryenton

There’s a lot of superstition and old-fashioned stories involved in the trade of being a farrier, despite the fact that the actual work is very down to earth. Working with horses to ensure better hoof health and better quality of life is the job of the modern farrier, but history reveals a tale of twists and turns.

When iron was a new technology, back in the very distant past, tribes who could forge tools and weapons with it had a distinct advantage over those who could not.

The word blacksmith is one of the oldest in English and comes from the term ‘bloce smyther’ (block smiter), one who hits an anvil with a hammer.

The transition from ‘block’ to ‘black’ was an easy one, considering the sooty environment and the black iron, which smiths worked with.

Iron became the stuff of legends. Iron was said to drive away mischievous supernatural beings, and people still hang a horseshoe up for luck. It reflects the fact that our iron-bearing ancestors drove out and defeated the copper and bronze using ‘wild people’ in very ancient times.

Smith gods and heroes, like the Roman Vulcan and the Anglo-Saxon Wayland, became popular in stories, reflecting the importance of the trade.

After all, a village with a smith had tools, nails, wheels, barrels, swords, arrows and armour as well as well-shod horses.

When the horse came to Europe, people who had never seen a rider on horseback thought such a thing supernatural in itself, and this is where the legend of half man half horse centaur comes from. However, as we know, horses need help to keep their hooves healthy when not running wild on the steppe-land where they evolved. The village smith often added the role of farrier to his list of jobs. Farrier comes from the Latin word ‘ferrous’, meaning iron. The horn-shaped part of an anvil is designed for bending horseshoes around after the metal is heated until it’s soft.

The first qualification for farriers was laid down by the King of England in 1356, founding a guild known as the Worshipful Company of Farriers. Practising without guild credentials was a serious offence, as the nation’s military power lay with its cavalry and its economic power with its farm horses. To this day, the elite British regiments who guard the Queen have a farrier who is also a highly-trained soldier on-call 24-7 at their Hyde Park Barracks in Central London.

Meanwhile, modern farriers in New Zealand work closely with vets and animal health experts to ensure a better life for our equine population.