The Horse Whisperer
Farrier-bard Fred Bowers waxes eloquent about horses and all they’ve taught him.
By Catherine Gentile Photographed by Shoshanna White
Fred Bowers hops out of his white truck (license plate: SHUUZ), removes his anvil, and sets it up outside the barn door. The bumper sticker on his anvil says, “Know feet. Know horses.” Bowers knows both. The first appointment of his day brings him to Virginia and Mike Albert’s Venture Farm, a premier show horse training facility in Pownal. “Show-jumping is a precision sport, one that takes a high degree of practice. It’s done in an arena and is graded on beauty and equitation of the form.” Bowers is an avid reader with a couple of college degrees, and his delivery is as elegant as it is casual.
Dressed in jeans, white polo shirt, and steel-toed boots, he slips into his leather apron and greets Inman, a bay Dutch Warmblood with an illustrious jumping career and two scuffed-up front shoes. A staff member tethers Inman just inside the barn door, situating him on a rubber mat that keeps his legs from becoming fatigued. “The tether isn’t to keep Inman here — he’s powerful enough to break free — but to cue him as to where he needs to stand while I work on him,” explains Bowers. At six feet, Bowers’ height pales in comparison to Inman’s seventeen hands. Despite this disparity, Bowers moves effortlessly, positioning his gear with efficient grace.
He pauses, pats Inman, and assures him, “You’re doing great.” Eighteen-year-old Inman has been having his shoes changed every six weeks since he was a colt, so this setup is as routine as it gets. Except today he’s drawn to Bowers’ apron, from which he eagerly sniffs barn gossip. “I had a mule there yesterday,” confesses Bowers as he removes Inman’s “bell boots,” rubber collars that cover his front hooves and prevent him from inadvertently peeling off a shoe. He works quickly, extracting the square three-inch nails that attach Inman’s shoe to his thick hoof.
Using pincers, he lifts the shoe off, cleans the hoof, and checks for indications of disease. Like an artist delivering a virtuoso performance, he makes the process look easy.
A former EMT, Bowers readily transfers his fascination with “all things medical” to horses. He pays special attention to the shoe on Inman’s right front foot, where the layers of hoof are separating. “Inman’s owner, Emily Williams, feeds him a nutritional supplement, which is helping,” Bowers says. At his anvil, he hammers out adjustments, Inman’s steel shoe ringing as he pounds it into shape.
He holds the shoe to Inman’s foot to ensure it fits properly, then reshapes it to afford the nail “maximum bite” into the hoof zone. Placed properly, the nail enters the hoof wall and exits the side, where there are no nerves and no vascular supply, just inert material similar to human toenails. “I don’t want to hit the quick or sensitive zone on the horse’s hoof. That would be a source of great embarrassment to a farrier.”
While technical prowess is important, the heart of a farrier’s job is earning the horse’s trust. When Bowers starts working with a horse that’s new to him, he speaks with the owner about the horse’s age, training, and medical history. Then he talks to the horse, giving him the opportunity to get to know him. “If he drops his head or nuzzles me, that tells me he’s okay with me.”
In the rare instance when a horse misbehaves, Bowers checks to make sure it understands what is expected. Oftentimes the animal is frightened or in pain. He could also be testing the farrier. “Horses are pecking-order animals. They need to know you’re one notch up,” says Bowers. Once that relationship is established, the interactions between horse and farrier become more comfortable. Bowers sees similarities between horse and human functioning. “We’re both averse to fighting and neither of us like to be shunned or isolated.”
Fortunately, Inman shows no discomfort with Bowers. Quite the opposite; he seems satisfied with the outcome of his ninety-minute shoeing session. He sighs, then licks his lips, a sign that he’s at ease with the proceedings. “Horses are good at telegraphing their feelings. They’re honest. If they’re having a good day, they’ll tell you about it,” says Bowers, stroking Inman’s neck.
Twenty-six years earlier, Bowers was working within the banking industry when he realized he preferred to earn a living outdoors. He headed west to the Oklahoma Horseshoeing School, a.k.a. “farriers’ boot camp,” and studied for eight weeks with veterinarian Jack Roth, the last farrier in the United States Calvary. He lived in a bunkhouse, attended classes in the morning, and worked on horses for the remainder of each day. People brought their horses in, took a number, and waited as though for a barber to have their horse shod. Since then he’s earned the highest certification offered by the American Farrier’s Association, that of Journeyman. Still, Bowers eschews — pun intended — the moniker of master farrier. “I learn something everyday. That’s what
I like most about my job.”
Bowers loves every aspect of his work, including blacksmithing. Should the opportunity to “hotshoe” present itself, he doesn’t hesitate to fire up his portable forge. An experienced welder who is building his own steel-hull boat, Bowers knows how to make his own shoes, but chooses not to compete with the manufactured variety. Instead, he buys shoes called “kegs” from the Netherlands. “In 1986, when I started as a farrier, the selection of machine-made shoes was limited and they were poorly designed. In the past ten to fifteen years, more horseshoe companies have come into existence and are making better shoes.”
Because the work is cyclical, Bowers doesn’t need to advertise; once clientele is established, he schedules them for re-shoeing every six to eight weeks. While he passes out an occasional business card, he depends mostly on referrals. “Owners are fussy about the people who work on their horses. They’re usually more concerned about how I handle a horse than the horseshoeing itself. They want their horse treated kindly and fairly.”
After returning Inman to his stall, Bowers heads to “corporate headquarters,” the cab of his truck. Despite his quip about corporate, he’s quick to credit his eight years as a banker for teaching him “how the wheels of commerce turn” and those all-important “customer-relation skills.” Seated in his truck, he handwrites an invoice and books the next appointment. Other than a basic cell phone, he sports no digital devices. Bowers prides himself on being a paper-and-pencil guy.
Besides caring for horses, Bowers encourages young farriers, some of whom shadow him as he goes about his daily rounds. He also teaches clinics on shoeing techniques and hoof dissections. “This is a lonely trade,” he says. “When you’re by yourself for too long, you’re in danger of thinking you’re pretty good. I learn a lot by watching other farriers work. And participation in the different farrier association activities helps deflect the isolation.”
For Bowers, the combination of horse, metalwork, physiology, and self-reliance involved in his job is ideal. “Every morning I look forward to my day. When I’m not working, I miss my customers and their horses. I’ll never be a millionaire, but I’m doing what I was meant to do. And that’s worth it.”
Catherine Gentile’s debut novel, The Quiet Roar of a Hummingbird, will be published in October.