Imagine shaping a raw material like steel over hot coals into a horseshoe, with one particular horse in mind.
You know this horse. You’ve watched its gait. You’ve examined its hooves and legs and know its injuries.
You know exactly which nail hole needs to be a smidge off center for the perfect fit — something no factory-made shoe could ever accomplish.
Sheridan County is home to many talented farriers, several who rank among the World Championship Blacksmiths each year at Don King Days in Big Horn. Troy Ehrmantraut is one of them and has been shoeing for more than 25 years.
“The horses today are mostly recreational,” he explained. “The lion’s share of my business is recreational: rodeo horses, trail horses. People talk about backyard horses, but those types of horses here actually do get used, whether they are going on trips or rides or going to help ranchers at work.”
Though he has decades of experience, Ehrmantraut said he wishes he could learn more and learn faster.
“The good, solid basics — that learning curve comes pretty quickly, but when you start trying to fine-tune your knowledge to the plant of the foot, how the foot lands, how the horse is used, the environment the horse is used in — those factors take time,” Ehrmantraut said.
A farrier is one of the oldest professions in history, dating back as far as the days of the Roman Empire. Many of the skills and techniques were handed down from generation to generation as young apprentices worked the bellows while the farrier shaped the glowing hot iron into a horseshoe. Today, Sheridan College offers a Farrier Science Certificate of Completion program with training in introduction to farrier science, equine anatomy and locomotion and practical farrier science.
Colter Manley is a graduate of the Sheridan College program and operates Manley Farrier Services.
“I went with that original group in farrier science, which is a great program because we are finding that more and more people are suited to work with their hands,” Manley said. “Horseshoeing does that.”
Manley had a background in horse training, but he wanted to find a career in a field that was financially stable. He didn’t want to leave horses, he said, so farrier science was perfect.
Horses have no muscle below the chest to make their legs move, Manley explained.
“There are only tendons and pivot points working their legs,” he explained. “They are on their feet maybe 15-19 hours a day, and if you have injuries on the foot, you have no horse. If their feet are hurting, you can’t do anything with them. It is teamwork from the veterinarians and the farriers to keep the horses healthy.”
And while there are all kinds of shoes out there, from factory-made to therapeutic to racing shoes, nothing compares to a one-of-a-kind fit.
“You don’t have to compromise with a handmade shoe the way you do with storebought when it comes to shoeing these athlete horses,” Manley said. “It is just like going out and
buying a pair of Payless shoes or going out and having a pair of shoes handmade for your foot.
“You take into account everything about an individual horse, and you are able to address it in one shoe, instead of having to put a factory-made shoe on,” he said.
But the job is not easy. It is physical, and in addition to standing at a hot forge, farriers often crawl on the ground, examining a horse’s foot at the contact point.
“I love it, though, and the craftsmanship that goes into it,” Manley said. “We put so much time into it to be able to make these individual shoes, and what I like about this trade is that the more work you put into it, the more you get out of it.”
Ehrmantraut said that contact with the horses is a huge part of why he makes shoes. Every horse is different, and every foot is different.
“In today’s age, I could probably be diagnosed with ADD or something,” he laughed. “No two days, no two hours are the same. Every foot you have to approach as an individual.
“And the iron work — I like working with my hands, I like to create things,” Ehrmantraut said. “There are a lot of people that nail shoes on a horse, but when you really start paying attention to how the horse moves and why it stands the way it does, and whether you created or you helped those problems, it really becomes satisfying work.”