BIG HORN — Seventy-four people from across the United States and Canada converged on the Big Horn Equestrian Center over the weekend. Unlike most people, they weren’t there for polo or a relaxing afternoon. They came to compete in the World Championship Blacksmiths event.
The WCB event has been held in Wyoming during Don King Days since 2013 and brought competitors from 25 states and two Canadian provinces. The competition is one of five WCB events scattered around the country this year. The finals occur in Las Vegas in December.
WCB owner and CEO Craig Trnka — who founded the company in 2006 — said blacksmithing symbolizes the western way of life that Don King Days celebrate.
Trnka said he enjoys seeing people learn the craft of blacksmithing and take part in an applicable, social activity.
“Once you learn how to manipulate a piece of steel, you can do anything,” Trnka said.
The competitors were separated into different divisions based on skill level, and $10,000 were given out, along with belt buckles, plaques and tools. There was an individual and two-person event, along with match play — where two competitors look at an image of a horseshoe for 10 seconds and then have 10 minutes to create a horseshoe as close to the image as possible — and live horseshoeing every evening.
In the two-person event, blacksmiths had one hour to make one small and one larger horseshoe that were as close as possible to specifications given by a judge about two months prior.
Colter Manley was one of six competitors from Wyoming. Manley hails from Ucross and attended Buffalo High School and Sheridan College. He graduated from the college about four years ago and has been smithing professionally ever since.
In the two-man competition, Manley shaped the horseshoes, which only one person can do. His partner oversaw the fire — which can reach 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit — brushed the horseshoes and swung a sledgehammer to keep the steel in place.
Manley said the best part is the camaraderie with the other blacksmiths. They compete against each other but are mainly working against themselves, the judge and the clock.
“We’re all pretty tight here,” Manley said. “We all take care of each other. We’re competing against everyone here, yet we don’t care. We’re all here to have a good time. You’re in a family within a family.”
Riley Kirkpatrick agreed. Kirkpatrick is from Sheridan, Oregon, and this year marked his fourth time competing in Big Horn.
Kirkpatrick worked as a welder and fabricator in and after high school but said he didn’t particularly enjoy working with others.
“I realized that I wasn’t that great of a coworker,” Kirkpatrick said. “I work better by myself, and this is a very self-driven job. You can drive yourself as hard as you want.”
Kirkpatrick makes his living shoeing horses and started competing four years ago to measure his skills against others around the country.
“Most of us are just competitive by nature,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s like anything. You do it, and after a while you want to know if you’re the best at it.”
However, he said that competitiveness quickly turned into camaraderie.
“You kind of find a community (of people) that are like you and have the same mindset as you,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick said it would normally take around two hours to complete both of the horseshoes, so time management is vital to doing it in one hour. Manley agreed, and said one can’t get hung up on or spend too much time on any particular aspect, otherwise time will run out.
Kirkpatrick enjoys the individual aspect of blacksmithing but said it can be challenging in competitions because he can’t put his personal touch on the horseshoe. Instead, he has to conform to the judge’s specifications.
“The toughest thing is fighting yourself,” Kirkpatrick said. “Mentally and physically it’s hard. You have to keep it together, not stress out and keep moving.”
For people like Manley and Kirkpatrick, the weekend meant a chance to hone their skills and celebrate a western way of life with fellow contestants.