Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Busine$$ of Horsehoeing...and other Fallacies--Pt. I

Welcome to Our Circus!


[Author's note:  This article was first written in 1987 for Anvil Magazine.  I suppose in many ways it was the culmination of many years struggling with a business model inherited from the previous generation of farriers -- a trend that continues to this day.  And getting rid of it; taking on the role of lone wolf was like kicking heroin with nothing more than a bottle of aspirin.  When this article was published, Rob Edwards and I had never even met in person.  Yes, we discussed it, concluding that it was both necessary and highly inflammatory.  So in a way, the courage in going forward belonged to him.  While I received a good deal of 'enlightened criticism,' -- aka: hate mail, the magazine risked alienating both subscribers and advertisers. That's the trouble with having elephants in the room.  If you don't call them out for what they are...well, you're gonna need a bigger wheelbarrow.  Rob and I went on to publish a number of articles on horseshoeings's  odd, quirky and often contradictory approach to what is basically a service-sector job.  So with minor annotations, here we go.  Oh...take it with a large grain of salt and try to remember the time period of the original article.] 

The Business of Horseshoeing:
A White Paper...Kinda

Part 1 of 2
Money:  Money has always been a tree of many roots.  It creates commerce, Christmas and credit cards.  It pays for good wine, contributes to nasty divorces and dictates the survivability of most businesses.  It is scorned for its value in relation to life itself, yet hoarded and coveted onto death.  In the historic sense, horseshoers have reacted to money in two basic ways:  First, most tend to like it.  Second, few tend to keep it.  Money as just money is easy to like, fairly convenient to carry around, works well in restaurants and gives bankers something to do during the day.  Unfortunately, most horseshoers see money as a clump of green material in their pocket, or small sheets of paper with names, amounts and signatures.  So in many instances, it is a case of having too much familiarity with the small picture and none with the larger.  Meaning that there is far more to money than the number of horses that a farrier can pack with iron on a given day. 
Horseshoers:  Horseshoeing has been called many things by many people.  It is supposed to be a twentieth-century adaptation of a very old skill -- the second oldest after prostitution -- and presumed to be a viable occupation.  It caters to a specific industry needs in a category of activities that should be viewed as a luxury, not a staple.  As such it could be compared to any service-oriented business that caters to income that is both above average and expendable.  Very few welfare recipients own horses today, nor do you find many farmers, teamsters or loggers with a couple of Percheron's on the payroll.  So it is probably a safe assumption that a degree of affluence is associated with owning a horse. And no, we are not going to be discussing horses here that are self-employed, go through life as a potted plant or already have one foot in the meat grinder.  The horses I prefer to are the ones we want to shoe...not those that lead to mental illness or the nearest bartender.  We'll just say industry-average equines.  Has a nice ring to it.
Nope. National defense has moved
 on to nastier things.
By defining a horseshoer as a person occupied/employed in a luxury field, it should be readily apparent that their usefulness could be limited by circumstances not in their immediate control: like the total bankruptcy of the western world.  It is possible under such circumstances that a few farriers could find themselves unemployed.  One a smaller scale, any form of economic regression, be it personal or regional, could effect the marketability of the farriers' craft.  Sadly, the profession really doesn't fit into the 'national need' or for that matter, have a significant influence in life, death or religion.  Nowadays, you could add war and rebellion as well.  The Pope has no horses and the government retired most farriers shortly after World War II.  And of course, nuclear weapons have their own transportation.  My point?  Just trying to interject a small degree of rational intimidation into the discussion and create a more humble atmosphere for debate.  Farriers as a group tend to be a little overly impressed with themselves, and as such, often view the world from horseshoeing on down.  In a matter of global importance, shoeing probably ranks about 823rd -- somewhere below sheep dipping and just above the guy that pumps out your septic tank.  Now this doesn't make it unproductive, unattractive, or unenlightening; just unimportant.  In the event of a nuclear war, the White House is not going recall all farriers.  They are going to hit the basement running while the rest of us are going have a warm beer and a toasty funeral.

So now that we have established that the occupation is insignificant by world standards, it can be examined rationally on a local scale.  At this level it may be possible to replace a degree of our newly gained humility with a cup or two of pride and self-respect -- as long as it doesn't get in the way.  Horseshoeing today is basically a trade that is practiced by a variety of individuals with an assortment of skills, motivations and just possibly a behavior problem or two.  The fact that some farriers are more talented than others is to simply take a binary approach in comparison to any other skilled trade.  The degree of talent or competency of the individual only effects the individual transaction between buyer and seller i.e., the farrier and the client.  Forget the horse. He doesn't speak English and if he has an opinion, you'll become aware of it on the ride to the hospital.

That means on a larger scale, no real reason exists that the occupation cannot be presented to the general public as a viable entity -- hence, to other farriers as a competitive force in the market, and to the financial institutions of the world as a successful enterprise.  It is not only a matter of acquiring wealth, but of having a recognizable financial base, one both appropriate and comparable to any highly skilled trade.  That means it should provide you with a comfortable life-style at whatever level you choose.  With a minimum of physical abuse or mindless conversations justifying the size of your truck.  And standards set by yourself, not the idiot down the street that shoes out of an '78 Pinto.  To be successful, you must establish yourself as the 5% that chooses to be pro-active in your profession, and either pull the other 95% up to par with you, or collectively cast them adrift.  Hell, you might like the guy with the '78 Pinto, but he is not paying your mortgage -- you are.

How much?!!!

However, the problem here is that the above-described idyllic scenario only exists in that 5-10% of all horseshoeing businesses. [Note: I would say that has improved today, but primarily in areas that serve large urban populations -- more on this later.]  The other 90% are caught somewhere between deodorant failure and the next truck payment.  Being caught between what was thought to be a life's work, and the nasty economics of the bottom line is not pleasant.  It hardly reinforces the concept of self-worth and it destroys in a person's mind the standard work ethic of due compensation and fair play.  It becomes nothing more than an economic trap, an unrealistic love affair, a betrayal that lurks just behind the smile you wear. Farriery as a profession, has institutionalized poverty scribbled all over it -- if you let the market define what the market is going to be.

In over viewing the profession, it is not just a matter of current conditions.  It must also be viewed through the long lens of past, mostly poor practices conducted over the previous decades -- periods when economic viability in this trade was a matter of smoke and mirrors.  This history also includes inadequate educational systems (no standardization or recognized credentialing), a badly trained and poorly educated horse-owning population (mostly on purpose), an accepted culpability or guilt by association -- farrier as convenient bad guy -- poor self-esteem masked by inflated egos, disorganized organization, retail buying habits on a scandalous scale, bad bookkeeping, no accounting, rampant liability, poor public relations, tunnel vision of historic proportions, and an overall attitude that only the tooth fairy could find useful on a slow Friday night.  However, it is not hopeless.

A common business model adopted by farriers.

Much of this was created through the process of the blind leading the blind.  Prior to the advent of some rudimentary organization among farriers, there was probably very little reliable data to draw off in formulating better models.  Still isn't. Very few farriers communicated, and if at all it was normally confined to a form of archaic Celtic sign language.  During these medieval times (1970's), it was quite common for every farrier to assume that every other farrier was somehow doing better than you were.  The truth was a little different.  In reality they just had higher monthly trucks payments.  Kind of like the situation where you invest in a fake Rolex to impress...you get it.  This led to a lot of distrust, business stagnation and an overall attitude that the life-cycle of a lemming made good sense somehow.  You see, all these immense egos were the veneer sloppily glued on top of a fundamental fear: losing clients over price.  As opposed to...what?  Over skills?  Nobody was even sure what that meant and sure as hell didn't plan on discussing it.  So really, if the guy whose business you coveted wouldn't raise his rates, you couldn't either.  So in this rather demented business climate, the profession probably threw away 50 years worth of pay raises, along with what was left of the prestige. 

Today, in a period of zealous organization the opposite appears to be true.  Horseshoers are overwhelmed with a desire to meet and impress one another.  According to a somewhat impromptu poll (conducted secretly in the men's room), it was established that the average farrier presently shoes twenty-eight horses before noon for an average per-head amount of $213.83 apiece.  And naturally, each person surveyed was, as far as could be ascertained, the world's best.  Which means that the only sophistication brought forth by organization was in the quality of the bullshit.

Emergency Farrier
Communication Device

In order to accurately gauge what you do and how it equates to financial solvency, you are going to have to confess to something.  Farriers are not, as a rule, a preferred customer at the local Mercedes dealership, so either the stories are moderately inflated, or the checks are still in the mail.

Farriery, as a skill, can be considered a viable occupation today, but is rapidly devolving as a business.  In most of the country it is practiced by people who are under thirty-years of age. [Note: this comment in light of the proliferation of farrier schools -- late '70's -- mid '80's.]  Since the horse was invented at sometime prior to the 1950's, it points to a strong erosion of craftsmen from the more experienced portion of the scale.  There is a very ominous meaning to that kind of attrition.  It points to attempts and failures at taking the profession full circle -- meaning: self-sustaining in the long run.
1970's high-tech!

[Note: It is common knowledge that the horse industry (in more or less its current form) only began to develop a recreational niche in the 1960's.  The old-guard then, moving into the 70's and beyond were either trained via the military at the closing of World War II, or those that learned on the nation's racetracks.  Few other opportunities existed to learn the trade and virtually no formal or informal education was readily available.]
Horseshoers could be placed in four somewhat distinct camps.  They are established loosely as the five-year and under bunch; the five to tenner and the ten to fifteen-year veteran.  Twenty and above continues to be extremely rare. You could compare it to the one-child rule in China. A gap in population production (or a lack of younger, well-trained farriers entering the field), will create a   shortage later, particularly if there is a concurrent upsurge in demand, be it labor in China for an overheated economy or like here, a huge increase in both equestrian activities and expendable income.  Even so, each group as outlined above will represent a wholly different perspective on this business.  The five and under has no clue, but lots of ambition. They are the 'rebel without a clue,' busily engaged in identifying the perfect clinch.  The five-to-ten individual has managed to set some unrealistic goals between bouts of the 'Wyatt Earp Syndrome,' which basically revolves around curing the ills on anything with four legs and a tail.  This person thinks he knows what is going on and if the attorneys don't get him, he may actually find out.  The ten-to-fifteen individual is in the most trouble.  At this unhappy juncture, many goals have been met, but most have run head-on into reality.  The business seems good, with decent horses, nice barns and attentive clients.  Financially however, the business is going nowhere; the savings account has not changed in three years, the IRS is still making most of the profit, and every time a truck gets paid off, it's time for a new one.  After ten years, the investment in time, skill inflation and attitude has created a desire, or more accurately, an addiction to go forward with the venture.  But the business itself has not grown in proportion because a single person is automatically limited by the clock, the body and the advancing fatigue of age.  And the creeping fear that comes with kids, a mortgage, insurance...on the horizon: tuition and retirement.  And a new round of Young Turks barking at your heels.

The problems:  Poor history.  Horseshoeing has more flat roads than North Dakota.  Good business practices are rare or non-existent, bookkeeping is ignored, business licenses do not exist, and at the lunatic fringes, most people do not bother with federal taxes, social security deductions and figure an IRA has something to do with the Irish.  Wages are construed as prices -- causing decades of under-scaling, while public expectations have soared.  Why?  The cost of horseflesh and the concurrent maintenance of Fluffy's lifestyle has grown exponentially -- while prices (the end-wage) hover just above a flat line.  Meanwhile, horseshoers continue to bootleg anything and everything, keep idiotic records, and live off the assumption that a two-dollar raise is the road to prosperity.  If horseshoeing rates were twenty years behind twenty-years ago, then where are they now?

Educational systems:  The average horseshoer in the United States acquires the necessary skills to practice the trade through study at a vocational school. [Note: Yes, whether public or private, farrier education is considered a vocation, as opposed to formal education.]  The duration of the teaching period varies greatly with an overall average of 12-weeks.  The common appeal of these schools is invariably the exchange of a certain degree of money for some basic skills in a profession that seems more pleasant in the school's brochure than the reality will dictate -- that part shows up later.  A quick in and out approach to a trade does not attract a quality student, for education is always an unequal exchange between master and student.  You have to really want it to do the heavy lifting required.  And too, the goals of the various schools run the gambit of motivations, altruistic or somewhere less pleasant -- like the necessary bottom line. So the first goal is to fill the classroom with warm and paying bodies, not always the production of farriers for the marketplace.  It is naïve to think that the school and the pupil share a common goal.  However, this does not mean that the educational system is corrupt, unethical or irresponsible, it merely indicates that the programs are adhering to sound business practices by making the acquisition of your tuition check a solid priority.  What education the student may receive through this relationship will have to be addressed through the personal motivation and ambition of each individual student.  The major drawbacks to this system is a high failure rate due to poor screening, short-preparedness for the real world and highly unrealistic expectations from the students themselves.  And quite frankly, this extrapolates to an exaggerated attrition rate in the field.

It ain't your father's world anymore...

Horseshoeing schools, for the most part, cannot teach a potential farrier the intricacies of the business world within the time-frame that most programs offer.  It is difficult enough to provide a rudimentary introduction to a multi-level, complex skill; much less the mine-field lurking just below the surface. Under such circumstances, it is not unrealistic to expect a 60% failure rate on that aspect alone. Don't believe that figure?  Consider two points:  1) Schools need to graduate students.  Without high graduation rates, you are admitting failure of the program, not the student.  2) Consider rehab programs for a moment.  They will proudly state that 80% of their inpatients will complete the program.  However, reconciliation with the bottle, bag or pipe after only one year of sobriety:  92% .
Those are the figures that define a program's real value.

Now affix a little human behavior to the equation: a touch of incompetency, a degree of incompatibility for the task, physical limitations, dexterity issues...relating to the horse itself, that figure could rise to 80% -- either by attrition or failure to continue in the business after five years.  Even with the basic skills, some small sense of business acumen -- a touch of flare for it -- the aspiring farrier is going to have to face a whole set of unpractical assumptions, non-workable communal practices, and a set of working guidelines that are ludicrous at best.  Even an experienced farrier will be confronted by a certain degree of vulnerability -- a critical factor in maintaining accounts, while concurrently trying to gain additional, perhaps better ones in the process.  So if he is subject to the whims of a fickle market...what about the new guy on the block?  Can he/she go against the grain or do they merely accept the existing practices and protocols, no matter how unorthodox they appear, just to fit in?  Acceptance has a wide, perhaps overrated appeal in the beginning, and it is this element that promotes and maintains generationally the less than desirable aspects of this business.  The idea that certain practices of the business can be abandoned at a more strategic (safer) time is rarely supported by the facts.  A badly trained client, remains just that...badly trained. 

Part II Coming...
Yes, it gets worse. 

What, me worry?


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