Monday, August 11, 2014

Why in the hell would...

...somebody start shoeing horses in:


Oh yeah...that guy.  Seems he was overly interested in my active participation in a little get-together in southeast Asia.  Something about 'winning the hearts and minds' with 500lb. bombs.  At various times, I tried to tell the Selective Service that I was a little busy...what with overthrowing the existing government and doing a few random drug tests on myself.  Besides, I'd already filled out the form stating that I was a homosexual, cross-dressing communist with anarchic tendencies.  I mean, seriously, did they honestly believe I was one of those "few good men" that was going to achieve 'peace with honor' using the business-end of a loaded gun?  
Our team conducting field research. 

Then, there was the other problem: my associates and I were actively engaged in research to determine the connection between ingesting certain substances and the prospects of getting laid. But midway through our hypothesis, we all got a bad case of the crabs; a variable we hadn't built into the model.  

However, the government still remained extremely interested in what conclusions we were able to draw. But their zealousness was beginning to make us a little suspicious about their real motives.  I decided it was time to buy a horse and ride to Mexico. Not sure how I came to that conclusion, but it might have had something to do with either chronic, drug-induced paranoia or from eating too many Hostess products.  How did that work out?  You'll have to buy the book...I'll only give up so much personal dirt for free.        
"No, Mr. Juell...we'd rather talk to the horse."
Now you have to remember that the horse didn't become a wide-spread recreational item until the 1960's. Meaning that the animal was finally going mainstream once again -- kind of like when Henry Ford invented the Model A so poor people could learn to drive.  A beast for the masses.  Sure, we had jumpers in the east, racing all over the country, pockets of activity in Virginia, Kentucky...a budding professional circuit in California, but not (God forbid), the backyard equine.      
And then came the next question.  Who is going to shoe these ill-mannered, crooked-legged hair bags? Ah, well it seemed that there was a distinct shortage of trained 'shoers' (the common term in the wild west), and the tenets of capitalism dictate that one "should find a niche and fill it."  And this concept wasn't lost on a few budding entrepreneurs that either wanted a way out of the trenches, or more commonly at the time;  a surge in vocational-occupation schools that figured that producing a shoer wasn't much different than making up a new batch of Ford mechanics.  8-week wonders at a profit.

But where did the existing shoers come from?  Well, many were ex-Army taught;  Fort Riley, Kansas, the Army's remount camp still operating into the late 1940's or so. Others were refugees from the racetracks, ranch hand types and in the east, many were imported from Europe where the guild system produced highly-trained farriers, but not necessarily the income-level one could achieve in the US.  And demand was outstripping supply here.

Course, one rather foreboding conflict existed: administration sought to fill chairs with bodies; instructors needed students that had actually seen a horse or two in their young lives.  From "Mares, Foals and Ferraris:"

     "Wednesday morning we started the class.  There were about seventeen of us altogether. Three were on parole, two were sent down from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, two appeared to be cowboys of some sort and three guys seemed to be in the pharmaceutical business.  The rest of us just lied about why we wanted to shoe horses, all except this one curious soul who appeared to be a woman, although at about 240lbs or so, it seemed difficult to prove conclusively.  She did seem a little enamored with the anvils, spending a good portion of the afternoon stroking the horn on the biggest one.  Most of us shied away from her.  The police stopped by later that day and arrested one guy, so we were down to sixteen.

     There were two other fellows who stood outside the building for most of the day drinking something out of a paper bag and chain smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.  They had long hair and wore green army fatigues, with eyes that darted wildly at small noises and rapid movements.  I was thinking militant hippies, but one of the guys said they were sent down by the VA – coined locally as the Vietnam Administration, an organization known to operate like the Post Office on a Friday afternoon.  We nicknamed them the Siamese Twins since they seemed to be bound together at the brain.  Whenever they spoke it was in unison and they answered every question with another question.  They’d only discuss the war in the third-person, as if it were a movie they starred in, but never watched.  Mostly they answered everything with an all-inclusive, “Man, that’s just puppy shit.” ----

So, most instructors went out on mental leave shortly before their contract was to be renewed. It also meant that most shoeing schools in those days had an 80% attrition rate -- about the same recidivism percentage as alcoholics. But that didn't seem to diminish the number of hopelessly optimistic applicants showing up at the door.  Yeah, I graduated...the last positive on my horizon for quite a spell.  Which translates to: Farriers today are a bit spoiled... 

Welcome to the Dark Ages!


The basics:  Let's see...first off, all new farriers (we did get a name upgrade), were forced to inherit all the bad habits of the previous generation -- including all those 'catch-phrases' of the era; terminology like 'hot, cold and corrective.' We also got the antiquated price structure, the flaming animosity and a level of horsemanship just slightly more advanced than Genghis Khan's first cavalry school. And of course, the latest in technology.  Which meant:

We had 3 brands of shoes...two were awful and the third was mediocre. One brand of nails, two kinds of pads, one brand of rasp or knife, and the most remedial sort of hand tools. And no, gas forges hadn't been invented yet. Mine was a portable coal number made out of a swimming pool tank filter. Pritchels and punches were made out of coil springs from a '58 Buick. Spring vices, specialty tongs, made yourself. Sure, we were taught to make our own shoes during the '8-week rags to riches' class, but it seemed we were a little too busy making tools to worry about making shoes.  And with shoeing starting at $14.00 a head...well, you get it.

Agree to disagree...

Course, we didn't have homeopathic tree-hugging barefooters to contend with (Whoops! -- did have the Nature Plate!) -- just other farriers and veterinarians who assumed that farrier translated roughly to fairly stupid.  But then, considering our business model, they probably weren't far off the mark. However, we did have attitude...boy, we had a ton of that.

So after my initial 5-year sentence at hard labor was up...some questions were still festering in my thoroughly damaged psyche. So I and a few others turned to politics. This led to the rather tumultuous formation of both the AFA and various state 'professional' associations. The assumption was that we could take a collection of the world's most notorious outliers and agree on an agenda to make our profession more respectable -- thereby more mainstream and perhaps more profitable.  So that maybe we could afford things like health and disability insurance and maybe a Visa card that wasn't issued dependent on that night job at McDonalds.  Ha, ha...what was I thinking?  

See, we had elephants in the room.  Very large elephants. And while they were busy tipping over the furniture and pooping all over the carpet, nobody wanted to discuss the smell or seriously consider evicting them. To discuss prices, business practices, real credibility in a world that demands it -- relations with allied trades, insurance matters, a fair apprenticeship system, regulations...etc -- all taboo. The very things that encompass and define 'professionalism.' Instead, the focus was on self-certification, contests, clinics -- things that may (and did) bring social gains and a greater sense of community, but did little to address the overriding credibility gap in a highly litigious world -- one that doesn't seem to think that toys can break for no reason. And 30-odd years later...the status quo is alive and...well, alive.  

So I took my football and went home and started writing a whole series of articles on "Elephant Maintenance," with the help and support of Rob Edwards at the Anvil Magazine.  Course, that was an experiment that defined how many times you can fart in church before the parishioners have had enough. Yeah, the natives got a little restless with me, but that's old news anyway. However, one article I wrote at that time was on this kind of proto-Renaissance in the manufacturing and marketing of materials TO farriers. For it seemed that we had finally advanced to the point that others were willing to seek profits through our perceived needs.  Meaning we were gaining recognition...but only as a source of profit by others.  Which I guess is a good thing, though the US Department of Labor still classifies us as, "casual farm labor."  No worries though.  Few lawyers are going to seek damages from a grape picker. 

"Then came the 80's. Now anvils are slotted and cammed, elongated and bent until some resemble a cross between an aircraft carrier and a 1950's bra."  

So I wrote in 1989...lamenting that I'd need a 40' Kenworth to pull all this shit around.  Actually, I did surrender to inventory in some ways -- my last shoeing rig was a 16' step-van.

Circa 1989
But the point really was, 'how much technology is enough?'  The question really had to do  more with the equation that greater stock-on-hand, meant the more we could offer in services -- subsequently, the more options we made available, the more junk we would need to pack around. Which is probably okay to a certain point, except that in farriery, the business is always about labor, not materials. Which translates roughly into the idea that stock (inventory) is a liability until it finds its way on to a horse's foot. We don't sell shoes...we sell a service. So in effect, that inventory then becomes a detriment to our cash flow.  

But why sweat the small stuff when as the ad below the article is going to sell you a "No-Blow Hardie."  Sounds like a silly addition to your tool box? Then you don't remember the thrill of working with Japanese horseshoes. Yeah, the nostalgia is making my arm hurt all over again.

So here we are today...almost 25-years after the first revolution and the marketplace is more crowded than ever, while many of those old 'elephants' are still having their way with the furniture. Two questions arise.  The first is whether farriers are better off?  Personally, I was probably more progressive than most. In my area, I was the first to accept credit cards, the first to install a cell-phone in my truck.  And maybe the first to question where all this 'technology' was headed.  See, I was far more interested in raising the level of professionalism in my business AND the industry at large.  I saw the latter (and the politics) as a dire necessity in the real world; knowing full well that an improvement in economics should follow suit. Instead, I felt the resistance of those who appreciated the new 'toys,' but not always the accountability that business legitimacy demanded.  Now, if I fast-forward all this to the present...a different beast emerges: life in our corporate plutocracy, where money is seen as value, not the honest efforts of men or women.  That causes me to close to the toilet as possible.

Then the second question, that being is the horse better off?  Yes, and perhaps no. Some of the greatest advances have come in the area of adhesives and repair materials; a vast variety of shoes and pads.  Veterinary diagnostics and research have also advanced, as too, the nature of vet/farrier relations in general, mostly brought about by the advent of the internet and social media, combined with open educational forums that allow all opinions a place at the table.  Yet farriery still remains a largely unregulated, unrecognized endeavour and a continuing haven for charlatans and snake-oil peddlers, where facts are easily replaced by seemingly relentless dogma. And too, the horse industry itself is undergoing change, in some ways mirroring the overall economic disparity in the wider economy.  Yeah, the 99-1% split. Farriers today have a much better chance for advancing their skill level and by default, their economic prosperity, but far more dependent on geography today than ever before.  The overall horse industry is contracting; i.e., withdrawing geographically to areas of affluence, while the middle is losing ground as expendable income evaporates from the coffers of the middle class.  

Where is all this heading?  Hard to say.  But if one follows the lead of those most cynical about America's future, it would seem that a viable skill is quite likely to outweigh the value found in that 401k.  I'll check back in ten years and let you know on that one.  Wonder if you can still find those fine Japanese shoes?  Hmm.