Farrier brothers are forging a new family tradition
- Credit: Ian Burt
A newly-qualified farrier has graduated with national plaudits – after spending four years learning the traditional craft from his older brother.
It is a traditional profession which dates back through the centuries.
But while the skill of shoeing a horse has barely changed, the role of the modern farrier has evolved to encompass the expertise of a blacksmith, a veterinary consultant, an osteopath – even a racing support crew.
And Norfolk's newest recruit to the ranks of the professional farrier owes all these skills to his older brother.
Alex Ridgeway, 27, has graduated with national plaudits after completing a four-year apprenticeship, learning the complex trade from his 32-year-old brother Laurence.
Of the 60 students who received their certificates from the Worshipful Company of Farriers in London, he won the awards for the best practical exam and best theory paper.
And he said that was the best possible start to his career working as a fully-qualified farrier alongside his mentor and sibling.
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Alex, who lives in Hingham, said: 'It was a shock. There was a lot of well-known people in the industry there, so to get those awards for Laurence was quite a big thing as well. He is a relatively young ATF (approved training farrier), so for him to have his first apprentice get such good grades is a credit to him.
'In this trade, you get a lot of people whose dads do it, but being trained by your brother is a bit different.
'Everyone says it must be a nightmare working for your brother, but we get on really well. You still have that brotherly relationship, but that's outside of work. When you are here, you are in front of clients, and he is the boss, and I have to do what he says, big brother or not.'
The brothers, originally from the Wirral, on Merseyside, grew up around horses, but Alex took an indirect route into the farriery profession.
'I was doing civil engineering at university, but if I'm honest I was not keeping up with it,' he said. 'I wanted to do something practical, but I couldn't grasp the academic side, so I dropped out.
'I was quite snobby. I thought I needed a degree to succeed, rather than an apprenticeship – but that's not true at all.
'Laurence worked for Gressenhall museum, where they had an old-fashioned forge and they had some funding to take on an apprentice. He said the opportunity is there if you want to come and work with me.'
Laurence, who lives at Shelfanger near Diss, originally moved to Norfolk to begin his own farriery apprenticeship, but stayed after meeting his wife Carla. The couple now have two children; Oliver, three and Daniel, one.
After securing the added qualification to become an approved training farrier, the opportunity to recruit his brother into the family business came while Laurence was working at the rural life museum at Gressenhall, near Dereham, with the help of lottery-funded Skills for the Future programme.
He said: 'He has worked so hard, and those awards were the icing on the cake. Now that we are going into business together to work as a partnership, the benefit for the horse owners is if they need access a well-trained farrier, now there are two of us so we can be at more than one place at a time.'
Laurence said the reason the farriery apprenticeship – which must be preceded by passing a blacksmith's qualification – was so lengthy was due to the complexity of the disciplines which the role now required.
'There is a lot of science and research going into it,' he said. 'The veterinary colleges are doing a lot of research and we go to a lot of courses. There are always new ideas and a lot of new theories which you have to stay ahead of. The skill of putting on a shoe has not changed much, but we are always trying to learn.
'That is why the apprenticeship is so long. You learn pretty quickly how to fit a shoe, but the important part is how that shoe affects the horse. I look for foot-flight and foot-fall. The foot is a pendulum, so if the shoe is not balanced it will swing inwards or outwards and you can get interference injuries or it could load a particular side of a joint, which could lead to osteoarthritis. You are shoeing it to make that working period for the horse as a long as possible.'
Although most of the brothers' work involves domestic family ponies, they also deal with working animals, endurance horses and racehorses.
Race rider's 'pit crew'
One of the Ridgeway brothers' clients is Nicki Thorne, one of the world's top-ranked endurance riders, who is based at Shipdham, near Dereham.
She said her performances at international competitions around the globe were wholly dependent on the work of her farriers – who are taken along to some events to act like a pit crew if a horse should lose a shoe during the race.
If the horses get too warm, the farrier can also be called on to run alongside pouring water over them, known as 'sloshing', to prevent them overheating.
'We cannot race without our crew team,' said Nicki. 'They are integral to us being able to compete.
'There are a couple of different layers. Firstly we need to get the horses fit. They need to be in peak performance condition and shoeing the horse is the very start of that so Laurence and Alex, right from the start, are crucial to be able to get the horses to a position where they are capable of performance.
'Then we have got the race itself. We need the horses to be sound throughout the whole competition. The horse has to be adapted to the course and the terrain. The farriers will come out with us and watch the horses trot up and if they lose a shoe, then they can replace it while we are racing.
'That is where the element of the pit stop comes in. Laurence can sort out any problems and shoe a horse in minutes, and then I'm off again. That's all part of my race time. My clock is still ticking, so it is just like Formula One. You need to surround yourself with the best people.
To be world class you need to have a world class team, and these guys are. They do so much more than just shoeing. To see Alex go through all the stages and then to get the marks he has got – we are all so proud of him.'
The craft of the farrier
Before getting to work on a horse's feet, the farriers undertake a 'pre-shoeing assessment' to look at the movement of the animal as it walks, to identify any gait issues or injuries which need attention.
Laurence Ridgeway said: 'We look for a good level trim. If they are not right on their feet it goes through the whole balance.'
After the hooves are filed down and cleaned up, the shoe is heated to up to 1000 degrees in a portable gas forge, so the metal can be hammered into shape on an anvil. While it is still hot, the shoe is applied to the horse's hoof to ensure a perfect fit, prompting a billow of steam as it moulds the underside of the foot to the new shoe.
'If we held them on there a long time there would be a problem, but we can dab it on there and she won't feel a thing,' said Laurence.
Clips on the side of the shoe are bent into notches in the hoof, and the nails are hammered in from below, and out the side of the insensitive hoof's wall, where they are 'clenched' tight and filed off to ensure there are no sharp edges.
'We use as few nails as possible, to try and preserve the foot, but it has got to stay on for several weeks at varying paces and on different terrains,' said Laurence.
Depending on its job, each horse will have specific shoes tailored for its purpose, and Laurence said he and his brother are able to make custom shoes as required as well.
For endurance horses, a silicon gel is applied into the hole in the middle of the shoe before a ride, to protect the foot from stones on unpredictable terrains.
Laurence said: 'That's just for endurance horses, but every horse needs something different, depending on the job it is doing. We put stud holes in shoes for showjumping, so they're just like football boots.'