ORONO, Maine — Mention farriers, blacksmiths and horseshoes and images of the Old West — burly men with blackened faces carrying iron tongs and dressed in denim, work boots and leather aprons — spring to mind.
There were plenty of people wearing leather aprons, work boots and denim among the 35 assembled inside and around the Witter Center barn on the University of Maine campus Sunday, but these aren’t your great-grandfather’s blacksmiths and they’re about as far from the Old West as you can get.
The occasion was the third annual Maine Farriers Association conference and clinic, a two-day event designed to bring farriers from all over the state to share and teach the latest and most effective techniques and products available.
“My goal is to educate all the farriers, and it’s a hard goal,” said MFA President Brent Brown.
The co-owner of the Belfast Polo Club with his wife, dressage expert Barton Patrick, Brown minces no words when describing his frustration with Maine’s blacksmithing community.
“I don’t think they’re that interested in learning new stuff or getting even better than they are,” said the Northport resident. “You don’t have to, but if you want to go anywhere and charge any kind of decent money, then you have to. I just want them to just get outside the box once in awhile.”
Brown softened a bit when asked about the current climate and his future outlook on the industry.
“It’s all about education for me. I’d go to these meetings all over the country and guess how many people there would be from Maine? Just me,” Brown said. “Four or five years ago, that became two. Today there’s two, but we’ve talked a couple other guys into going down with us.”
Brown, MFA Treasurer Kevin Oliver and two other farriers will be attending the annual American Farriers Association convening in Cincinnati, which draws anywhere from 700 to 1,100 farriers worldwide each year.
“A lot of them are starting to warm up to listening to new ideas and learning new technology and techniques,” said Oliver. “They come because they’re interested and once we get them here, they’ll listen. We’re making slow progress year by year.”
Technology rules the world and farriers aren’t immune to it.
“Yesterday was mostly lectures and PowerPoint presentations on the same subjects we’re dealing with hands-on here today,” Oliver said. “These guys sit and ask intelligent questions. We even get into arguments that sometimes get kind of heated, but that’s good.”
Key topics this weekend included the use of alternative horseshoes such as glue-on, full rocker and roller shoes.
“Instead of being flat, rocker shoes roll at the toe and heel end so to better align a horse that has problems like laminitis,” Brown said, adding that laminitis — inflammation of the tissue that holds a hoof to the coffin bone — is the No. 2 killer of horses in this country. “The advantages of the full rocker shoes depend on who you talk to. Some of these guys here think it’s B.S., but others think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. The roller shoe is one that’s flat but it rolls up a bit in the back.”
Brown said he prefers rollers because they’re much lighter and used widely in the thoroughbred horse racing community.
“You can make them wider so they can dissipate more shock without adding more weight,” Brown said.
This weekend’s conference event drew attendees from the Maine Standardbred, show, sport and draft horse segments.
“We only had four Standardbred people here this weekend, but Standardbred is a small part of the horse industry in this state, really,” said Oliver. “The other part is show and sport horses and draft horse. If harness racing is 25 percent of the market, draft horses are about 15 and the rest being saddle horses for pleasure and show or sport horses.”
Regardless of their backgrounds, they were all crowded around inside the Witter barn to watch farriers use different shoes and shoeing techniques on horses with various conditions.
“We had one demonstration with a horse and the farrier who was working on it called me in because he was a little over his head and I helped him through it,” said Brown. “The horse they’re shoeing now is one they wanted someone to put a right front foot on, and they turned me down when I offered because they wanted someone who might not know how to do it.
“It’s all about learning something and then putting it into practice.”