Shoes of another color

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 26, 2007

SMITHFIELD—Chad Beechboard has a thing for footwear, especially for clients who stand almost six-feet tall and weigh about 1,000 pounds.

Beechboard is a farrier, a professional who shoes horses.

And in Isle of Wight County, where there are more horses than cows, according to the latest count, Beechboard stays busy shoeing for customers in Isle of Wight and Surry counties and Suffolk.

“I wouldn’t have to leave Isle of Wight or Suffolk if I didn’t want to,” said Beechboard, who calls Heartland Farms in Windsor as his home.

He started learning the trade at age 16 in Tennessee when he “got to riding around” with a farrier and picked up the trade. His shoeing career was interrupted by a stint in the Navy at age 19 —“it’s hard to shoe a horse when you’re at sea,” he said, His formal training took place in Missouri.

He’s certified by the American Association of Farriers, having to pass a written exam, a practical exam and successfully demonstrate about a dozen modifications needed in the field.

He moved to Windsor when he married.

“My wife is a Windsor-Smithfield native,” he said. Her family can trace roots to the 1800s.

“That’s real native,” said Sarah Miller, at whose barn Beechboard is working on this morning. He’s got a client scheduled for that afternoon and travels the area five days a week, cleaning hooves and replacing shoes every six to eight weeks.

It’s that return business that keeps Beechboard hopping.

“If [clients] do like you,” he said, “You never have to worry about [attracting] business again.

“And horse people are fickle,” he said, meaning the quality of the work isn’t the only barometer. Customer satisfaction plays a significant role.

He got started in the area’s barns and stables through word of mouth in 2003, and has been full time since.

The work being done one particular morning is on Miller’s horse Xander, short for Alexander, as in Alexander the Great. Xander stands taller than 18 hands and weighs about 1,200 pounds. Xander is going have his shoes pulled and re-fitted, hooves scraped clean and shoes replaced. Xander’s pretty good about having footwork done, standing quietly as Beechboard bends each leg backward to get the bottom of each hoof, one at a time.

As with any profession, much of repeat business is a result of the quality of the work with each visit.

“There’s a big difference between a good shoeing job,” Beechboard said, “and a shoeing job.”

Said Miller: “Chad’s more I tune with what the horse needs rather than what the rider wants. And that’s gotten him in trouble a few times.”

“More than a few times,” Beechboard answered. “I listen to what the owner wants to do with the horse, then make an educated guess on what needs to be done beyond that.”

Horses are ridden for different disciplines, from dressage to Western cattle performing to any one of a number of preferences.

His “office” is a pickup truck hauling a stainless steel trailer that looks like a lunch truck on a construction site. Inside the doors are his tools, heavy anvil, replacement shoes, a gas-fired forge, among others.

“You’ve got some benefits” of being a farrier, Beechboard said, “the benefits of being self-employed.”

There are downsides, as well. His beefy hands are calloused to the point where his sense of touch is not as sensitive as it is others. A farrier spends a considerable amount time hunched over, scraping gunk out of a horse’s hoof. And, you’ve got be in good physical condition.

“You want to make sure you stay physically fit,” he said. Not only is a farrier moving a heavy anvil from truck to table at each stop and slinging a hammer to shape the shoes, but “some horses will lean on you. You’ve got your own weight on your own feet, and a percentage of the weight of the horse.”

And farriers rarely work in the air conditioning during summer, or in the warmth in winter.

For that, a farrier can figure on making about $210 on an average stop, according to the national average. That figure includes about $30 to prepare the hooves, $80 to shoe the front hooves and about $100 for the back pair of shoes.

But owning horses is not for the miserly.

“The cheapest thing you’re doing to do,” said Miller, “is buy the horse.”

After that, owners finance upkeep on the buildings, equipment, insurance, visits to the vet. And, of course, food.

Given the drought conditions experienced this summer, suitable pasture land is hard to find, meaning owners need to buy hay or other ruffage. Horses, Beechboard said, need to eat about 4 percent of it body weight each day, or about half a bale of hay.

Then there’s the shoeing.

But for a farrier, these are good times. The supply of a dozen or so farriers in the region lags far behind the demand of horse owners.

“There’s plenty of room for more” farriers in the region, Beechboard said.