TORRINGTON, Wyo. — There’s an old adage that says “a horse is like a violin ... “
“ ... First it must be tuned, and when tuned it must be accurately played.”
The latter comes from the skill of a rider, the former takes a farrier with years of experience.
Both are arts which Mike Sussex has a long history with.
Sussex is a native of southeastern Wyoming. He was raised on a ranch and got introduced to shoeing horses by his father at the age of 16.
“My dad first taught me how to handle a horse,” Sussex said. “He taught me to know the horse before you ever walk into the corral with it, because the minute you enter his domain, you better know about him.”
That mentality has helped Sussex understand and recognize horse behaviors which others might not pay attention to. It’s that keen eye that’s kept him out of a number of tight jams over the years.
“I had a situation the other day that nobody realized what was going on,” he said. “I was at a clinic doing a 19 hand draft horse, and it was like trimming a small elephant, he was so huge.”
Sussex noticed the horse tightening up, something he’d never felt with that horse before.
Something wasn’t right.
“I could feel his energy level go up, and I was doing a hind foot and I just eased out of there,” he said.
Sussex said he didn’t want to move too fast, because a horse’s natural instincts would mistake him for a predator.
It had turned out that someone had brought a goat into the clinic, an animal which the draft horse had never seen before.
“He’d tensed up and raised himself up about another foot higher,” Sussex said. “It took me a while to get him to smell that goat and figure out what it was before he calmed down.”
By paying attention to the attitudes and demeanor of a horse, Sussex said he saved himself from getting trampled that day.
A large part of Sussex’s work is based on observation and feeling a horse’s non-verbal cues.
“When you see a horse that doesn’t want to pick his foot up after you’ve trimmed him and he wants to keep it on the ground, that means you did a good job,” Sussex said after he finished filing the hoof of a gelding. “He’s wanting to put his weight on it.”
Anatomy of the hoof
The average adult horse can weigh anywhere from 800 to 2,200 pounds, depending on the breed. All of that weight is supported by the hooves, which are made of a protein substance similar to the human nail. It’s analogous to placing your entire bodyweight on your fingernails, which means a farrier’s work has to be detailed to keep the horse from becoming lame.
The frog, a v-shaped pad on the bottom of a horses’ hoof, should touch the ground when the horse stands on soft footing. It acts as a shock absorber for the foot when it makes impact with the ground, decreasing the force placed on the bones and joints of the leg. It’s also an important part of the horse’s circulatory system — it acts like a pump, and every time the horse steps down, blood is pushed back up through the horse’s legs.
“There’s spots in the foot where it’s tighter and more solid, like the pillars,” Sussex said. “The toe and heel pillars are more solid. In the quarters, where it always breaks out is a softer material.”
The hard material keeps the horses from wearing their feet out. If the hoof is too weak, however, shoes are added to reinforce the natural structure, which promotes growth of harder material.
“Wild horses will wear their feet back and short, but they will be really hard and solid,” he said. “They will get sore footed sometimes, but then the foot calluses up, and grows new material where it’s needed.
“Nature takes care of itself quite well.”
The changing state of farriering
Sussex graduated high school in 1974, and attended a shoeing school at Central Wyoming College in Riverton, under the tutelage of Bob Daniels. He began shoeing horses for the public in 1975.
“My instructor was very, very good and taught us some cool stuff,” Sussex said. “But the real schooling, just like anything, is when you get out here and start doing it.”
For decades, Sussex shod horses in the traditional way up until the ‘90s. A lot of what he learned in school differs from what he practices today.
“We’ve followed a lot of the guidelines for years, but as we’ve learned more about the locomotion of a horse and the anatomy of a foot, we adopt new techniques,” Sussex said. “I trim a horse different than I used to, and that came from looking at how horses come off the pasture.
“I look at what they’ve had worn in their feet — from the pillars and the toe and the quarters and all that — I put that back in there when I trimmed it.”
The horseshoes farriers use have changed over time as well, from lightweight aluminum shoes with more tapered edges, to polyplastic pads that can be shaped and worn to fix weak frogs.
“They’re more ergonomic so to speak for the horse,” he said. “He can break forward and backward, but also break side to side.
Taking care of the whole horse
Sussex is currently a certified lameness specialist through the Penrose, Colorado-based Equine Lameness Prevention Organization (ELPO). He said that the knowledge-base for farriers is constantly evolving.
“The guy that started all we do Gene Ovenick. He studied the wild horses and did the research on them,” he said. “We discovered that the horses with the long toes shouldn’t always have that.”
“We’ve learned enough to know that we don’t know,” he said. “It’s such a vast parameter in the farrier business because it’s not just the feet, it’s the whole horse. You have to really take in the whole horse.
Pasture horses tend to have better feet than those kept cooped up in stalls all day, and particular breeds can be more problematic than others due to human interference with the breeding process, Sussex said.
Namely Quarter Horses.
“Man has had his hands in the Quarter Horse too much,” he said. “In the horses that I work with, Arab Horses probably have the best feet. They don’t have near the problems that quarter horses do.”
Closing out at the end of the day
Once the horses are loaded back into the trailer, Sussex retreats into his office where he records the work he’s done into a computer database.
“I got tired of thumbing through ticket books to find what I did to a horse,” he said. “With this, it’s right there and I can see what I did last time and get an idea.”
Sussex has a philosophy that you sometimes have to adopt technology.
“You have to move forward with the times a bit,” he said. “Even with ranching, you have to move forward with the way things are because it makes your life easier.
“The thing about it is that if you know the old ways, you can always go back to them any time, which is what makes it so cool.”
But while technology and methods change, one thing is for certain: you can never replace the living, breathing interaction between a farrier and a horse.