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For want of a nail
Friday, February 15, 2013 - Steve Stanley

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The proverb has been around for a long time, and it is a fact that races have been lost for the want of a shoe. Horses lose shoes in races from time to time. That will always be a part of horse racing. However, racing, qualifying, or even training with a shoe that needed repair to begin with can easily be avoided.

A paddock blacksmith is normally available for racing, but sometimes a farrier isn’t around when needed. Racing at fairs, training at farms or other off-track facilities are some examples of places that might not have a farrier available when needed.

Many trainers can tack on a shoe. Some can even shoe a horse. I once heard of a guy who could actually shoe a horse well. Just kidding, folks. I know several trainers that can show a horse very capably. But all a trainer really needs to know is how to fix a shoe and nail it back on the horse. It doesn’t even need to be the trainer, but someone in the stable should have that skill.


Photo by the author
A stall jack, or portable anvil, can be used to straighten and level a shoe in a stall or shed row.
The act of nailing the shoe on a horse is one of the easiest parts of the job. Deciding how to trim, then trimming, what shoe to use, and how to apply it and then forging the shoe into the needed shape are much more technically difficult than actually nailing it on.  Almost any stable will have somebody in the barn capable of learning to tack on a shoe.  John Patterson Sr. was still putting shoes on horses into his 70s.

Any farrier can teach a person how to straighten a shoe and tack it back on in a relatively short period of time. I promise they are gladly willing because it could potentially save them a lot of time traveling to a horse for a five-minute job. I cannot do justice to teaching this procedure in print. It is a visual, hands-on learning experience that will take less time than you might think.

After you get over the initial trepidation of hammering a nail into a horse’s hoof, it is simply a matter of getting a feel for where the nail is going, and yes, it is mostly done by feel. Where you aim the nail is done less by sight than any other part of the job. To re-level the shoe is a very important part of the procedure. This can be done with reasonable efficiency after a little practice.

You will need two hammers, one to fix the shoe, usually called a turning or rounding hammer (about 2 1/2 pounds), and the other to drive the nails, appropriately called a driving hammer (about 8 to 14 ounces). You’ll also need a shoe puller, to take a bent or loose shoe off, (which can also be used to cut nails), a clinch block and clincher used to form the clinch on a nail after driving it. This creates a small hook feature to the remaining end of the nail. In a pinch, one can use the puller to serve as a clinch block. Buy a rasp handle and ask your farrier for the used rasp. He will have an endless supply.

The last thing you need is a stall jack (mini anvil Picture 1), which is used to straighten and level a shoe. For about $300 you can buy an economy line of tools that will get the job done just fine (picture2). Ask your farrier for a nearby supplier. These tools and a little patience are all you need.

One thing for certain is that you might have a redefined opinion of what your farrier is doing under there and how much little movements from a horse affect that work. I emphasize the word work. Once mastered, this is a brief chore that can really get a horseman out of a jam, I finish the proverb:

“For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost.

For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost.

For the want of the horse, the rider was lost

For the want of the rider, the battle was lost.

For the want of the battle, the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of the nail.”

In Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1758, Benjamin Franklin preceded this proverb with the phrase, “A little neglect may breed great mischief.”  Farriers, please refrain from ‘great mischief’ when teaching your client how to fix a shoe.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.