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Irons in the Fire: Don’t aim

Paul Marchant for Progressive Forage Published on 12 July 2016

It’s been several years since I paid someone else to shoe my horses. That’s a chore I always do for myself. The main reasons for this are twofold: because I’m cheap and because I can.

When I was a kid, we usually had Doc Woolstenhulme shoe our horses, but my dad insisted I learn how to put a shoe on a horse, so I learned the basics from him and from paying half-attention when Doc was shoeing.

When I was in high school, I pulled shoes and may have put a shoe on here or there, when a horse lost one, but I really didn’t do enough to know what I was doing or to know I didn’t really know what I was doing.

My first gig after I graduated from college was working on a big cow outfit in White Pine County in eastern Nevada. When I was hired, the boss made it a point to ask if I could shoe horses – because one of the prerequisites of the job was that you had to shoe your own horses. I was semi-confident when I assured him I could handle that task.

You know how some memories, good or bad, are seared into your consciousness in perfect detail, like the perfect toasted waffle brown of a good hip brand? Well, that’s how the memory of my first shoeing job in Nevada is for me. It was my first week on the job, late spring. The plan was to make a gather the next morning so we could start branding.

My horses had been plucked from the cavvy upon my arrival and were pastured in a little piece behind the house. None of them were shod.

I figured I’d slap some shoes on one of them that evening, after chores, before the sun went down. I caught a big, good-looking, stout roan gelding and dove into the task.

It wasn’t a complete wreck, but if you were to bless the story of that first shoeing job with a name, it would be tough to choose between “Titanic” and “The Edmund Fitzgerald.” With the help of Providence and some good pickup headlights, I somehow finished the job.

For my sake, it’s good that the Lord watches over children and fools. Bless the big roan’s heart. He patiently endured the three-and-a-half-hour ordeal with as much dignity as he could muster, and somehow, he ended up with an iron shoe tacked to each foot. I ended up with some sore muscles, bloodied hands and some serious bruising to my legs and ego.

I certainly wished I’d paid more attention and applied more effort in learning the craft when I’d had the chance. It was a good lesson in the value of preparation.

I left the Nevada ranch when I took a job on a ranch in central Utah. Again, I was expected to shoe my own horses. Though I was now better equipped to handle the job, I still wasn’t really very good at it. The boss had spent two or three summers shoeing horses on the track in California and had a pretty good handle on how to shoe a horse.

I was much more teachable than I was when my dad had tried to get me to learn how to shoe, and I eventually became competent enough to do a pretty decent job.

We did a lot of horse trading on that place, and I was pretty much alone, so there was always a horse or two that needed shoeing. When the boss would come down every other week or so, we’d have a shoeing party.

He taught me several tricks that made the job much less of an exercise in torture for me. We’d even work on two feet of the same horse at one time.

Although I am much less of an artist than he was, he always wanted the finished product to be pretty to look at as well as functional. We used only six nails instead of eight, because if you do it right, that’s all you need. And, if you do it right, those three nails on each side of the hoof will be in a perfectly straight line, angled slightly upward from front to back.

One thing that required a lot of discipline and practice on my part was the “don’t aim policy.” The boss was adamant about this. He maintained, and beat it into my head, that if you make the effort to prepare the hoof and the shoe correctly, when you drive the nails, they’ll always come out in the right place. It’s folly to try to aim the nail so it comes out where you want it to emerge.

While a “don’t aim policy” seems counter to finding success in most endeavors in life, it actually makes a lot of sense. It’s not that you shouldn’t have a goal in mind and keep your sights set on that goal – quite the contrary, in fact. However, the aiming that counts is done long before the moment you drive the nail.

Effort, practice, preparation, tears, pain and anxiety are quite often required well in advance of achieving a worthy goal. If you take care of those prerequisites, I’m pretty sure the nail will come out in the right place.  end mark

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