A rare insight into the ancient trade of farriers

By Daniel Jackson

Daniel Jackson visits a family whose bond is forged by a tough trade.

Nathan gets a nuzzle from Daisy. Photo / Tracey Grant
Nathan gets a nuzzle from Daisy. Photo / Tracey Grant

Hot steel being beaten on an anvil has its own sound. Not the shrill clanging you might expect, but a dull thud.

Pat Schimanski positions the steel with tongs and gives his brother Nathan brief instructions on what to do.

"Two hits, hard." Then he moves the glowing steel to another angle. "One hit, softer."

Gradually, after numerous heatings and beatings, the shaft takes on a different appearance. It is being worked into the shape of a hammer head. The brothers finish by punching a hole through the centre for the hammer's handle, then use a hot steel axe to chop the head from its parent metal. They let it fall to the floor of the forge workshop where it sizzles and ignites stray bits of straw.

"Grind that up and then we can harden it," Pat tells Nathan, with the authority of an older brother who is used to being listened to.

There are more than 10 years and 50 kilos between them.

Pat, 43, is 130kg and 1.98m. Nathan, 32, is 84kg and 1.88m. Both are working farriers who independently ply the ancient trade of shoeing horses, throughout the central North Island. They also make their own tools.

Both still listen to their Dad, Kevin, who taught them their trade and stands nearby, complete with worn leather apron, watching them.

Kevin is lean and wiry and 1.82m himself. He will be 75 in October and still works a five-day week shoeing horses, a job whose physicality is comparable to shearing sheep. It's his forge, his house and these are his boys doing the work he brought them up with.

"I never told them they had to do this work. They chose it and I'm glad they did," he said.

Kevin first started shoeing horses when he was 14 on the farm in Taranaki where his family worked. He soon started shoeing the neighbour's horses as well.

He spent a while during those years breaking in horses too but, since moving to Wanganui when he was 22, he has spent more than half a century putting steel shoes on horse hooves.

Kevin downplays his knowledge but it's obvious he is a master of his trade.

"A farrier is a farrier and a blacksmith is a blacksmith. We make and shape shoes for horses and blacksmiths do all kinds of metal work," he says.

However, he leaves out the obvious. A blacksmith does not have to have the innate skill and instinct to deal with horses. That takes a certain nature.

"You must do it kindly. If you act aggressively a horse will know and you will miss out. They are stronger than three or four men and if they want to pull their leg away, you just let it go. They will let you shoe them later."

His grandfather and uncles had shod draft horses when it was common for people on farms to shoe their own horses. But times were changing when Kevin moved to Wanganui and he soon had more business than he knew what to do with.

"We would be working seven days a week from dark till dark on some of the bigger stations."

His venture into the trade came at a time when many of the traditional blacksmiths and farriers who had always done the work were retiring.

"We couldn't keep up. I kept giving business away to people but still we were going flat out."

He took on numerous apprentices and business partners over the years. Some good, some bad.

"A lot of guys, it would just kill them. It's hard work. They would start off all keen and then they would just leave."

One of his best apprentices was a woman, Ngaire Graham, who could do any of the work the men did and better.

"I couldn't fault her. Ngaire was a worker. You couldn't stop her and she just drove me into the ground. She was great with the horses and our trucks had never been so clean."

Kevin has been shoeing horses for at least one family for three generations. In that time he's gathered numerous stories.

Once, the police pulled him over in his Bedford truck on his way home from a job.
"You can't drive around like that," said the officer. Kevin looked up to see his portable coal forge on the back of the truck had reignited in the wind and was blazing away merrily.

A strong work ethic is what he credits with making him and the family successful at what they do. "I would always start at seven. It didn't matter what part of the country I was working in. If I had to leave here at four in the morning to start at seven then I would leave here at four. People could count on it"

From pre-school age his son Pat, complete with his little yellow bike, used to go with his father all over the countryside. He would sit and watch his father work and loved the metal craft.

"He would have a packed lunch and when he got tired he would just fall asleep with his pillow in the truck. He would get upset if he couldn't come."

As soon as Pat left school he started in the family business and was also soon competing in farrier and blacksmith competitions, winning at national and international level.

Pat won the national champs for quite a few years in a row and won numerous chances to compete at the the Calgary Stampede in Canada (see our story on this event on p10). In Calgary he competed against 80 other farriers from 12 countries and at his first attempt won rookie of the year in his class.

A huge man, Pat makes the work look easy. Swinging hammers and working at the forge comes naturally after a lifetime.

"I like the work and I like the craft. It suits me but I couldn't tell you why. We've all had our bruises and stitches but you get fit on the job so it's not so bad."

He went out on his own and works the Taihape region where he has had many of the same customers and friends for nearly two decades.

His brother Nathan has always had a love for horses and also joined the business on leaving school but after a while gave up to try his hand at other things.

"But in the end I always came back to it. I was always going to, deep down inside I knew. It was always the horses."

He has worked full time as a farrier since 2006 and in April went out on his own to become the third Schimanski man to carry on the business.

The trio also take pride in making their own tools. "We could buy tools but we don't. We can make our own and, if you can do it, then you should do it," Nathan said.

Pat is especially keen on the blacksmith side of the business and has lathes and engineering machinery. He has taught himself and is regarded as bit of an expert by the other two.

Kevin has a large coal-fired smithy in his own workshop and once every few months his sons join other farriers, blacksmiths and keen amateurs from around the North Island there for a training session. Shoeing a horse takes Pat about half an hour, and without giving too much away, he says it's quite a lucrative business.

"We do all right. It's a numbers game like shearing. The more you do the better off you are."

Not content with working with horses all week, Kevin and Nathan play polo and travel the country for competitions. Kevin is regarded one of the oldest polo players in the world.

Pat says the farrier tradition began with the Romans who used to tie rawhide to their horses' hooves before progressing to nailing on iron shoes.

"The job hasn't changed much in hundreds of years. There are a few modern materials and tools which make it a bit easier but the actual craft itself hasn't changed."

The tools are simple: a hammer, tongs, some punches, an anvil and a forge.

"It gets to the stage where you can do it pretty much without thinking."

When Kevin started making his own tools he found the best steel was from the flywheel magnets of Model A Ford cars from the 1920s.

"But they are getting harder to get now."

Nathan now scours scrap yards looking for the right kinds of steel. He has found hydraulic ram shafts and certain parts of car steering and suspension units provide the best steel.

"High tensile and tool steels are the best, with a bit of chromium in them. It doesn't matter where it has come from as long as we can make it do the job."

There is a real sense of family amongst the three. Nathan takes direction from Pat while they are working: "Have you seen the forearms on him? He'd rip me in two if I didn't."

But afterwards they stand joking about Pat's size. "He's obviously the milkman's child."
Mum Maria is very much a background figure in the business but just as important as she takes care of the numbers for the boys.

"Mum does the accounts," says Nathan. "She did them for Pat when he started out and now she's doing them for me."

Their two sisters were brought up around horses but found their own trades after a stern warning from their Dad.

"I told them if they didn't get jobs after school they would be working with me. They have both done me proud."

Pat says he never gave any thought to being a farrier or why he chose to follow in his father's footsteps. It was something he loved and it just felt natural to work beside family.

"We have our disagreements, like every family, but we all get on well."

- Herald on Sunday

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