Third-generation farrier Danny Ward relies on vintage tools and passes on his skills.
In this 1960s era photo, Danny (left) files a horse’s hoof while his father (right) hammers a horseshoe on an anvil.
A metal-and-wood hoof buttress dating to the 1800s is one of Danny Ward's cherished possessions. But the tool, which is used to grind a horse's hoof clean, is no mere collectible. Like his father and grandfather, Danny is a farrier, one engaged in the business of shoeing horses. This particular hoof buttress has passed through three generations of Ward men. For Danny, it is a tool of his trade.
The tool's wooden end resembles a fish's tailfin. The metal end is a flat square with an edge. In a demonstration, Danny presses the wooden end against his right shoulder and directs the metal end to a horse's hoof. In a scene unchanged over the past century, he scrapes the tool back and forth vigorously.
"The tools haven't changed all that much," Danny says. "They've just gotten a little nicer and shinier, but they don't do anything different than they used to. They've just been mass-produced."
Danny, who lives in Martinsville, Va., carries on the family farrier business started by his grandfather, Jordan Ward, and continued by his father, L.C. "Smokey" Ward. Decades ago, farriers were often accomplished blacksmiths. That family tradition ended with Danny, and he fears that once-common skills are disappearing fast. "My dad was a great tool builder," Danny says. "I'm a horseshoer. I'm not a blacksmith like the old people. The old people could do it all. I couldn't build a wagon if I had directions."
The availability of inexpensive, mass-produced tools has much to do with that. "I think I could make some tools, but it's just not that practical," Danny says. "It takes you all day to make a hammer that you can buy for $25, and that hammer isn't any better than what you can buy at Sears. It's just the idea of doing it."
Despite that - or maybe because of that - Danny still uses many of the tools his father and grandfather built by hand.
In the 1800s, blacksmiths and farriers practiced their craft in nearly every community in the nation. With virtually all transportation provided by horses and wagons, those services were in constant demand. But when the horseless carriage became commonplace and tractors replaced horses on the farm, the demand for blacksmiths and farriers diminished quickly. In the 1950s, recreational riding generated a resurgence of work for blacksmiths and farriers. By 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the nation's horse population at more than 2 million.
In about 1958, Smokey Ward took advantage of the growing interest in pleasure riding and resulting rise in horse ownership and started the Martinsville School of Farriery. Danny grew up in that environment and continued the school after his father's death. Today, 29 years later, he operates it as the Danny Ward Horseshoeing School.
Although he once traveled to seven states to shoe show horses, Danny now works almost exclusively within a 30-mile radius of Martinsville.
The reduction in travel allows Danny to conduct classes three times a year. Up to 12 students attend each eight-week session. The curriculum includes video presentations, lectures and hands-on experience with coal and gas forges.
With the increase in sport and pleasure riding, Danny's students should be able to find work just about anywhere in the United States. "Most go on to shoe horses for a living," Danny says. Just the same, he adds, "It's not for everybody. It's not an easy job. I don't paint a pretty picture. It's work, but it's good, honest work." FC
For more information: Danny Ward, 51 Ward Road, Martinsville, VA 24112; (276) 638-7908.
Rocky Womack is a freelance writer, editor and publisher with Rocky Womack Communications in Danville, Va. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org