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Nailed it: The hidden art of shoeing chuckwagon horses

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Saturday, July 6, 2019 – Page A5

MASKWACIS, ALTA. -- Sonny Poitras buys the cheapest smokes he can find. He tells stories with a lit one dangling from his lower lip. His cheeks are chubby, dimples deep.

There's a plate in his thumb, screws in his legs.

Mr. Poitras is a shoer. A horseshoer. A farrier, if you want to be all fancy about it. Mr. Poitras spends summers changing horseshoes at professional chuckwagon races across Saskatchewan and Alberta, absorbing the odd kick and suffering the occasional broken toe from a cranky animal.

Chuckwagon horses need their footwear changed every three to five weeks, making experienced farriers valued professionals at the track. Indeed, some elite wagon drivers own dozens of animals and go through hundreds of shoes for their four-legged teammates each year. Mr. Poitras makes thousands of dollars hammering nails into horses' hooves and treating troublesome ailments. Sometimes he's paid in horses.

Chuckwagon fans rarely see the dozens of skilled people training and taking care of the horses on the race circuit. People such as Mr. Poitras.

Mr. Poitras counts out seven nails from a box waiting for him in a popup barn at the track in Maskwacis, a hamlet in central Alberta. There's a spare needled through the left side of his cap.

Horseshoes are secured with eight nails a piece, but this 67year-old master does not care.

"I always use seven," he says.

"It's my lucky number."

He puts the nails between his lips and gets back to work on Stormy, a horse belonging to chuckwagon driver BJ Carey.

Stormy is in a tight stall, facing one of his caretakers.

Mr. Poitras faces the other direction, snuggled tight to the underside of Stormy's midsection.

He lifts the horse's front left leg and bends it back at the knee, giving him access to the bottom of Stormy's hoof. Mr. Poitras then wedges the animal's foot between his own knees. He bends at the waist, putting a special shoe on Stormy because the horse clips his back leg with his front hoof when racing.

Mr. Poitras places the shoe on Stormy's hoof, checking the alignment. It isn't quite right, so he bangs the shoe on an anvil for a custom fit. He repeats this until he's satisfied. He files the bottom side of the shoe for more precision.

And then he knocks in the seven nails.

Mr. Poitras travels with the Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association and will be shoeing and mending horse hooves for some of the top teams at the Calgary Stampede. Gina Berreth rolls with the World Professional Chuckwagon Association and is another prominent farrier with customers racing at Stampede.

Farriers, Ms. Barreth explains, can measure a horse's health and diagnose ailments by examining its feet.

"Humans will lie to you about their horse, what's happened to the horse," she says. "But the horse's foot never lies. It will tell you everything you need to know."

Hooves reveal clues about the horse's diet, illnesses, the terrain it's travelled and other elements that factor into a horse's well-being. Farriers help identify and treat infections, abscesses and broken hooves. They monitor joints. They identify muscle problems. Ms. Berreth travels the globe to learn more about equine anatomy in order to make horses more comfortable. "It is pretty boring nailing on a shoe all day," she says. "I like the big problems.

It keeps your mind engaged."

Shoeing is an ancient trade, but researchers are expanding their understanding of horses' feet using technology such as MRIs, CT scans, Doppler ultrasonography and phenograms. Ms.

Berreth leans on her network of experts to up her game.

One of her top contacts is Debra Taylor, a professor of equine medicine at Auburn University in Alabama who is in the International Equine Veterinarian Hall of Fame. Ms. Berreth also has mentors in United Arab Emirates.

"The best tool in my box is those numbers on my phone," Ms. Berreth says.

Robert Stevenson is one of her global gurus and co-founded a company with a line of products - FormaHoof - that can be used as an alternative to traditional steel or aluminum shoes. The foodgrade silicon moulds can also help horses recover from breaks or diseases in their feet. Ms. Berreth, just the other day, was using FormaHoof and wanted Mr. Stevenson's advice.

"I called him and he guided me," she says. "I showed him the foot, I showed him video of the horse walking, and then he FaceTimed with me."

The best way to advance farrier skills, Ms. Berreth says, is to work with folks such as Mr. Stevenson.

Indeed, she has twice flown Declan Cronin, an Irish farrier working in Dubai, to Alberta so she could learn from him.

"He's seen all kinds of feet," Ms.Berreth says.

Olds College is 100 clicks north of Stampede's rodeo ring and chuckwagon track. The college runs a one-year Farrier Science certificate program, and about 40 people apply every year. Only 18 are accepted. The graduation rate is 89 per cent, and women dominate the program. In the fall of 2018, 83 per cent of the graduates were women, up from 69 per cent in the fall of 2017.

Ms. Berreth, who is 45 and has been shoeing wagon horses for 12 years, studied in Oklahoma and then apprenticed for three winters in Texas. There are dozens of places offering courses in North America, with plenty running only a few weeks.

Farriers flock to conferences to sharpen their skills and meet other professionals. These gatherings, Ms. Berreth says, are key to learning new techniques and building relationships with the industry's elite farriers and researchers.

"You gotta leave your little circle," she says.

Alex Hamilton, a farrier on Vancouver Island, will also be at Stampede, but not in the wagon barns. She moves in a different part of the shoeing world: farrier competitions. She selected four newbies she believes have the best chance of making it in the industry and the group will square off against each other at Calgary's famous festival. They are judged on the quality of work under a tight deadline.

"I've watched them at a few events now," Ms. Hamilton says.

"I feel hopeful for them."

Mr. Poitras, the farrier who favours seven nails, has been at this for 45 years. He was a wagon driver back in the day and started shoeing when his own farrier told him he was retiring.

"He got me pounding nails that day and I never looked back," Mr. Poitras says, noting he also took a course in Meadow Lake, Sask., decades ago. "It just makes you feel good to fix somebody's horse."

Horseshoes, he says, cost around $10 or $15 each when you buy in bulk. His customers provide the shoes and he charges about $100 a horse to change them.

Horses racing at Stampede need their shoes changed more frequently because the cement flooring in barns is hard on their footwear. That, and chuckwagon drivers are chasing big paydays and want their equipment in topnotch shape.

Farriers might not get credit publicly when the horses they work with win, but it still tickles Mr. Poitras. And gives him stories to tell.

He shoed all eight of Bruce Craige's horses the year that driver won the big cash at Stampede, for example. Mr. Craige gave Mr.Poitras a $500 bonus - a lot of money in the eighties.

"I'll never forget that day," Mr.Poitras says. "It just makes you proud of your work.

"You try your best. Best job you possibly can do."

Associated Graphic

Sonny Poitras works with a thoroughbred at the chuckwagon races in Maskwacis, Alta. Mr. Poitras is a farrier and spends summers changing horseshoes at chuckwagon races.


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