You can call Scott Rhone a farrier, which is the proper title for his profession. Or a horseshoer, which describes it in plainer terms. Around Canterbury Park, some refer to him as a race plater — a reference to the aluminum shoes, or race plates, worn by the track’s equine athletes — or even a blacksmith.
Rhone will answer to that last term, though he noted it’s something of an anachronism at a modern track. The six men who care for the hooves of thoroughbreds and quarter horses at Canterbury Park don’t craft shoes out of iron, and most don’t even have a forge. “I rarely use one, because they manufacture everything better than you can make it,’’ Rhone said. “With the inventory I have in my truck and at my house, it’s like having my own shoe store.’’
The 21st century farrier is more a horse podiatrist than a village smithy, using a variety of techniques and technologies to keep clients running their fastest. Each of the more than 1,200 horses on the Canterbury grounds has unique feet, with many suffering from problems similar to those that plague humans.
Rhone and his colleagues can patch cracks, remedy flat soles or run-down heels, take pressure off a sore spot, treat corns, abscesses and bruises, correct conformation issues and improve traction. Their toolbox includes glue-on shoes for horses with brittle hooves, bar shoes and hoof pads to protect the underside of the foot, and high-tech acrylic to rebuild and repair damaged hooves.
Years ago, according to trainer Tony Rengstorf, many horses with hoof problems had to be given a long break from racing to allow the hoof to grow out. A farrier with the expertise to solve those issues is “an invaluable part of the team,’’ he said, making it possible for those horses to continue their careers and run comfortably.
“There’s an old saying: No foot, no horse,” trainer Valorie Lund said. “That’s especially true in racing, where these horses are running at very high speeds. Keeping those feet healthy is a huge part of the equation.”
A day in the life
On a rainy morning at Canterbury, Rhone, 34, ran his hand down the neck of Lillie Me Go and spoke to her in a soothing voice. “These fillies, you have to whisper sweet nothings to some of them,’’ he said. “You can’t wrestle with them, because they’ll win every time.’’
Rhone is the most in-demand farrier at Canterbury, counting 400 of the track’s horses as clients. Each needs routine maintenance — shoes removed and replaced, and hooves trimmed and cleaned — every 30 to 40 days. A basic job costs about $125 and takes about 30 minutes with a well-behaved horse.
Lillie Me Go does not fall into that category. Rhone works quickly with the restless filly, one foot at a time: pulling the shoe, trimming away the excess hoof, cleaning the bottom of the foot, filing the surface. After checking to make sure the bottom of the hoof is level, he uses a hammer and anvil to pound an aluminum shoe to the proper shape, then attaches it with six nails.
Most days, Rhone can shoe about 12 horses. His workday begins at 5 a.m. and stretches to around 5 p.m., including a quick afternoon nap — taken on the floor, to soothe his aching back. Farriers spend much of their life stooped over, holding up the hooves of horses who sometimes lean on them or struggle, making the profession brutal on hips and spines.
A child of the racetrack, Rhone grew up in the barn of his father, longtime Canterbury trainer Bernell Rhone. He chose horseshoeing over training racehorses and competing in rodeos, because of the money — a top farrier can make more than $100,000 a year — and the challenge.
“Racing a horse with foot problems is like having a race car with flat tires,’’ Rhone said, speaking clearly even while holding six shoe nails in his mouth. “It doesn’t matter how good a car you have if you don’t have a decent base underneath.
“These are professional athletes who are pushed to the limit, whose feet take a pounding. A lot of times, you’re not just fixing problems, you’re managing them.’’
Rhone has shod horses for 15 years. Another Canterbury Park farrier, Chuck Voglewede, has worked in the trade for 36 years, including the past 14 at Canterbury.
While Rhone learned the profession by attending farrier school and taking an apprenticeship, Voglewede’s training came through working on ranches, then shoeing his own horses after becoming a trainer. Even the routine shoeing jobs, he said, require precision, a keen eye that can spot potential problems, and comprehensive knowledge of equine anatomy, conformation and gait.
“It’s a little bit of an art form,’’ Voglewede said. “A horse’s foot is changing all the time, expanding and contracting. You want to keep it balanced and symmetrical.’’
Selective breeding for speed and not soundness, Lund said, means thoroughbreds are susceptible to foot problems. Voglewede said some horses’ hooves are so fragile they cannot accept a shoe nail; they can be reinforced with acrylic material, or shoes can be affixed with glue, a specialty job that can cost $300. Part of a shoe can be cut off to change the way a horse’s weight is distributed. A shoe with a bar or enclosed back will protect a tender foot, as will pads or thin plates placed between the sole and the shoe.
Farriers must build trust
A poor shoeing job can cause pain, injury or an altered gait, keeping an expensive racehorse in the barn — where he is costing money rather than making it. A farrier’s reputation is hard to win and easy to lose, Rhone said, recalling a horse that once threw two shoes in the Kentucky Derby.
“That was about 10 years ago,” he said. “And that farrier is still known as the guy whose horse lost two shoes in the Derby. A mistake will follow you a long time.”
That means farriers must build trust with both people and horses. Voglewede keeps notes on his clients’ individual needs and idiosyncrasies. Rhone knows their heads as well as their feet; a good farrier never hits a horse, he said, and understands how to soothe one that is nervous — including Lillie Me Go, who was given time to calm down before Rhone tackled her fourth foot.
Some parts of the job have not changed with time. Rhone said horseshoers always seem to have at least one black fingernail or toenail, smashed by a hammer or a hoof. He once broke his heel when a horse stepped on it; Voglewede has had a hyperextended knee, and his left arm bears scars from shoe nails and knife blades.
Both shoers said the physical and mental stress drives many people out of the profession within a few years. Rhone, like Voglewede, has forged a career he intends to ride for the long haul.
“Every day when I take my socks off, I think, ‘Is that how I expected my day to go when I put my socks on?’ ’’ Rhone said. “The answer is usually no. It’s unpredictable and interesting work, which I like. And being around the horses and the racetrack, there’s no better place to be.”