Fjordworks: The Barefoot Farmer Part 1
by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance and generally sound advice from Kerry Gawalt — both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, Vermont
Natural Hoof Care and Holistic Management at Cedar Mountain Farm
There is an old saying among cowboys that; “A man who can’t shoe his own horse or shoot his own dog shouldn’t by rights have neither.” If I try to apply this standard to my own farming life, the kernel of truth I discover lies in the observable fact that any horse owner who trims her own horse’s feet will be that much more intimately attuned to the life force of that animal. Another old saying that every farrier is likely to pronounce within ear shot of the horse owner at some point comes from a treatise on shoeing published in Great Britain in 1751 entitled; “No foot, no horse.” In other words, let your best equine management practices begin with the feet.
When I was an apprentice farmer we milked the herd of cows in teams of two. I did milking chores several mornings and afternoons a week and my teammate in the afternoon was a young German girl named Jackie. Jackie was a city-bred girl but she had a lot of spunk. When she first showed up at the farm in a calf-length shiny black leather coat and high-heeled boots, well all the young male apprentices first ogled and then just shook their heads and took bets on how long she would last. In fact, she finished out her two year apprenticeship and went straightaway to work on a horse-powered farm in California. And yet, like any young idealist new to farming she did have to get disabused of some romantic notions along the way – and barefoot farming was one of them. Now if I am facing 200 row feet of baby carrots that need weeding I am not adverse to kicking off my boots before I set down to creep along scratching through the dirt. But when it comes to milking cows in a flat-barn I figured out pretty quick that steel-toed barn boots were the only sensible way to go. Jackie on the other hand, got the idea in her head that she was going to milk those cows barefoot. I did warn her once that her toes were going to get stepped on and there were pinworms to consider besides. She did not pay me any mind. I’m sure the farm manager, Steffen, would have remanded her if he’d seen it, but before that could happen I heard across the scrape alley from where I was placing a machine on a cow the telltale screech that only someone with their toes under the hoof of a 1200lb Holstein/Brown Swiss bovine cross could make. Fortunately her toes weren’t broken only purpled so that they swelled up like grapes. The boots came on as soon as she could squeeze those toes back into them.
I couldn’t help myself from thinking about Jackie the first time I heard someone make reference to a barefoot farrier. I understood that they were talking about someone who trimmed horses with the intention of keeping the horse barefoot, but the image of someone trying to shoe horses in their bare feet popped into my head anyway. Barefoot farrier – kind of like a sharp-dressed nudist – just didn’t sound right. When I lived in Northern Minnesota in my youth I heard persistent rumors about an individual named “Barefoot Jack” who was reputed to never wear shoes even in the depths of the North Woods winter. I supposed if there was any one could shoe a horse while wearing no shoes he’d be the one. I finally had the opportunity to meet a barefoot farrier when a friend who bought a thoroughbred discovered the horse couldn’t hold a shoe. Since barefoot was all we’d ever done with our horses and as I was the one who had undertaken to keep them trimmed I was naturally intrigued to see the barefoot trimmer at work. The farrier’s name was Lisa and she showed up for the job with a fine pair of lace-up boots on her feet. She worked quickly and seemed to rely mostly on the rasp. The first thing I noticed was that the horse’s feet were taken down much smaller than what I was used to seeing. After that I noted that her visits came at fairly short intervals. The horse in question had poor hoof quality and needed to wear custom fitted booties when out on a ride.
The owner of this horse passed on to me a short article entitled; “Natural Hoof Care.” The author introduced the basic concepts of looking to the wild horse’s feet as the exemplar and then trying to trim our domestic horse’s hooves as near to that template as possible. For me, this was a radical concept. If I accepted this premise it would completely stand on its head the way I had been trimming my own horse’s feet for more than a decade. I had been taught to trim feet by farriers whose primary occupation was shoeing horses. Even though my horses had always gone barefoot I was trimming their feet as if they were to receive a shoe. I started reading more literature on the concepts behind natural hoof care and soon a whole new understanding of the aims of the barefoot farrier began to open up to me in the form of continuing revelations. I would never look at my horse’s hooves the same way again. I began to appreciate what a vital, dynamic, ever-changing barometer the feet actually are not only of the vitality of the horse but of the horse in relation to its environment.
I learned to trim my horses’ feet by observing farriers at work. I have been very fortunate in that the four farriers I have been associated with were all very generous in sharing with me their craft even though it meant aiding and abetting a customer in his aim to have no more need of their services. The first farrier I got to know was taking care of the shoeing needs of the saddle horses at Hawthorne Valley Farm where I was employed. After completing our two year farm apprenticeship, Kerry and I had returned to HVF to work for the Visiting Students Program which hosted groups of elementary school students for week long farm education experiences. The Program maintained two horses which were under our care during our tenure there. The farrier’s name was Todd. He was a very slightly built man – even looked like he might of once been a racing jockey – not at all the picture of the burly sort of fellow one would imagine to be suited to picking up horse’s feet for a living. The jockey image was further reinforced once I learned that in addition to shoeing, Todd made a part of his income through raising and training thoroughbred race-horses.
Todd showed up about every eight weeks in his big pick-up equipped with a portable forge. By this time we were the owners of three horses of our own. We paid Todd to trim their feet (he never charged us as much as he was billing the organization we worked for). We chose to keep our horses unshod, hoping that the farm work we were planning to do with them might not require the added expense of shoes. For the year that I was employed in the Visiting Students Program I acted as Todd’s assistant whenever he came to shoe or reset the saddle horses and I watched and asked questions by the dozen as he trimmed my horses. He patiently answered all my questions and, once he saw that my interest in the subject was genuine, he began to give me some basic hands-on instruction on handling the tools of the trade. Todd gave me a spare rasp and a hoof knife off the back of his truck and I sharpened up an old set of nippers given to me by Kerry’s Dad. Todd stressed to me the necessity of a regular leveling and even trim, particularly for our yearling filly who was growing like gangbusters. In addition, I picked up and cleaned her feet every day so that come trimming time we could get the work done with minimal struggle and stress. By the end of one year I was feeling confident enough to begin trimming our horses on my own.
The following year we were in Northern Idaho managing a horse and mule ranch. One of my duties was to bring all the animals in to be ready for the farrier. His name was Rob and like Todd he was a small man, though obviously stout and strong. He sported a bushy red beard and like many gents we met in our time out west, he wore the garb of a cowboy. Rob was a young man and relatively new to the trade. He was plenty enough skilled but still struggling to build up reliable clientele, which might explain why he would have been working out at that particular ranch. The animals we were caretaking were all just about half wild and getting any one of them to stand still and pick up its feet could be a life threatening proposition. Yet with Kerry and I pitching in as best we could, he did manage to trim and shoe most of them. I only got to work with Rob a few times but I learned a lot from watching him and he was generous in explaining what he was up to. He couldn’t afford a portable forge so he cold-forged shoes on an anvil. He taught me how to use the pullers to pull shoes so that I could have animals ready for a re-shoeing before he arrived. He also demonstrated some rope tricks for restraining a horse or mule that refused to stand. At that point and time I had to work quite a bit off site in addition to my farming and caretaking duties and I strongly weighed the option of going to farrier’s school. The last time I worked with Rob he promised to bring me some information on his next visit. I never learned whether he quit the account or was fired. The horses and mules went without hoof care for a few months and then the owner of the ranch hired on another man to come and do the job.
That next man was Jake. He was a human being of towering proportions. He looked like he could’ve been a champion in the World Wrestling Federation. Jake was a Blackfoot Indian and a man whom I suspected knew a whole lot about a lot of things as much as he knew about shoeing horses. He also didn’t last long working for the owner of the ranch but he treated us well during the few visits he did make. We had been having trouble picking up the feet of our new yearling mare. It was a puzzling situation because the young horse was extremely mild of temperament and in every other way amenable to training. We asked Jake if he would be willing to work with her and to give her a trim. Actually it was only her rear left foot that she wouldn’t let us pick up – she was perfectly fine with the other three – but wouldn’t tolerate the lifting of the one. In retrospect, I suppose I should have been investigating whether there was some physical imbalance causing her pain, but on the other hand, subsequent events suggested it was a tic of the horse’s brain. Jake approached the horse that was tied at a fence rail and calmly went about picking up her feet, starting with her front right foot and circling round. When he got to that rear left she commenced her usual fuss of trying to pull it away. Jake wrapped his prodigious grapple hook hands around the lower portion of her leg, bent his knees, dropped his gravity and held on. He didn’t make any noise and he didn’t seem to move much. He held on that way for a full ten minutes and at the end of the time the horse was standing at ease with its foot still held in his iron grasp. From that day on that mare never gave us a lick of worry in picking up her feet.
The fourth farrier I came to know not only added to my knowledge of how to trim hooves, he also proved to be a great mentor in helping me to develop skills as a teamster. We were back living in New Hampshire and when we asked around as to who might be a good person to go to for shoeing, one man’s name kept cropping up – John Hammond. John trimmed the hooves of heavy work horses in order to ready them for hot-shaped shoes and he made expert work of it. In fact, he could also forge a shoe from scratch if he wished as he was also a skilled blacksmith. We decided to put shoes on our mares when they were two and three year olds. We were doing a little bit of log skidding with the horses that winter and cleated shoes seemed like a good idea. We didn’t know then if we would keep them regularly shod or not, but we figured in either case it would be good for them to learn to accept the process. Like the other three farriers I’d known, John freely shared the techniques of the trade with me as he worked. The problem I ran into by emulating his trimming style was that my horses weren’t drafts and ultimately they would remain unshod.
INTO THE UNKNOWN
When I started trimming my own horse’s feet I followed the patterns I had learned from observing the farriers. You start by trimming down the frog and clearing the channels that run from the bulb of the heel and along either side of the frog to meet at its apex. Next, use the knife to pair down the hoof wall all the way around the periphery of the foot to establish a good visual of the white line. The knife work continues by clearing sole material out of the quarters and restoring concavity down to the frog. The knife is followed by the nippers which are used to take down the hoof wall and then to nip excess toes and flares. I was taught to leave the heels on the high side and focus on cutting back on the toe. The aim of this trim is to encourage the working horse to walk with a shortened high stepping stride. The nippers are followed by the rasp. The foot is shaped from below and from above. Calipers or a tape measure are used as aids to take measurements and to help keep the hooves in synch one to the other. The farrier examines the hoof from all angles to assure evenness from side to side and front to back. The aim of this kind of trim is to ready the hoof to take a shoe. Whether the horse is to remain barefoot or shod; a carefully balanced and sculpted trim is an essential component of keeping the domestic horse in optimal health. Although I wasn’t shoeing my horses, for many years I trimmed their feet as if they were to be shod because that was all I knew.
Natural hoof care is a way of approaching the work of the farrier from a new perspective. The barefoot trimmer views the horse in its wild state as emblematic of the type of healthy low-maintenance animal we would like to see reflected in our domestic charges. Natural hoof care is part and parcel of a new approach to training and working with horses that is catching hold worldwide – Natural horsemanship. On one level, natural horsemanship is a series of techniques for training horses that is based on the observation of horses in the wild and that relies heavily on the use of positive reinforcement within the context of round-pen training to achieve its goals. This type of gentler and innovative training has several leading proponents; charismatic and talented horsemen and women who publish teaching materials and tour and lead clinics all over. On another level, natural horsemanship (and natural hoof care) can be seen as part of a greater paradigmatic shift that is taking place. This shift is about restoring the rupture between the human community and the natural world; it is about repairing our damaged ecosystems and relationships to the animal kingdom. For some of us, working our land with horses can become the catalyst for entering into whole new ways of living more gently and wisely upon the earth – a way that seeks to safeguard her precious bounty for future generations.
As sustainable small farmers we try to replicate the diversity of natural ecosystems, but we know that even our best efforts are but a shadow play before the light. If I step out my door on a mid-summer day and stand on the porch and look out to the east over the 12 acre field that spreads out over the floor of the valley below, I see an amazing diversity of plants and animals; 4 acres of mixed vegetables interspersed with bright green cover crops, two high-tunnels full of tomatoes and greens, pastured laying hens milling around their mobile coop, pastured pigs rooting up future garden space, heifers frolicking on fields of rich forage, honey bees entering and exiting their hives, the patchwork of community homestead gardens, a small orchard of fruit trees, a children’s garden full of corn, squash and beans, another plot with small grains trials waving golden in the sun, and in the further distance a hay field just ripe for the cutting. This rich tapestry of diversity is, I believe, the hopeful face of the future of farming. We can use our precious time trying to fight or reform big business and government, or we can use our time establishing alternate local systems that will eventually render those ruling entities less powerful and less relevant.
Sustainable agriculture seeks in principle to sustain not only the integrity of the environment but also to attain economic viability for the farmers and social responsibility for farm workers. These three aspects should be embraced as one functional unit. In principle, sustainable agriculture can enhance the environment and the farmer’s economic situation and benefit the regional society. Holistic land management is a tool set which attempts to design an agriculture that mimics natural principles of sustainability. It gives the farm manager a platform from which to base her decisions that will automatically take into account her land, her social setting, and her own economic well-being. When we view our own individuality, our immediate family, our circles of friends and relations, and above all our farms through the lens of holistic management we must inevitably take into account the fulcrum of geography which chance or fate or choice has placed us within. This accounting will encompass a watershed and the totality of its constituents which some refer to as a bioregion.
A bioregion is an organization of political, cultural, and environmental systems based on a localization of human economies within naturally-defined areas. Bioregions are defined through the physical parameters of the environment, starting with watersheds, soil types and features of the terrain. To delve into the intricacies of a particular bioregion so that we can better understand our place within it we can utilize the tools of Systems Thinking. A system is any organized collection of parts that are integrated to accomplish a desired end. To function, a system must have various inputs, which then go through processes to produce certain outputs, which together, accomplish the overall goal for the system. When systems thinking is applied to industries based on the extraction of natural resources – such as forestry, fisheries, or agriculture – it can project models that point towards more desirable outcomes for long term sustainable yields. The corporate model is a relatively cut and dry system. Any natural system such as an amoeba, a mammal, a small farm, or an entire ecosystem is infinitely more complex so that it is much more difficult to create models of predictability for them. The input and outputs are so variable that they are referred to as “open systems.” And yet it is just these open systems that most desperately require mapping – for the sake of preserving them.
Not every household needs a lawyer or an economist to function – but every family needs a farmer. We all depend directly on the landscape for our very existence (food, clothing, shelter etc.). As a result of our consumerist dependence on the industrial society we have forgotten how important it is to understand the ways in which landscape functions. The essence of the term “holistic” is that nature always functions in whole systems; an ecosystem is always the sum of its parts. We will understand nature better and benefit more from her bounty when we manage it as a whole rather than as separate parts. The essential challenge that faces every human society is to find a way to make decisions that accurately mirror the way nature functions and thereby ensure that our agriculture is truly sustainable over time.
RESTING THE LAND
Ever since Kerry and I became subscribers to the Small Farmer’s Journal in 1994 we have been reading the articles on bio-extensive market gardening by Anne and Eric Nordell. Their system relegates 1/2 of their 6 acre market garden to a succession of cover crops each year. When we began market gardening on our own in 1996, we were inspired to implement full season cover crops by dint of their example. We have always admired the Nordells as “thinking-farmers.” I am now getting old enough (49 this year) to realize that putting my head down and bulling my way through things won’t always get me such good results. Kerry on the other hand has a great head for planning, business, and numbers. We have had to modify the techniques the Nordell’s have outlined to fit the unique circumstances and layout of our farm, but we remain firm in our embrace of the basic premise of harvesting the many benefits of intensive use of cover crops in the market garden.
Years ago I had read about the archaic European practice of fallowing a field every seventh year as a means of restoring fertility (this corresponds to the Old Testament concept of celebrating the Jubilee Year). The peasant farmers had faith in the powers of the wild herbs that grew up to heal and restore the land. A fallow in rotation seemed to effectively accomplish the same end. I also had been impressed by reading the Acres USA Primer while I was an apprentice regarding the ability of various cover crops to restore tilth and re-mineralize soils and of the importance of “catch-crops” to retain excess nutrients after harvest. Even further back, I read several histories of the New England Indians that described how their slash and burn agriculture also amounted to a long-term rotation of farmland to forest and then back again within the fertile alluvial basins of the major river systems of our region. So I guess we started out our farming career as firm believers in the principle of resting the land.
The fields we work now have been in continuous agricultural production at least since the 1770’s. That is some incredible resilience. Sometimes plowing the dirt can be the equivalent of an archeological dig. We have unearthed iron draft horse shoes, oxen shoes with cleats, big mule shoes with bar cleats and little mule shoes, and other pieces too, like a half an of an antique hames set, the brass head of a hame, an old straight-bar bit, and various shovels, teeth, and tines from ancient pieces of farm equipment.
When we arrived on this piece of ground and surveyed the rather beat up acreage we had assumed stewardship of, the question that we asked ourselves then was; “Can we make a living off this land and at the same time engage in a soil-building program?” The great question we face as farmers is whether or not there is truly such a thing as “sustainable agriculture”. It is a question every farmer has wrestled with to some degree for the last 10,000 years. It is our Holy Grail and we need to discover it now more than ever.
We breathe life into this old farm and it in turn sustains and nourishes us. We reach a point where it becomes hard to conceive of the place not being worked as a farm. One’s intent begins to subtly shift from a sole focus on the work at hand to include the unseen hands of the next generation. We grow into a sense that we are building a foundation, or maybe just setting in a few more stones to step on. As my horse logger friend Carl Russell says; “We teamsters of today are just warming the seat for the next generation”.
To undertake the task of keeping a modern farm enterprise afloat is to also engage in a practice for refining the human spirit. The underlying paradox of the cosmos is reflected in the dichotomy of order and chaos that characterizes any farming system. After all, we may use a certain amount of machinery on our farm, but the farm itself is a living system comprised of a multitude of highly unpredictable yet completely interdependent entities and factors. To become “real farmers” we must wed our individual process of self-becoming to the evolving reality of this living breathing farm. The peasant cultures of the world have always understood this. And for all their wealth, privilege and position, the aristocracy and the emergent middle classes and all those who have left the land behind have felt the lack of a sense of belonging and a mysterious pining for some missing connection gnawing at the fabric of their souls.