The familiar horseshoe has much more to it than tales of luck. To begin with, it has a lot to do with a farrier. Geeta Somkumar meets one to find out the role he plays in a horse's track record.
Think about it. Its magnificent presence made fairy tales more magical. Its powerful bodyline brought poetry to the movies.
In wars fought in ancient times, it turned men into heroes. In modern times, it makes men pit their commanding powers against the animal's innate will to race for victories. (And, most romantic of all, it still makes the knight in shining armour, thundering in on a horse, with love in his heart, a desirable antidote to the draining pragmatism of modern romance.)
So you can see how easy it is to get dewy-eyed about this animal's grandeur. And perhaps also understand how easy it is to overlook the role played by some in evolutionising its place in human history.
Like the farrier, for instance. Beyond the razzle-dazzle of horse racing and the bestselling coming-of-age of horse whisperers, there has always been a major role played by farriers to enable the horse to demonstrate its breathtaking power.
You are only as good as the last race you ran. All of us in the modern rat race know that only too well. Well, it also makes horse sense. Even for this superb racing machine, its feet are what help it maintain its track record. And it's the farrier, a horseshoe specialist, who is the keeper of this record.
Asghar Khan/Gulf News
Forging a success story ... "A farrier's skill lies in his ability to make a fine horseshoe," says Chris Nurse, resident senior farrier at the Dubai Stables.
To understand a farrier's job, here's a simple analogy: a farrier is to a horse what a podiatrist is to a human being.
When I met Chris Nurse, resident senior farrier at the Dubai Stables, I learnt quite a few lessons of the equine variety.
To begin with, I understood the importance of farriery. Farriery, which is Nurse's profession, is defined as any work in connection with the preparation or treatment of the foot of a horse for the immediate reception of a shoe thereon; and the fitting, by nailing or otherwise, of a shoe to the foot or the finishing off of such work to the foot.
But a farrier's job is not to be confused with that of a blacksmith. "There is a difference," Nurse says.
"Traditionally, a blacksmith made door hinges, wagon wheels, cooking pots, stands, door latches and gateposts.
He also shod horses, and used steel to make the horseshoes. Whereas, a farrier is a highly skilled craftsman who deals with shoeing horses."
Nurse has sound knowledge of both the theory and the practice of the craft and is capable of shoeing all types of equine feet – whether normal or defective.
He also makes horseshoes to suit all types of work and working conditions, and devises corrective measures to compensate for deformities.
"A training in shoemaking can be very beneficial to a farrier," he says. "This is also a part of a formal farrier's apprenticeship. A working knowledge of anatomy and function of an equine foot and the lower limb is also important. It helps us understand the effect a particular horseshoe will have on the structure and function
of the limb."
Not all horseshoes are equal
Observably, a horseshoe serves a far more important purpose than bringing people good or bad luck.
Nurse says, "It protects a horse's hooves from wearing out and provides better traction when it is working or during a competition. Our objective is to ensure it [the horse] is comfortable at all times."
There are different types of horseshoes for different activities, he informs. Racehorses, showjumpers, polo ponies, Western horses and pleasure horses – all have horseshoes specially made for their discipline. In addition, there are special ones made for horses that travel on mud, ice or snow.
"There is an old saying in the horse world, ‘An ounce on the foot is a pound on the back'. Hence, the lightest aluminium shoes are used for thoroughbred racehorses. Endurance horses need sturdier shoes, which are thicker and wider."
Shoeing a horse is a human contribution
A wild horse keeps wearing off its hooves in a certain natural balance. But as soon as it is put to work on a hard surface, the hooves wear off even more than the actual growth. Thus the need for horseshoes. Shoeing is a human contribution.
The earliest known horseshoes were invented by the Egyptians and Persians. These were necessary for protection when the horse was used for work or war.
Before this, there were protective contraptions for the hoof (hippo-sandals), which were fastened to the foot with straps and buckles. However, these mainly served as protection to an already damaged hoof.
Nurse says, "Footcare starts from the day a horse is born. Any attempt to alter limb deformities is best done up to one year of age. [The growth in the lower limb stops by this time.]"
The limbs are bound to have deviations of some sort, and it is a matter of weighing out what needs to be done. Foal footcare is a constant, on-going exercise that is done every two weeks.
They are shod when they begin to be active in whatever activity they are involved in. For the foal, the constant handling by the farrier helps to foster trust and confidence, he informs.
As shoeing is a specialised task, misconceptions abound. A popular one being: once you shoe a horse, you don't look at it again awhile.
"It is a preconceived notion," says Nurse, and explains, "A horse's foot is like your fingernail. Its coronary band can be compared to the cuticle of your finger bed. Just like we trim our fingernails, we need to trim the foot."
"To maintain a healthy foot, the hoof has to be trimmed once a month. An old horseshoe has to be either reshaped or removed and replaced by a new one."
If footcare is neglected, the hoof can grow around the steel boundaries of the horseshoe, resulting in cracks. This puts a lot of strain on a horse's ligaments and tendons."
Nurse also speaks about the right time for a horse to be shod.
"A racehorse is shod when he is two, which is the age when he begins racing. Whereas pleasure or