He keeps them running
Monday, December 5, 2016 Chan Hong-ming’s job is indispensable out at the track. He’s the one who makes the shoes that keep the thoroughbreds running at top speed. Wang Yuke reports.
Putting on a leather apron and getting his tool kit ready, C h a n Ho n g - m i n g stepped in the horse stall and began his daily routines. He was going to give the thoroughbred race horse a “pedicure” and custom shoes.
Chan is a senior farrier who has been working at his trade for 23 years. A farrier cares for the hooves of horses and crafts shoes from scratch or even puts old shoes back onto the equine. The aim is to trim and balance a horse’s hooves so that it can run faster out on the track.
A horse needs healthy hooves and comfortable shoes to compete in a race just like a sportsperson needs suitable shoes and gears.
After a few gentle pats on the horse’s back, his way of greeting his equine friend, Chan deftly lifted up the animal’s hoof, wedged it between his legs, and started his routine.
He went to work with a hoof knife, one with a slightly curved blade that he used to cut off the dead stuff from the hoof. His hands moved quickly, and surely, raising a crisp grating sound. Turning to the more tender parts of the hoof, he moved slowly and gingerly.
The horse was calm, its head bent low. He moved obediently as Chan nudged it. “Most horses enjoy the hoof treatment. They feel pampered and comfortable,” laughed Chan.
Chan trimmed the triangleshaped part on the bottom of the hooves, called the “frog” which starts from the heels and goes towards the toes. The frog acts as a shock absorber for the hooves and legs from the impact pounding along the racecourse. It also helps to pump blood through the legs to the heart.
He then scraped a long rasp against the horse’s hoof wall to “give the hoof a final touch” just like we clip and polish our fingernails. Horses’ hooves resemble finger nails, They keep growing and need trimming regularly. But clip- ping nails on a horse i s n o t e a s y. Chan explained that if the farrier trims it too short, the horse is left in pain and not able to walk or run normally. Learning to judge how long the nails must be kept has taken him years of hands-on experience.
The trickiest part for a new hand, Chan said, is to level out the bottom of the hoof with a rasp. Releasing the hoof from his legs and setting it horizontally, he carefully observed the distance from the hoof, to determine by sight whether the two sides of the hoof were equal in length. If one side is thicker than the other, the farrier needs to trim it down until the two sides are balanced. The purpose is to ensure that the bottom of foot meets the ground fully, so that the pressure is distributed evenly on the hoof sole when it runs. “Our naked eyes are the measurement ruler and it takes years of practice to get the instinct,” said Chan.
The final steps are the tailor made shoes and nailing the shoes onto the hoof. In the past, crafting shoes out of an iron block was part of a farrier’s duty. Now there are ready-to-use shoes of different sizes, a farrier just needs to choose the proper size for each horse and tinker with the shoes to match i n d i v i d u a l d i ff e r e n c e s . “S o m e horses are pigeon-toed. Some have splay or flat feet. There’re no onesize-for-all shoes in equine world,” explained Chan. For those who are sensitive to pains and picky about shoes, a rubber cushion will be added to the shoes. “An equivalent to our Nike Air,” laughed Chan.
When he completed all the tasks, 40 minutes had passed and Chan’s shirt was soaked in sweat. “It’s a tiring job, I would say. We have to hold the half squat pose from start to end.” Chan remembered his leg trembled involuntarily after his first day’s work.
Applying horse sense
Despite that, he loves the job and said it makes him feel fulfilled. He recalled a horse developed an inflammation on its feet, so shoes couldn’t be nailed into its hooves anymore. Chan was called in to modify the old shoes and glue them onto the hooves instead. “Every time I heard the horse with a foot ailment won a medal at the races in the shoes I made, I felt proud.”
To render a beautiful pair of hooves and shoes for the horse, a farrier needs close contact with the horse owner and veterinary nurse to get acquainted with the horse’s gait habits and feet health, Chan said. He was also aware of the horse’s response during the shoeing process. “If I accidently strike the nail on its flesh, it would balk or draw his leg back.” The horse will be led outdoors for a stroll after being shod, to see if the shoes fit. “If its gait is not steady, then I know the shoes are not balanced and need fixing again.” Improper shoes could do harm to the equine’s tendon, and the damage is more evident during trainings when the horse would run in full force, explained Chan. “Lots of horses coming to Hong Kong for international race event are expensive breeds. I must be extremely wary when working with them, to satisfy the owners as well as the horses.” A veteran farrier, Chan has developed a gut instinct for reading horses. It helps to keep him safe. Horses are timid animals, vigilant and sensitive, said Chan. “But most racehorses coming here from abroad are well tamed,” he added. He used simple gestures to bond with his equine friend, such as caressing its snout, patting its back while whispering “good boy”. Due to the back breaking nature of the job, the industry has experienced a hard time attracting new blood. Chan noticed that a few newcomers finally quit the job as they realized the job was too exhausting. Besides, it takes at least four years to become a qualified farrier, including the completion of a four-year apprenticeship training program and passing the four-level qualification test. Currently about 30 farriers take charge of around 1,200 horses in Sha Tin Racecourse. These days Chan and his fellow farriers are busy with shoeing horses of different nationalities traveling to Hong Kong for the upcoming international race event on Dec 11.
Most horses enjoy the hoof treatment. They feel pampered and comfortable.”
Chan Hong-ming, senior farrier, Hong Kong Jockey Club