The farrier: Luke Thompson
The work of a farrier is a rural craft that is centuries old. ‘I look after a horse’s hooves and place shoes on them,’ explains Briton Luke. Since each horse is unique, so are its shoes and the hoof care required and as a farrier, Luke is responsible for every horse’s day-to-day hoof care, checking for any slight anomalies, trimming and balancing their feet, and fitting shoes for training and for racing. His job might come across as a mix of what a blacksmith and a veterinarian do – with years of specialised training and on-the job learning.
What do you do? To be able to take good care of a horse’s feet, we need to assess their whole body. Our goal is to try to keep the body in balance so that they can compete at the highest level naturally. For that we watch them walk, jog and assess their action and conformation, and design their shoes accordingly. Since each horse is different, we work closely with the trainer of every horse, which in our case is Saeed, to better understand the needs of the horse, the shoes they want and how they want it to be.
That I feel is the key skill of a farrier – the way we assess each horse’s needs. Since horses can’t tell us what they want, it is our job to understand what they need and that is the most important aspect of our job and our biggest challenge.
How often do you change their shoes? On an average, we change the horse’s shoes or race plate every 21 to 28 days. However, it also depends on the horse’s racing schedule and the surface that horse will be racing on. So if the surface is grass or dirt then the horse will be fitted with shoes suitable for that specific surface. The horse’s comfort is of prime importance, so we try not to change things too much.
It is almost like a human being’s needs – shoes to match the purpose. True. So when we re-shoe a horse, we look at the wear and tear on the old one. It helps us identify injuries as well.
Human beings take a while to get used to new shoes. Is it the same with horses? I like to put their racing shoes on a week to 10 days before the event. This gives them time to get used to the new fitting. Because you don’t want them to be thinking of their shoes while racing, you want them to be totally comfortable and focus on the race.
It is clear that horses come first in your life as well. How does your family take this? It’s a real privilege and joy to work for a company like Godolphin. My wife and kids understand that. It’s not always easy balancing work and family life but I think as a family we strike the right balance.
Since horses can’t tell us what they WANT, it is our job to UNDERSTAND what they need, and that’s the most IMPORTANT aspect of our job
Is this something that you’ve always wanted to do? I’ve had ponies at home since I was a child and I’ve always wanted to work with horses, in whatever capacity I could. I remember when I was young, I would help a farrier after school. As I held the horse for him, I used to be fascinated by what he did and the unique relationship he had with the horse. When I left school, I straightaway opted for apprenticeship.
Is it more about instincts and less about technology? I’d like to think I am able to understand horses and their unique characters and capabilities. They are like children, each one different, some cheeky, some timid and my instincts and experience help me make out which one is which. I believe it is a true gift to be able to understand and work harmoniously with these extremely strong animals. If they don’t want us in their space, there’s no way you can change that.
Technology does of course play an important role and while some might say that machine-made shoes are more precise than handmade ones and that it takes less time to prepare the shoes, every horse is different and you can’t easily replicate something that’s tailored by hand and bespoke for that horse. Also, we now glue the shoes instead of nailing them on. This technological advancement has improved the performance of several horses who earlier had poor feet and went on to be multiple winners at various prestigious events.
Can one learn to be a farrier in a school, or is it purely hands-on? It can be taught in colleges and as part of an approved apprenticeship but most farriers I know have grown up with horses and it’s second nature. School training cannot teach you how to read a horse’s body language, only years of experience, observation and working closely with them does.
Would you recommend this job to a youngster? It is a very demanding job, with a lot of challenges, but very rewarding. My nephew is training to be a farrier, so it’s in the family. It is a craft, a skill to learn but it is something that you have to be passionate about as it involves so much. At this high level of sport where so much is at stake, it is important to understand every minute complexity so that the horse is able to deliver its best.
Has a horse ever surprised you with his capabilities? In my 25 years it’s happened quite a few times when horses you did not expect to do well amaze you with their performance. In spite of what I know, I’ve been surprised.
Do you have favourites? There is one rule that I’ve made in life. Every horse will get the same care, whether they are a champion or not.
Can a person who has never been around horses be a farrier? There are two ways of looking at it. When I was working in Hong Kong, I was responsible for training farriers, some of whom had never been around horses. So it’s possible. But where possible I’d recommend that any potential farrier start by spending time understanding these powerful horses before they opt for this career. If you’re passionate about it, anything is achievable.
When I was young, I’d HELP a farrier. As I HELD the horse for him, I was fascinated by the unique RELATIONSHIP he had with the horse