insight - Nigel Fennell

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occupation - Farrier

NIGEL FENNELL is one of the world’s top farriers – and it’s easy to see why.

“I have never regarded it as a nine-to-five job,” he says. “It’s a vocation – a way of life. Although I’ve been a qualified farrier since 1995, I am always keen to learn new ways of doing old things, pass on my skills to others, and constantly test myself in competitions.”

Self-employed Nigel (36), who lives in the small town of Yateley in Hampshire, England, with his wife Teresa and nine-year-old daughter Poppy, is one of only a few hundred Associates of the London-based Worshipful Company of Farriers – which was founded in 1356 – and an approved competition judge. He was a top ten finalist in the 2007 world championships, European show champion the same year, national industrial blacksmithing champion in 2005, and British national bronze medallist in 2004. In a way it’s not really surprising that Nigel became a farrier, for his mother trained horses for circuses and movies. “I grew up with horses and always wanted to work with them.” Nigel soaked up knowledge like a sponge while at college. Getting a diploma at the age of 22, after serving a four-and-a-half-year apprenticeship, was not the end of learning for him but merely the beginning.

“It was just the first rung on a very tall ladder. I was hungry to learn as much as I could and very lucky to come across a guy called Colin Smith, who took me under his wing, taught me much of what I know, introduced me to a lot of other good farriers, and encouraged me to enter competitions.”

Being a farrier involves a lot more than taking off a horse’s old shoe and putting on a new one. “You have to understand a horse’s anatomy and how its skeletal, nervous, and vascular systems work: how the animal moves, how its feet respond to weight, the causes of lameness, the various types of shoes, and so on.”

Nigel shoes 35 to 40 horses a week – mainly leisure animals but also dressage and hunting horses and brewery shires. “Most of my customers are regulars, so I know their horses’ feet inside out and when they will need new shoes.”

Nigel operates within 45 minutes’ driving time of his home, taking all the tools of his trade with him. No horses are shod at his forge in nearby Hartley Wintney. “That is used merely to fabricate a small number of made-to-measure shoes for specific horses and to prepare competition shoes.” Nigel, who has a small, gas-fired forge in his van, shoes horses wherever they are kept.

At one time, farriers made all their own shoes. Now most of them buy what they need from manufacturers. “Things have changed a lot and that’s partly due to economics,” explains Nigel. “For the first seven years, I made my own shoes. At that time, I shod five horses daily. Now I shoe up to eight horses daily and just don’t have the time to make the shoes as well as fit them. If I did, I wouldn’t get home until midnight!”

Nigel still makes about ten sets of shoes a week for horses with flat fleet and other problems. ‘Normal’ horses are fitted with stock shoes he buys in. Unfortunately, many young farriers rely solely on stock shoes after completing their apprenticeships.

“You can’t be a very good farrier if you use only manufactured shoes from the day you set out on your own,” says Nigel. “You learn your trade from behind the anvil. Although I make only a small number of shoes now, I know from experience what I can and can’t get from stock shoes and what I need to do to produce a set of shoes for a horse with tricky or non-standard feet. Having that ability instils confidence and makes you a better farrier.” It takes Nigel between 40 minutes and one hour to shoe a standard horse, and a one-and-half to two hours to shoe a Shire horse.

After the old shoe has been removed, the hoof is cleaned and trimmed to make it level. Stock shoes rarely fit perfectly. “They always have to be reshaped slightly, which is why they are heated first. Mind you, after about three years of making my own shoes, I got to know the shape of my regular horses well enough to be able to go out and put the shoes on cold.” Once Nigel is satisfied that the shoe, which is made of mild steel, is sitting perfectly on the horse’s foot, he nails it into place. Being a farrier is tough on the body. “Bending over every day, holding horses’ legs and hammering nails into place takes quite a toll on your back, knees, and elbows. Having been a farrier since leaving school, I’ve developed body strength. Anyone coming to farriery later in life, especially if they’ve previously had an office job, would find it really difficult – perhaps impossible – to adapt to the rigours of the job.”

Nigel says most people think farriery is a dying trade. “Farriers, in fact, are everywhere. Their skills have always been in demand and will continue to be as long as horses and ponies are kept for business or pleasure. Ten to 15 years ago there was only one college in England training farriers. Now there are three or four such colleges.

“There is plenty of work out there for anyone interested in horses and prepared to work hard, although things are getting a bit tighter with so many new farriers entering the market. The trouble is, you don’t really know if you’re suited to the job until you become involved.”

As far as the future is concerned, Nigel plans to enter more competitions and continue to run training sessions for up-and-coming farriers. He hopes eventually to become a Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Farriers.

“I thoroughly enjoy being a farrier and the trade provides me with a decent standard of living. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

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