Texas vet school joins few with own blacksmith
COLLEGE STATION, Texas – After surgeons removed pieces of bone and realigned the horse’s leg by bolting it together, they turned their patient over for a custom shoe-fitting to a man most often seen working in a cowboy hat and leather chaps.
Generations ago, someone like Jason Wilson-Maki would have been at the center of his community as the town blacksmith. Now, he practices his craft in a garage-sized shop at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine, where he’s the school’s first full-time farrier, or horseshoer.
Renowned for cloning more species than any institution in the world, A&M is among just a handful of veterinary colleges, including Cornell and Pennsylvania, to have a full-time farrier. But it makes sense in Texas, which has more than 1 million horses, more than any other state.
Kent Carter, chief of medicine at the Texas A&M Large Animal Hospital and a specialist in equine lameness, said horses are the most common animal seen at the hospital. It used to hire farriers on an on-call basis, but the demand justified bringing Wilson-Maki on board about a year ago.
«When you’ve got a contract farrier coming in on an as-needed basis, they might come in and do the horse but as soon as they leave, you have another one to talk about,» Carter said.
Wilson-Maki, 37, can remove horses’ existing shoes, allowing veterinarians to get better X-ray results, then put the shoes back on. Also, Carter said he and his colleagues frequently see conditions and injuries where treatment requires a custom-made shoe. It’s not uncommon for a horse to injure a hoof, lose part of it or need a piece removed.
«A regular shoe would not fit the foot so a handmade shoe is essential,» Carter said. «Sometimes we need to do surgery to the bottom of the foot, and a special shoe that allows us to treat the exposed area, yet protect it, needs to be constructed.»
Cornell University in New York has employed a farrier for nearly a century, almost since its vet school was founded in 1894. Mike Wildenstein has held the position for the past 15 years, helping veterinarians care for some 4,500 horses each year.
Typically, he examines X-rays with veterinarians and if shoes can resolve horses’ foot problems, the animals are sent to Wildenstein’s shop. If surgery is needed, he does the preliminary work and turns the case over to the veterinarians «when it gets to bone,» said Susie Fubini, chief of large animal surgery at the college.
«I couldn’t imagine not having him. I think it would affect our service tremendously,» Fubini said. She continued later, «He’s a miracle worker with foot problems with a horse. We defer to him for many therapeutic shoeing suggestions.»
Unlike the village blacksmith described toiling «under the spreading chestnut tree» in the classic Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem of the 1800s, farriers have additional expertise in hoof care. Wilson-Maki trained at the Heartland Horseshoeing School in Lamar, Mo., and with about 3,000 other farriers belongs to the Kentucky-based American Farriers’ Association.
At A&M, he provides basic care, a $100 job in which he trims and cleans hooves and nails on four new metal shoes every six weeks or so. But he also provides more complex services, as in the case of the horse with the shattered leg.
«To put the shoe on, the last little finishing touch, was really neat,» he said. «It’s rewarding to me and nice to be a part of that, along with people that are capable and that dedicated.»
While the college’s veterinarians work in clinical treatment rooms with flat-screen monitors and high-tech devices, Wilson-Maki’s shop has a table saw, drill press, welding gear and an anvil that could have come out of the Old West. He also has a forge the recalls Longfellow’s «village smithy» that produced «burning sparks that fly like chaff from a threshing floor.»
Commercially made horse shoes of iron, steel, titanium and synthetics such as Kevlar fill the wall in one corner. But Wilson-Maki estimates he makes about 50 percent of the shoes he uses.
The hoof wall grows continuously downward from a coronary band that joins the top to the skin of the lower leg. The hoof includes a protective barrier called the periople and a frog, a weight-bearing surface that also acts as a shock absorber. Other parts include sole and heel and a digital cushion, a flexible material that helps distribute weight.
Lameness results when something goes wrong, and it can be serious. After gastrointestinal horse colic, the leading cause of premature death is laminitis, an inflammation within the hoof.
«Some of the surgical cases, orthopedic cases, due to injury or malformation, you assume there’s not going to be a positive outcome,» Wilson-Maki said. «The staff do such a good job, they walk out of here and you wouldn’t expect that. That part for me, I feel privileged to be exposed to that.»