No mean feet

Farrier Mark Isaacs says the foot is a window into a horse's overall health. Photos by Matt Smith
Farrier Mark Isaacs says the foot is a window into a horse's overall health. Photos by Matt Smith
Shoes are now bought pre-made, rather than starting from scratch with a piece of metal.
Shoes are now bought pre-made, rather than starting from scratch with a piece of metal.

When you think about it, a horse's foot is a remarkable creation and those tasked with getting a horse's shoes right have plenty of pressure on their shoulders. Matt Smith talked to farrier Mark Isaacs about the intricacies of a hoof.

Put four of your fingertips on a table. Now imagine 10 times the amount they weigh sitting on top of them. And then factor in those fingers bouncing along at 50-60kmh carrying all that weight. No wonder the shoes on a horse have to be just right to compete at the top level of thoroughbred racing.

Farrier Mark Isaacs has been shoeing horses full-time for 12 years, and says the foot is a window into a horse's overall health.

"The foot tells you everything, really,'' he explains.

"If they're crook, a line will come down the horse's foot; it's a ring that goes round the outside of the foot. Often that will tell you if it's gone from good pasture to bad pasture. You cut it back too short and it's sore.''

So getting the shoeing right is crucial for Isaacs, who is kept busy shoeing all the horses at White Robe Lodge, as well as for other Wingatui-based trainers.

"It's very much like your fingernail,'' he said.

"When the grass grows in the spring, their feet take off. Every horse is different. Some thoroughbreds don't have much heel, so you have to be so careful. At the end of the day, no foot, no horse.''

Isaacs is kept busy around race days as horses run in lighter aluminium plates when they line up at the races.

"They do wear out quicker but, of course, they are lighter.

"The aluminiums have got a wider base, which is very good for their feet. But if an aluminium plate wears too much it can get slippery.

"With the thoroughbreds, when they first come in to work, we will put a reasonable-size shoe on them, weight-wise. And when they start galloping, we put them in a smaller steel shoe. 

"All the hacks and ponies have road shoes on. They would just wear out too quick.''

Isaacs checks all the horses he has plated for a race meeting to ensure the plates have not worn away.

As a former amateur jumps jockey who won a steeplechase race at Wingatui - "then I had a bad crash in the next one so that was enough for me'' - and a current clerk of the course at Otago Racing Club meetings, he is well aware how quickly a horse's fate can change with one stride.

"We can get out of a car and twist our ankle . . . we get away with a lot. But because the horse is going at such a speed, it only needs to stand in a wee hole or on something sharp and it'll soon slow down.''

Isaacs estimates about 80% of his farrier work is with thoroughbreds, the remainder comprising show ponies and show hacks.

Also heavily involved in the showing scene, he has been a judge at many events, including the New Zealand Horse of the Year Show in Hastings earlier this year.

But it is the thoroughbreds that provide Isaacs with most of his work.

As someone who has spent more time in close proximity to a thoroughbred than most, he knows their reputation, deserved or otherwise.

"I love the thoroughbreds: people say they're hot and they're not.''

Aside from the odd small kick, Isaacs has avoided major injury from racehorses.

His worst injury came with one of his own horses in October 2010. The horse kicked out with its back leg, knocking Isaacs unconscious, fracturing his skull and eye socket, and leaving him with more than 300 stitches in his face.

"I was in intensive care for a few days but I was back shoeing within a month,'' Isaacs says, matter-of-factly.

Farrier work has not escaped the technological revolution, as shoes are now bought pre-made, rather than starting from scratch with a piece of metal.

"Now what we do is buy the shoes in, whereas previously you made the shoes on site.''

Isaacs is still able to manipulate aspects of a shoe or plate to make it fit each horse.

"Every horse's foot is different. Some horses are very easy to shoe because they have good-shaped feet, and other horses require a lot more work to make the shoe fit. The horse has to be so balanced: that could be the difference between them losing a couple of lengths and the race.''

Isaacs has avoided the back pain endemic in many taller farriers.

"I'm lucky because I'm short so I never get sore. I get tired in the heat, but I never get a sore back.

"I think I can fit under the horse and horses quite enjoy that, because if you're tall, you're actually pulling their leg out to make you comfortable.''

Farrier work is pretty much seven days a week for Isaacs.

If he is away for show judging or shoeing horses elsewhere in the district, he will often clear up the backlog on a Sunday and is used to fielding calls at all times of the day or night.

"People say it's good working for yourself. Well, it is in one way but, in other ways, it's not. I get phone calls at 10pm at night and 11pm at night and at 6am and that's just the way it is.

Isaacs might shoe on average 10 horses a day during the summer before heading home to his Island Park Stud at Waldronville, so it's "horses, horses, horses''.

Still, he would not have it any other way.

"I took a wee boy out who thought he might want to be a farrier and I said to him, 'Do you like horses?'.

"He said, 'I'm not sure', so I said, 'you're wasting your time'.''

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