by Andi Juell

Published in the April 1999 Issue of Anvil Magazine

Sometime around 1971, I got this wild hair to shoe horses. Personally, I think it was because I fell out of my crib at some point and damaged my brain. Now, don’t get me wrong. Horseshoeing and brain damage are not mutually inclusive, well, maybe, but let’s not dwell on the details. Nailing shoes on a large, angry herbivore is not too different from changing a two-day-old diaper or asking a grizzly bear for directions. Or is it?

Okay, so it’s a really stupid way to making a living, what with dumb-bloods, psychotic clients, weird theories (only shoe a horse when Venus is rising or Jupiter is falling), reversible egg-bars, pads that go “boo” in the night, nails that have been blessed by the Pope (thus preventing white-line disease), various horse psychologists, soothsayers, stale pizza vendors, and the local dialysis center—urine retention, a direct result of never being able to find a bathroom on a regular basis. The latter had a lot to do with my early career. I mean, face it. Every time I tried to pee in a stall, some thirteen-year old girl would wander by looking for a bridle, a pony, or some other stupid thing. It’s no wonder my kidneys looked like freeze-dried raisins.

Even so, the seventies were a great time to take up horseshoeing. The money was astronomical: $14.00 a head. We all got to wear ripped bell bottoms with a bunch of fringy stuff on the bottom and we weren’t forced to support the hairstyling industry— that only came later when disco demanded some sort of dance floor agility and decorum. By then, we were already two steps in the door of the nearest intensive care unit, our bodies the “after” shot to John Travolta’s “before.” Of course, the big money made up for all the pain and suffering we endured while searching for a bathroom.

Aside from the chronic bladder problems and the overall deterioration of a body that used to look good in pants, the real point of this story was a horse named Zuke. (I say “was” because I hope the miserable hair bag is long dead). Now, before I present the personal history of Zuke, as prejudicial as it’s going to sound, I’d like to put this story in some sort of personal and historical perspective—which means I’m going to lie like hell to protect my backside.

It begins with a confession. In 1971, I was a horseshoeing school graduate; I was proud, bruised and totally incompetent. My eight-week course began with 21 aspirants and by the end, six of us had survived—not including the instructor, who was hospitalized after a demo on how not to get kicked by a horse with a higher IQ than his. But, that’s another story. Most of us who made it felt like we had just escaped from a death row camp somewhere in the Third World. Even our graduation certificates were left blank just in case we died at the last minute of tetanus or something. We celebrated with four cases of beer and we all signed get-well cards for the also-rans, including our missing instructor, who was busy having his sternum wired back together.

The first horse I shod for real money bled so badly that I needed a mop and a bucket to clean up the mess. The owner of this poor animal didn’t sue me, opting to chase me around the parking lot with a •357-magnum. Fortunately, she was a bad shot—missing me but making a hell of a mess out of a hamburger stand and somebody’s ‘69 Camaro. No, I didn’t get paid.

We all know the rules of the game. The new shoer on the block gets the privilege of shoeing every rotten piece of dirt that ever inhaled oxygen, and probably maiming a few in the process as well. That means foundered ponies, manic-depressive Warmbloods, yearling thoroughbreds, navicular Quarter Horses (steroidal misfits that assume your spine belongs in your shoes) backyard mongrels of all descriptions, numerous misguided foals, socially inept hunters, mean-spirited jumpers, and the usual collection of wishful thinkers—equine or human. It was basically a business that reminded me of that death row thing. Either you sat in the electrified chair or you pulled the lever. For a new kid on the block, the results were about the same.

Okay, let’s talk about Zuke. Zuke was a pure-bred Arabian gelding that was very good at some task that now escapes me. Could have been Arabian Western Pleasure, might have been Third World assassinations of politically incorrect horseshoers. Whatever the case, Zuke represented what we all know as the “rights of passage,” meaning quite literally that if you managed to get a set of shoes on Zuke, you never had to see Zuke again. He was like a returnable pop bottle with hair. Nobody went back to the cave for a second look at the monster unless you were pathologically addicted to car accidents. Either way, in the crude vernacular of the day, you were screwed—mildly speaking, you were facing immediate death in the hope that your next of kin might get the check, or at least be able to i.d. the body. The main thing was that you had to do it. Otherwise, the only respect you’d ever get again was from either your mother or the nearest coroner.

Zuke was no fool—us horseshoers, well, that was another story entirely. Hell, one year out of horseshoeing school, deprivation was written all over our business cards. We didn’t shoe horses, we shod psychotically deranged vegetarians intent on moving up the food chain to something tastier, like us. I mean, I’m trying to be fair here. Zuke was a very smart horse, regardless of his eating habits. He could step on you with one foot, kick you with the other, and make the whole thing look like it was your fault. Profuse bleeding I could deal with. Looking like an idiot was another matter entirely. Oh, I’d also been warned: Zuke didn’t do twitches, lipchains or baseball bats. Anybody who tried machismo ended up on the Surgeon-General’s list of extremely bad habits.

Now, at this point in my early career, I had two mentors: John and Gordon. To be quite honest, Gordon had a pretty high opinion of himself and rarely declined to express that fact. John represented everything I seemed to want in my business (the big barns, etc.), but when I finally picked up a few of those, I found that reality and dreams are a lot like adopting a rabid dog. My ego was slowly digested by owners, trainers and veterinarians who were absolutely convinced that poop runs downhill; in my case, I was nothing more than a septic tank that needed pumping. Oh sure, I fought back—the end result was that I was terminated with more prejudice than Charles Manson generates at one of his parole hearings. And foaming at the mouth was not something I took lightly.

Still, I needed to prove myself—which meant that Gordon had the perfect opportunity to set me up. I admit to having this weird macho sense in me at the time that needed to slay some dragon that hadn’t quite gotten around to finding my neighborhood. Hence, this inherent need for a horse like Zuke. Well, Gordon was more than happy (relieved) to introduce me to Zuke’s owner, a woman who was quite accustomed to dead or maimed horseshoers. I agreed to give Zuke a try more in the hope that I would be accepted into the Horseshoeing Hall of Fame, rather than actually surviving the experiment—the usual death-versus-ego thing that keeps most singles bars in business.

I arrived at Zuke’s designated barn around three-o’clock in the afternoon. The vet was just leaving, having administered the usual five or six vials of Ace-promazine. As he sped out the driveway, he yelled, “I hope it’s enough!” I really wished he’d left a little for me, since my fear was beginning to eat away at my fortified lunch.

Zuke stood quietly, the picture of drug-induced charm. That is, until I dropped the tailgate of my truck. At that point, he looked me in the eye, then in the direction of his owner, and casually snapped off the 4x6-inch railroad tie he had been secured to. With the timber in tow, he casually walked back to his stall, his body language indicating some sort of disgust with the entire process. I might have followed, but I was busy dealing with one of those myocardial infarction things that tends to occur at the third announcement of most firing squads.

The woman was extremely gracious about the whole thing. She told me that it was just not Zuke’s day. She paid me for the shoeing that never happened, but more importantly, she said that as far as anyone was concerned, I got the job done. Later, I told Gordon, “piece of cake.” Okay, so I lied. We all pass tests in different ways. The only bad part was the hangover I had the next day. But then, it was better than being dead.

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