“No foot, no horse” is an old saying among horsemen.
Despite their size and strength, horses actually are notoriously fragile animals. Four slender legs and small hooves must bear the horse’s full weight of more than a thousand pounds.
Thus, horse owners know they must pay particular attention to the care of their horses’ hooves.
Caring for horses’ feet is the life, profession and love of Jay Sanders of White City, Kansas.
“Horses have always been my hang up, well really my addiction,” Sanders said. “My dad farmed some and always liked horses too so I got my interest in horses from him.
“I’ve had horses since I was a teenager and competed in calf roping, barrel racing and the like,” he continued.
Born near Mangum, Oklahoma, and growing up in central Texas, Sanders quickly learned horses required shoes to be most competitive.
There were farriers, commonly referred to as a blacksmith, or in those days just a “person who could shoe horses.” But they had to be paid and as most teenage cowboys, Sanders was short on cash.
“I decided to do my own shoeing,” he said. “I was 16 years old and have been doing all of my own horse hoof care ever since.
“Looking back, those first shoeing jobs may have been rough, but they got me by,” the now-professional farrier said. “It was a learning process. I watched, talked to others, kept trying to do better.”
Drafted into the Army when he was just 19 years old, Sanders went through the routine basic training at several forts. “I kept my horses wherever I was stationed,” he said.
Deciding upon a military career, Sanders had four tours in Europe — a total of 9-and-a-half years. “That included 11 months in Vietnam in 1970,” he said.
“Fortunately things had slowed down there some by then. Always mechanically inclined, I served in the field artillery away from the front lines.”
After 21 years, Sanders retired from the U.S. Army as an E-7 Sergeant First Class while stationed at Fort Riley.
With horses that had followed him from youthfulness through military career, Sanders located his family at White City.
“I went to work for the Hodgdon Powder Company at Herington,” he said. “I was still shoeing my own horses, but I’ve always wanted to improve so I went to farrier’s school in 1991 at Oklahoma City.
“I really learned a lot from that schooling,” Sanders said. “Horses are the ones who suffer when a farrier doesn’t have formal training. There’s always more to learn and I continue to learn all of the time.”
Demand for his horse hoof care skills commercially expanded. “I’d work the job all day and then shoe horses in the evening,” Sanders recalled. “People asked me why I did that. I said I needed to be around something that had more sanity than it often seemed at work.”
However, the farrier business continued growing so Sanders decided it should become his full time profession in 2005.
“I’d been in maintenance management where there was some stress so I finally left Hodgdon after 13 years,” he said. “I wanted to shoe more horses and do what I enjoyed most — working with horses and horse people and helping them both.”
Word soon spread throughout the land. Sanders has a packed calendar demanding his most dedicated quality professional services. That’s from the north at Green, Kansas, 129 miles south to Whitewater. Then Salina on the west, and 110 miles east to just west of Topeka.
“I have a consistent schedule with my long-time clients handling their horse hoof care needs,” Sanders said. “There are those who I’ve worked for more than 30 years — some of them are even third-generation customers.
“Then I get calls to do other shoeing and special hoof care services,” he added. “I appreciate those opportunities, but it’s sometimes impossible to fit them in with my regulars.”
That totals up to lots of horses perhaps approaching an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. “I typically work with five or six horses a day, trimming and shoeing,” Sanders said. “That’s generally seven days, about 35 horses a week. Take that times 52 weeks steady since 1991. “I usually say I work on about 1,400 horses a year, but it might be more than that,” he added.
Well, do the multiplication on the conservative side. Jay Sanders has handled individual horse hoof care needs at least 50,000 times, likely a much higher number.
“It’s not what I completely anticipated,” he admitted. “Being a farrier wears your body out. It’s physically demanding and hazardous, too.”
While he’s had broken bones, suffered lacerations and wears a back brace, Sanders wouldn’t change what he does. “A lot of people think they want to be a farrier and even go to school,” he said. “Many decide it’s too hard and not what they really want to do. I love it.”
Sanders has an enclosed two-horse trailer converted into his traveling farrier service. “It’s equipped with forge, anvil, electrical hookup for grinders, tools, everything I need,” he said.
However, travel to horse care location is a burden Sanders hopes to reduce.
“I have facilities built at home complete with a larger forge and all of the tools, too, so clients bring horses to me,” he explained. “There are several customers from quite a distance all the way down near Oklahoma who haul horses up here now. I look forward to that increasing so I may not do much of any traveling.”
Handling hoof care on all ages of horses, Sanders said, “I don’t mind working with young horses as long as the horse is halter broke. I’m patient and never blame the horse. That’s my philosophy that pays off in the long run. I intend to continue doing their hoof care when they get older.
“I will use a lip chain and sometimes I get a veterinarian for sedation when essential foot work is needed,” he said.
However, the farrier is emphatic, “I don’t take problem horses, ones that have developed bad habits and are dangerous to handle. I used to work on everything, but I really don’t have to these days.”
Hoof care is divided into two categories by Sanders: therapeutic and corrective. “Therapeutic is protecting or fixing an injury like a fractured coffin bone or bruised foot. Corrective care is messing with a horse’s gaits, shoeing so it travels correctly.
“I do both, but together they’re only about 3 or 4 percent of my work,” Sanders said. “Veterinarians sometimes give me a prescription of how to care for a horse’s hooves, and I follow their recommendations.”
Capable of forging a piece of iron into a horseshoe, Sanders generally shapes pre-made shoes to fit the horse he’s shoeing.
Balancing a horse’s foot is the biggest challenge for farriers, according to Sanders. “It takes a long time to master that for beginners and all of us actually,” he said. “Every horse is different. Shoeing horses is a lot more than tacking a piece of steel on a foot.”
A member of farrier associations, Sanders attends clinics several times a year to broaden his shoeing knowledge.
He also participates in farrier competitions. “There are different divisions and some with the younger farriers making shoes are very competitive,” Sander admitted. “I go to the contests for the fun and to learn. It’s good to have others critique your work. If you’re the only one, you’re the best but others can help with suggestions and new ideas. It’s essential to keep trying to improve.
“There are a number of really outstanding young farriers,” Sanders said. “The business is in good hands.”
Of course Sanders wouldn’t be without horses of his own. “I have two performance-bred stallions and a band of mares, raise three or four foals a year, and breed a handful of outside mares,” he said.
“My wife Donna who I met while in the service takes care of the horses. She’s working at home while I’m out shoeing horses for others,” he said.
No slowdown in sight for this dedicated farrier who’ll turn 70 in a few days. “I feel fine, enjoy what I’m doing, working with horses and horse people. It’s been a great life. I can always sleep well at night. I’ll keep shoeing horses as long as I’m able to do a good job,” Sanders said.
His advice for anybody wanting to become a farrier: “The money is good, but it can be hard work with all of the varying elements. You have to enjoy working with all kinds of horses and horse people. You must enjoy what you are doing.”