Making the shoe fit becomes a career goal
The king of sports provides some of the most thrilling entertainment opportunities for people in Hong Kong. Horses, as well as their owners, trainers and jockeys, enjoy a great deal of limelight. But perhaps unseen to the eyes of most pundits is another group of dedicated professionals who quietly play a major part in the sport – the farriers, who make and fit the horseshoes with unerring precision.
Some 40 professional farriers at The Hong Kong Jockey Club take care of 1,200 thoroughbred racehorses and 650 equestrian horses, with each horse needing four new shoes – known as ‘plates’ in the case of racehorses – each month.
This highly specialised profession combines blacksmith’s skills with some veterinary expertise. To provide hoof care for their equine patients, farriers remove the old shoes, trim the hooves using tools such as rasps and nippers, measure new shoes exactly to the hooves, then fit and adjust them.
A horse’s foot is delicate and only three-eighths of an inch in depth, so there is little to aim at. If a nail punctures the soft tissue it would make the horse bleed and prevent it from working for anything from a couple of days to upwards of a week. Conversely, a good horseshoe helps the horse run more smoothly and protects the hoof from wearing down. A farrier’s skills and experience are thus crucial to the performance of a horse, especially a top racehorse.
The Club offers an intensive and thorough farrier apprentice programme covering the anatomy and physiology of horse limbs, hoof trimming, horseshoe making, welding and equine health, as well as occupational health and safety.
This rarely-heralded profession can even help redefine one’s life goals. Lo Sing-yan, a former Hong Kong rowing star, has found new purpose in life via the Club’s forge.
“More than a decade ago I retired from the rowing team and was a bit uncertain about what to do next,” the 43 year old says. The former athlete was introduced to the farrier industry and then enrolled in the Club’s farrier apprentice programme. “I didn’t know this profession before that time, but during the first four years I learned a broad range of practical skills and became qualified after three written tests and two practical tests for trimming and shoeing,” he recalls proudly.
For Lo, tackling challenges on the water over the years has helped in his farrier work. Participating in a number of international competitions including the Asian Games and the Olympics, Lo encountered different weather conditions and the stress that comes from competing at top level. While in the forge, “each horse has its own temper,” Lo observes, “so we have to be physically strong enough to perform this duty.” His strong rowing arms have served him well in this regard.
Just as people have different shoe sizes, so do horses. Farriers have to adjust shoes to fit individual horses, and in general it will take 30 to 45 minutes to complete the shoeing process. Besides requiring good craftsmanship, a good relationship with the horses is also pivotal, as is communication with the veterinarians and the trainers.
Practising as a farrier for six years, Lo has turned a new page in his life, pursuing a respectable career and enjoying time with his family. His children are very proud of Lo’s profession. “Papa puts on shoes for the horses, so they can run fast and safe!” his son exclaims loudly with pride.