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Life as a farrier

RENNER--Chris Richards lays a still-hot horseshoe against a black gelding's hooves, his face focused through the freshly billowing steam and smoke. Cactus, the horse, seems mostly unbothered. His owner, Marianna Finn, pretends to cough from the s...

A pair of horsehoes are heated up in a forge inside Chris Richards' trailer to be put on a horse named Cactus' hooves in April at Cedar Ridge Equestrian Center north of Renner. Richards is a farrier based out of Hurley serving clients in a 50-mile radius. (Matt Gade/Republic)
A pair of horsehoes are heated up in a forge inside Chris Richards' trailer to be put on a horse named Cactus' hooves in April at Cedar Ridge Equestrian Center north of Renner. Richards is a farrier based out of Hurley serving clients in a 50-mile radius. (Matt Gade/Republic)

RENNER-Chris Richards lays a still-hot horseshoe against a black gelding's hooves, his face focused through the freshly billowing steam and smoke.

Cactus, the horse, seems mostly unbothered. His owner, Marianna Finn, pretends to cough from the smoke, which draws a response from Richards.

"Oh, c'mon," he said, drawing laughter from his audience.

It's typical of the light-hearted banter between Richards and his clients. Richards, 41, the name behind Chris Richards Horseshoeing, is a farrier. He spent most of a muddy April morning trimming hooves and fitting shoes onto horses at the Cedar Ridge Equestrian Center, a boarding stable near Renner. Part craftsman, part psychologist, part teacher, farriers are specialists in equine hoof care, particularly trimming hooves and shoeing horses.

Laura Wagner owns the barn, which houses about 30 indoor stalls and has ample pasture space for her business boarding horses. She said there are usually about 50 horses on the property, which also boasts miniature horses, goats, a miniature donkey-and she's thinking about an alpaca.

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Wagner said there are three farriers who come to the barn regularly, Richards among them, to trim the horses' hooves and provide shoes for those who use them. It's up to the boarders to pay the farrier, Wagner said, but they get to choose which farrier they prefer.

"Some barns don't do it that way, but I feel it's their horse, it's their choice. They all have different strengths," she said, motioning toward Chris. "Chris is really good. Chris is a great conversationalist."

Richards proves that, rarely missing a beat in his work while chatting with Wagner, the various horse owners and even the animals, on occasion. His first horse of the morning, a gelding named Xander, belongs to Earl Erpelding, who lives just down the road from Cedar Ridge.

"He's very dependable," Erpelding said of Richards. "One of the most dependable farriers I've ever met."

"What do you mean, 'one of'?" Richards responded, again drawing laughs.

It's partly that relationship that keeps clients coming back, Richards said, noting that a big part of being a farrier comes down to personality.

Everyone handles horses differently, he said, which means different horse owners might prefer different temperaments in a farrier. Richards, easygoing and quick to laugh, said most of the people he works for seem to be "pretty mellow" and easy to get along with.

Wagner said the most important thing people look at is the quality of work. But the second thing, she agreed, is largely personality.

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"Everybody has different personality types that they get along with real well," Richards said. "That's what makes this business great is, if your personality clashes with someone or theirs clashes with yours, you don't have to work together."

For his part, Richards said he will correct a horse that is being disrespectful, because it's easy to get hurt when dealing with thousand-pound animals-he got kicked in the head last summer and was out of work for four or five days. But, he has a 3-second rule for correction.

"You need to get whatever licks you're getting in within 3 seconds. Because they have to associate the punishment with the crime," Richards said. "I don't put emotion into it."

There's psychology involved, too, he said, in determining what's causing a horse to misbehave. In April, as Richards worked on a mare named Reba, she refused to cooperate with a hind foot. Richards, after a few minutes of examination, determined the horse was sore-so he left that hoof alone.

"I'm not going to fight with a sore horse," he said.

Finn and Erpelding speak highly of Richards, and Richards converses with both easily while he works. The conversations can meander from what concerts they have attended to the horse Richards is working on. Richards and Finn conversed about the state of Cactus' feet, which Richards seemed pleased with as he fitted Cactus for a set of shoes for his front hooves. Finn's gelding, Cactus, had uneven front hooves, which Richards has been doing his part to help correct.

Finn said she puts shoes on Cactus' front hooves in the summer when she's showing, because Cactus tends to be sensitive on rock or gravel surfaces. Traveling back and forth from his trailer, outfitted with a forge, anvil, inventory and tools, Richards carefully measures Cactus' hooves to a shoe, then marks it with a pencil. He then heats up the shoes in the forge, and shapes them to fit the horse. It's a back-and-forth process of measure, hammer, measure, and hammer again-in part made more difficult because of Cactus' unusual hoof shape, Richards said. Cactus, for the most part, stands patiently, waiting to be fitted with his new shoes.

"It's like having your own podiatrist," Finn said during the process.

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By the time Richards finishes the second shoe, Cactus seems to be getting impatient. But once the shoe is shaped and ready, it only takes a few quick strokes to nail the shoe down and smooth out the edges. After a few more strokes with the rasp to smooth out the hoof, Cactus is ready to go. Richards has Finn lead him away so he can watch Cactus walk in his new shoes.

"He looks like he's not quite awake, but other than that, he looks pretty good," Richards said.

From blueprints to hooves

Richards grew up splitting his time between the West Coast and South Dakota. His family is originally from South Dakota, his dad's side from Spearfish and his mom's from the Hayti area. After his parents divorced, Richards said his dad moved back to South Dakota, which is where he spent his summers as a child. In 2007, Richards and his family moved to Hurley, and he rebuilt his farrier business in southeastern South Dakota.

Though he grew up around horses when he was with his dad, Richards said he eventually drifted away from that lifestyle. He said he always loved horses and the country, but he spent three-fourths of the year with his mom, who lived in the suburbs.

He wound up working in construction, but even though he was doing well, he wasn't happy. Richards said he and his wife, Amy, were living in Seattle, Washington, and his young son, Dustin, came and asked him to play catch. Richards, poring over blueprints, couldn't. Later, when he went to check on his son, who was 3 or 4 at the time, who was in the living room, watching TV despite the nice weather outside.

It was the beginning of what Richards describes as a divine push toward a career change.

"The only way that I can explain it is the good Lord grabbed me by the back of the neck and told me to go do horses," he said, adding ruefully, "It's probably the one time in my life I ever listened to Him."

Chris and Amy prayed about a career change for Chris, who assumed it would be something in construction. Then, they visited Chris' dad over the Fourth of July in South Dakota. Richards said his dad picked them up at the airport, but before they could go back to the farm, they had to stop and get four horses shod.

During that visit, Richards said he visited with the farrier, and was intrigued.

"It kind of sat in the back of my mind that this was an interesting job," he said.

But, Richards said he and his family weren't involved in the horse community any more in Seattle. After a few more not-so-subtle nudges toward working with horses, Richards, then almost 28 years old, took the plunge and decided on a career change. He went to shoeing school in Sacramento, California, and soon after was able to find a mentor and began building his client list. He describes having a mentor as a huge help for him as a professional.

"Whether you're a Christian believer that needs that encouragement from an older believer, or you're a farrier ... you need to have other people around you who do the same thing you do, so you can ask questions to," Richards said.

'People are pretty happy'

Starting out, Richards said he had to take on the jobs other farriers didn't want to do-his first job was trimming three goats-and work more cheaply than the others until he had proven himself.

"You've got to work your way up the food chain, and you've got to pay your dues, so to speak," Richards said.

When Richards and his family decided to move back to South Dakota in 2007, he had to rebuild his business, which now entails a lot more travel. While Cedar Ridge is one of maybe four or five barns in the area, Richards said there would probably be closer to 40 barns in a similar area on the West Coast. But, slowly, Richards said he has built up his business, which includes Cedar Ridge.

"It's been a good barn, and very consistent," he said.

Now with a burgeoning client list, Richards said summer is the busiest time for most farriers. He said it's not unusual to get 10 to 15 calls a day in the summer, but most farriers are already booked well in advance.

He admits there is stress involved with his profession, like getting an emergency call from a client or rushing from appointments from early morning until 11 p.m. But for the most part, Richards said he enjoys the pace and the work, and likes being able to manage his own schedule.

"I get paid to sit around and chit-chat with my friends all day," he said.

He also takes pride in the work, describing the feeling of hearing from a client who did well in a big show, or working with owners and veterinarians to help rescued horses recover their health and soundness. And he said the small child riding the 20-year-old horse in the 4-H show brings the same sense of pride as shoeing a world champion.

"You get satisfaction out of going back to the barn after you've been working on a lame horse, and you've been trying and trying and trying everything and finally you found something that worked to make that horse sound," he said. "There's a lot of different levels of satisfaction. It's an industry that, you know, for the most part, people are pretty happy."

After more than a decade of shoeing, Richards added that he has found some balance between his personal and professional life. He could work seven days a week if he chose, but Richards said it's important not to let the job control him. He and Amy have two children, Dustin and Holly, who are both teenagers and very involved in their church, school and 4-H.

A man of faith, Richards said he and his family attend the baptist church in Parker. Richards said he feels the skills and abilities he has are gifts from God, and said church is a big part of his family's lives.

"I can't imagine a life without that hope that there's something more," he said.

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