Fashionable urbanites finicky about their grooming and appearance might be surprised to learn that police horses also get regular pedicures and hair cuts.

P. Ravindran Pillai and D. Roby, the two farriers of the Mounted Police Unit in Thiruvananthapuram, both specialists in equine foot care, ensure that the 15 police chargers under their care are well shod and properly groomed. They work in tandem with stablemen and syces to ensure that their charges get their manes pruned and coats burnished.

The grand tradition of farriers in Kerala dates back to the days of Sri Swati Thirunal Rama Varma, 19 century king of Travancore, who is credited with raising a formidable European-trained cavalry unit, first known as the “Nair Brigade” and subsequently “The Raja Pramukh’s Bodyguard.”

Mr. Pillai and Mr. Roby picked up their tradecraft from their seniors in the service. Their job is to clean and trim the hooves of the steeds, watch out for foot disorders and diseases and fix horseshoes made to size in the unit’s old smithy.

It takes about four hours to shoe a horse. And it is dangerous work. The farriers often bear the weight of the mount’s lower limb on their upper thigh, running the risk of getting kicked if the steed feels pain or irritation.

N. Sathyaraj, the unit’s veterinarian, says horses kick, bare their teeth or bite to express fear or pain. A horse kick can easily kill a man or cripple him for life, he says.

The farriers work with tongs and rasp (tools for cleaning hooves) and a “hoof knife” for shaping the hooves. A badly shaped hoof and an ill-fitting shoe can cause a horse to stumble.

To achieve a perfect fit, a farrier has to fix and re-fix a horseshoe several times. He requires to be a skilful blacksmith.

The unit’s 133-year-old forge, where the horse shoes are fabricated out of 60- cm-thick iron rods, is an antique curiosity in itself.

Its furnace is fired by a pair of bellows, fashioned out of European hardboard and Arabian camel leather. Officials say the bellows have scarcely required any repair or replacement.

Farriers are a dwindling tribe the world over. Their skills have almost become a lost art.

City Police Commissioner P. Vijayan says more men will be trained as farriers when the police stables receive their first batch of 15 new stallions this year. The Kerala police, it seems, are unwilling to lose their prestigious mounted unit for the want of farriers.

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