Spending a day with a horseshoe maker — a dying breed of artisans — in Allahabad

“Where’s the dexterity in employing a pair of hammers, a rasp, a hoof-knife, a pincer, a nipper and an anvil — a thick block of iron?” one might assume in this age of complex devices. Indeed, these are customary tools of the common blacksmith and require simple manual effort to operate.

But when a rogue horse — that has spent much of the day pulling overloaded carts — starts to do the waltz in front you, the job can get little tricky. Moreover, note that horseshoe-making is a much-calculated task requiring careful execution of each of the above-mentioned tools. Even a minor step missed or any goof up is equivalent to zero work done — most notably, leaving behind a not too happy ungulate. 

Liaqat, a Farrier or one who mends and fits horseshoes, drives us through one of his sessions at a small locality on the western fringes of Allahabad.

“A single glance is enough [for me] to judge the animal,” his tone reflecting a coolness brought by 40 years of experience. The latest client, Raja — an attractive horse with a striking white and brown skin pattern — is all set.

Liaqat begins by quickly removing the old, worn out shoes with the pincers and trims the hoof wall to the desired length with the nippers — a sharp-plier like tool. The sole and frog (triangular underside) of the hoof are trimmed with the hoof-knife.

This is followed by the levelling of the nails. It is to be noted that each horse has different sized nails and you cannot work on mere samples.

Once this is done, the shoes are measured to the size of the foot. They can be bent to the correct shape by hammering them on the anvil or can be heated. 

An unfit shoe can cause discomfort to the horse and even injury. It might also lead the shoe to wear out much earlier than it ought to. “Sometimes the horses return just after a day or two. Normally, it should last up to a month. But it all depends on the manner in which the horse moves.”

In many western countries, Farriers possess substantial medical knowledge, making them qualified and equipped to treat injuries and other illness. Sixty-year-old Liaqat possesses neither quality, depending only on his temperament and intuition.

After the measurements, the shoe is placed onto the hoof and nails driven into its wall. The specially designed nails bend outward, avoiding the sensitive inner part of the foot and emerge on its sides. Any sharp points are cut off with the clincher.

Then the rasp (a large file, like the one found in most nail-cutters), is used to smoothen the edges, eliminating any sharp edges left from the cutting of the nails. 

The entire process takes up to 20-30 minutes. However, sometimes it can extend up to an hour. It largely depends on how playful the horse is. To Liaqat’s surprise, Raju is uncannily calm. “Luckily,” he recalls with a grin, “I have never been kicked... Not in the face.”

Learning the trade could take up to two months or even a year, he adds. “It all depends from person to person.” Unfortunately, today there are few takers. A Farrier's work has little relevance in today’s urbanscape. Even in a city such as Allahabad, known for its Gherebaazi — traditional horse-cart races, only a handful of Farriers remain. 

“That era is gone when we were sought after by the elite. All these ikkas and tongas are just for attraction. Only a few remain. Who would want to take up this job?” “Kya karein mazboori hai. Aur kuch sikha hi nahi,” he reasons.  

While he manages approximately Rs. 35-50 per session (per shoe, that is), which is definitely not enough to take care of his family, he is often compelled to take a day out each week to travel to the mandis and melas on the outskirts. All for a better living but also to subtly convey a popular English proverb: “No hoof, no horse.”