This article will appear in the March 2008 issue of Horseman’s Digest.
by Jenny Ortuoste
“No Hooves, No Horse!”
A young farrier opens a window onto an overlooked world
Farrier, n. One who shoes horses. (American Heritage Dictionary)
Well-bred horses prance by, glossy hides of chestnut, brown, or gray glinting in the sunlight; on their backs, jockeys gleam like peacocks in many-colored silks. As the horses gallop to the wire, the crowd cheers. A horse race is a multitude of inextricably linked sights, sounds, and sensations, a stimulus that overwhelms the viewer yet leaves him eager for more.
But what lies behind the vibrant pageantry of racing? Few people taste the sweat, dirt, and mud that lie behind the show, or realize the sheer hard work required to stage the spectacle. Few know the people who make it all happen.
Meet Ronald “Tonat” C. Tanagon, 29. He is one of those who work behind the scenes, yet whose absence would definitely be felt. Tonat, fifth child of trainer Elito “Boy” Tanagon, is a farrier, and according to many, perhaps the best the country possesses today.
A farrier (magbabakal) is a specialist in equine hoof care. His skills include the trimming and balancing of a horse’s hoof so as to fit shoes to the horse’s foot. A good farrier combines basic blacksmith’s skills (fabricating, adapting, and adjusting metal shoes) with knowledge of veterinary medicine (specifically anatomy and physiology of the lower limb) to properly address the care of the horse’s feet.
Tonat fabricating an aluminum horseshoe at a farriery competition in Malaysia in 2006.
Routine work consists of hoof trimming and shoeing. It is “important to trim each hoof so that it retains its proper orientation to the ground,” according to Wikipedia. Additional tasks for the farrier include “dealing with injured or diseased hooves and the application of special shoes for racing, training, or ‘cosmetic’ purposes.” For horses with certain diseases or injuries, special remedial procedures may be needed for the hooves, such as trimming in a particular way and then special shoes may need to be constructed and fitted.
The tall, good-looking young man is intense and passionate about his work, which he says he was led to by chance. “Gusto ko sanang mag-vet,” Tonat remembers. “Tapos noong second year high school ako, napasama ako sa mga farrier. Unti-unti nila akong tinuruan. Nagustuhan ko yung trabaho.”
He liked it so much, in fact, that he looked for opportunities to increase his skills and knowledge. “(Veterinarian) Dr. Romy Modomo told me about the first seminar I attended, ‘The Correct Way of Shoeing’, in May 1994,” says Tonat. Presented by the Philippine Equestrian Federation, the seminar featured instructor Glen Croker who was able to impart valuable information to Tonat and other farriers.
Later, Tonat was sent to horseowner and breeder Aristeo G. Puyat’s Paris Match Farm in Batangas where he gained more hands-on experience. As his skills matured, he got other jobs at Puyat’s racing stable and those of horsemen Jose Mari Franco, Bienvenido C. Niles Jr., Eric Tagle, and Ramon Balatbat. An added notch to his hammer was being called to Manila Polo Club to shoe “problem horses”.
Photoessay: Shoeing 101: Tonat, with a leather apron protecting his jeans, applies a pick to Anahita’s hoof preparatory to removing the old shoe.
On a typical day, Tonat rises at six, takes his children to school (he and his wife Cathryn have four daughters), has breakfast, then, starting at seven or so, shoes horses for different stables until five in the afternoon.
If it’s a “farm day”, he gets up at three in the morning to make the long trip, usually to Batangas. First, a quick stop by the local market for vegetables and meat, which farm hands cook for their lunch. Tonat says he spends up to P1,000 to make sure that there will be enough for everyone. Then, at seven, he commences – diagnosing, trimming, shoeing – until he has done all the horses on a farm, from 25 to 50 in a day.
A farrier earns up to P500 per horse, supplying his own nails and the gas used for hot shoeing. He also brings his own kit – anvil, forge, nipper, hammer, rasp, hoof knife, hoof tester, packing, and medications. A box of nails can cost anywhere from P600 to P1,000, depending on the quality, with a minimum of six nails used to attach one horseshoe. The other equipment costs more and is a necessary investment.
Photoessay: Shoeing 101: Pounding a new shoe into the proper shape.
At first it was a struggle to cope with the demands of the job, but Tonat relates, “Sa dami ng hinawakan kong kabayo, common sense lang pala kung ano ang problema.”
All the experience served him good stead when he entered an international competition in September 2006 - the 6th Asian Regional Farriery Competion – held at the Perak Turf Club Equestrian Center in Malaysia and organized by the Malaysian Equine Council. Tonat placed third in the Open Eagle Eye Class, a good finish for a first-time competitor.
Tonat receives his medal for third place in Malaysia.
“According to a farrier from New Zealand who was there,” Tonat shares, “na owner ng farriery school, lumabas na mas magaling pa ang Filipino farrier na hands-on na nag-aral kesa doon sa mga nag-school. He invited me to study there.” So why hasn’t he hopped on a plane yet? “The study program is for two years at ayaw akong payagang umalis ng mga kliyento ko dito!”
Tonat spent on his plane fare to attend the competition; his purpose was to learn more. “Okay lang na hindi ako nanalo,” he shrugs. “Experience lang ang pinupulot ko diyan. Nagulat pa nga ako nung pumasok ako sa third.”
He says he cannot emphasize enough how much he learnt on that occasion. “Malaking tulong na nakalabas ako ng bansa. Nag-sharing kami ng ibang farriers about different problems. Nagdi-discuss kami at nagpapalitan ng new ideas.”
Photoessay: Shoeing 101: Nailing on the new shoe.
Tonat shows pictures of various trimming and shoeing cases, with “before” and “after” shots showing the remedies he’s applied. Although he cannot mention names, he tells of several racehorses whose performances improved once he got their hooves under his care. He speaks learnedly about “laminitis”, “seedy toe”, and “tendon stress”, asserting that “preventive and corrective shoeing” should be given top priority. Travel and seminars have contributed to his knowledge, and this is what he applies daily to the job.
Casting an expert eye over the denizens of local stables and ranches, he declares that many racehorses suffer from hoof problems that, if corrected, could greatly improve and enhance their performance. “Ang payo ko sa horseowners,” he says, “ay pag one month old pa lang ang kabayo, tini-trim na. Umpisa na ng pagko-correct iyon. Sana rin, kung ano ang isa-suggest ng farrier, full support ang horseowner.”
Photoessay: Shoeing 101: Measuring to make sure the shoe is on right.
He cites the example of a famous stakes winner who recently had a foal. “She was knock-kneed,” he says, “so there was a lot of pressure on her knees every time she raced. Piki talaga. So the farrier is really important because he can provide supportive and corrective measures.” He laughs. “No hooves, no horse!”
It is estimated that there are less than twenty professional racetrack farriers, with around four at the Manila Polo Club. Not all of them are as careful and meticulous as Tonat. “Pinalalakad ko muna ang kabayo,” he says, “bago ko hawakan man lang ang paa. I observe how the horse walks, ang landing, kung toe-in o toe-out. Tapos doon ka palang mag-uumpisa.”
If there are “problem horses”, does he have “problem clients”? Tonat grows animated. “May horseowners kasi, ang gusto nila, bakalan agad ang kabayo nila. Puede rin, pero hindi madalian iyan,” he explains. “Hindi pabilisan ang pagbabakal. Dapat nga,kung twenty minutes ka usually, gawin mong thirty minutes. May observation sa lakad ng kabayo before and after.”
His meticulousness pays off in results. He tells of another racehorse. “Dati, pag takbo niyan, mamimilay, tapos pahinga ng six months. Barrier, takbo, pilay, pahinga. Ganoon palagi. Noong ibinigay sa akin, I decided to put a reverse shoe that would support and relieve stress on the tendon.” The horse went on to win quite a few more races, and is still a track regular. Tonat adds, “Ang racetracks kasi dito sa atin, hindi ganoon kaganda. Kaya pag may good farrier ka, less problems.”
Photoessay: Shoeing 101: Filing is the final step.
He hopes that the industry would give more respect to farriers and their contributions to the sport. “Hindi ko ikakabit ang bakal ng basta nalang,” he sighs. “Dapat, kung ano ang ikabit ng farrier, huwag nang kwestiyonin. Kagaya nung reverse shoe na ikinabit ko doon sa isa, tinatanong pa ng vet sa racetrack bakit daw iyon.”
For the industry, Tonat, a true-blue batang karera, wishes “na lalo pa itong lumago.” For himself, he wistfully hopes to be able to work abroad and learn more about farriery in different countries. He adds, “Sana kahit isang beses isang taon, may seminar dito. Malaking tulong sa farriers iyon.”
Photoessay: Shoeing 101: Tonat checking Anahita’s other leg before shoeing the hoof of that one as well.
His long-term goal is to set up a local farriery school of his own, “na kung saan makakapag-bigay kami ng lisensiya. Ito na ang pinaka-dream ko. Kailangan lang ng nasa likod namin to back us up. Pag dumating iyan, kahit hindi na ako makakapagbakal, makakapagturo nalang. Di matatapon ang knowledge.”
Big dreams, big heart, from a young man with a will of steel and a vision for the future. Will Tonat and the other farriers find support, or will their dreams wither for lack of encouragement? With more people like Tonat, the country will certainly in time attain its goal of a world-class racing and breeding industry. ***
Photoessay pictures by Omie Peñaflor, taken at Santa Ana Park on 14 Feb 2008