For farrier, a fitting trade Horseshoes: Harvey Powell's skill at shoeing horses, learned when he was 10, has taken him from China's Burma Road to the farms of Long Green Valley.

November 28, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Kate, a 6-year-old gray mare, nibbled contentedly on a bale of hay as Harvey H. Powell gave her a pedicure, one hoof at a time.

Bracing a foreleg between his knees, protected by worn leather chaps, the 77-year-old farrier pulled off the worn iron shoe. He evened the edge of the hoof with nippers, like clipping a big fingernail. He smoothed the bottom with a heavy rasp and nailed on a new shoe, using eight needle-sharp nails to pierce the thick hoof.

For Powell -- a 5-foot, 1-inch former cowboy and rodeo rider who shoed mules on the Burma Road in World War II -- it was just part of his daily routine, visiting D. M. "Mikey" Smithwick's horse farm in Hydes to see which of the 35 horses need attention to their feet.

Powell has been shoeing horses for Smithwick, a Hall of Fame steeplechaser, since 1965. Many horses go barefoot much of the year, but working, hunting and racing horses need a change of shoes every four to six weeks, he said, and, so far, no machines have been invented to replace the craftsmanship of a well-trained farrier.

Horses get sore feet just like people do from poorly fitted shoes and from injuries such as stone bruises that cause abscesses, he said. "Sometimes when people call their veterinarians, the vets tell the people to call me," Powell said.

Smithwick, a six-time Maryland Hunt Cup winner, is Powell's last full-time client as the farrier tries to reduce his workload. Powell says he has no arthritis despite years of outdoor work, "but my hips hurt from all the bending over."

"He's very patient," said Smithwick, 68. "If there's something wrong with a horse's foot, he can make special shoes for it. Once I took him to New York, where we had a couple of horses that weren't running well at Belmont and he fixed them up."

Normally, it takes two people to do the work, one to hold the horse and the other to shoe it. "But he does it himself. He's a big comfort to them," says Smithwick. "He's interested in the horses, how they run, their progression. And he's here every morning about 7 o'clock."

Powell, an Idaho native, has been riding since he was a child, when he and two siblings rode the same horse to school. He has been shoeing horses since age 10, when he went on his first cattle drive on the family ranch.

It was a rite of passage, he said. "Everyone on a roundup has to shoe his own horse. It took me four days, one hoof a day. I wasn't big enough to do any more." Now, he can shoe two horses in an hour.

Farriers are accustomed to bangs and bumps in dealing with animals that weigh half a ton, but Powell remembers one horse in particular, a white mare he was riding in a roundup. "You could do anything with her but put shoes on her. I had to tie her down and tie her legs so I could shoe her."

Powell wanted to be a jockey but World War II intervened. He tried to enlist after Pearl Harbor but was rejected because his fingers on both hands are bent permanently -- the result of a childhood encounter with a wild horse.

"I lassoed her, but I wasn't strong enough to hold her, and I couldn't get to the post to snub her," said the Jarrettsville resident. "She pulled 60 feet of rope through my hands, burned right through a pair of leather gloves. They were smoking."

But wartime manpower requirements rose, and Powell was drafted into the Army in 1942. "They wanted to operate on my hands, to cut the ligaments. I said no way, throw me out if you want. But they didn't. My hands were perfect to hold a hammer or fit around a trigger."

Powell was assigned to the Army Remount Service, breaking and shoeing horses and training farriers.

He was shipped overseas to North Africa in the Quartermaster Corps. Then came a transfer to the infantry and, after surviving a troopship sinking in the Mediterranean, he ended up in China, shoeing the mules that hauled supplies over the Burma Road with the Chinese Army.

"I was supposed to teach them horseshoeing, but they knew more than I did, and I learned a lot from the Chinese," he said.

The monsoon rains created mud that would suck the shoes right off a horse or mule, Powell said, so the Chinese turned up the ends of the shoes against the back of the hoofs to prevent this.

His colonel, however, insisted on American-style shoeing -- until his animals lost their shoes and he realized that the Chinese knew what they were doing, Powell said. "They'd been doing it for several thousand years." In China he also learned to shoe oxen, whose cloven hoofs require two shoes for each foot.

After the war, little work was available for a blacksmith-farrier because ranchers did their own shoeing. Powell punched cattle for a few years and did shoeing jobs as they came along.

In 1955, Henry and Barbara Obre talked him into coming to Maryland to work with their horses at Merryland Farm, in Long Green Valley. Powell had known Mrs. Obre, daughter of copper magnate Solomon Guggenheim, since childhood, when she spent summers on a ranch where two of his uncles worked.

"She said there were plenty of horses in Maryland but not enough blacksmiths, so we came and we've stayed and had plenty of work," Powell said of the move he made with his wife, Mary, and their children.

In 1987, Mrs. Obre sold the farm to a New York businessman who gave it to Baltimore County in 1993.

Horseshoeing technology is pretty much what it has always been -- hard manual work -- and after more than 65 years of it, Powell has developed a simple philosophy in dealing with the animals: "Use common sense and patience."

Also, he says, "Everyone who owns a horse should have to shoe it, at least once, just so they know what it's all about."

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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