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Tuesday December 7, 2021
Category: Interviews
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Recently I spent an afternoon in discussion with Melville Livingstone, C.J.F., about his career as a farrier and instructor with the recently terminated farrier studies program at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. With almost three decades of shoeing experience, Mr. Livingstone has seen the industry change in many ways and was able to offer a number of insights about farriery and the challenges associated with this career choice. Invariably optimistic, he was remarkably candid about education and the importance of making an overall well-balanced career choice. Mel believes that gaining experience in a variety of areas can only enhance one's outlook.

Having started working with horses in his teens and not one to limit himself, Mel tried his hand at a variety of odd jobs. He also spent some time traveling around Europe, but always found the road leading back to the farm.

It was fashionable, at the time, to attend University and get a good education. Following the trend, the plan was to pursue a profession as an optometrist at the University of Waterloo. It wasn't long before Mel realized the stable next door held his interest much more.

Originally acquainted with western horses, he now proceeded to conquer the hunters and jumpers. It was during this time that Met found his calling. Always a great believer in education, he researched the opportunities available and, making his choice, headed for the Hillcraft School of Horseshoeing in Golden, Colorado.

There, under Vern Olinger's tutelage, he graduated in 1973.

Many changes have taken place in the trade in the years of Mr. Livingstone's involvement. Whereas a full-size anvil or forge cost perhaps only $150 each and rasps were roughly three dollars apiece, new shoes cost a whopping $18.00, a reset was $15.00, and a trim three dollars. Mel recounts days when trimming thirty-five brood mares and their offspring, a good day's work, brought in just over one hundred dollars -- less than what shoeing one horse would cost today.

There wasn't a farrier's association then as there is now, offering the opportunity for one to cultivate and improve his/her skills and training. Although Mr. Livingstone concedes that this might be possible through an apprenticeship, it could be very slow to come about, particularly in the areas of forging. Mr. Livingstone credits farrier Bruce Daniels with inspiring him to become better horseshoer. Mr. Daniels started conducting one-week courses for farriers. There was "a real concern to teach us how to forge properly and how to make horseshoes." Not only did Mel learn how to forge horseshoes at the course, he also forged lasting relationships with a number of other farriers who also attended. These were the dawning years of the farrier associations of today.

The needs of many young horseshoers, eager to learn the trade but lacking the resources, were soon filled when Walt Taylor started the American Farrier's Association. Clinics and competitions were held where farriers from all over were learning and testing their skills among their peers. As a founding member of the Ontario Farrier's Association, it only made sense for Ontario to develop their own association and encourage camaraderie in the trade.

After graduating from Hillcraft, Mel returned to Canada. Having maintained the contacts he had developed earlier in his career, he soon found he had a very busy practice in the hunter/jumper realm. However, it was always in the back of Mel's mind to shoe racehorses and encompass yet another territory in the equine field.

In 1976 the "B" meet at Fort Erie was starting. This presented an opportunity for Mel to branch out into new territory, as there didn't appear that there would be enough farriers to handle both Woodbine and Fort Erie. Needing a license to practice on the track, the help of an older farrier, Harry Davis, was enlisted. When the steward asked about Mel's horseshoeing abilities, Mr. Davis replied, "Well, he's green, but he does a thorough job." With his spokesman's recommendation, the license was granted.

License or no, it took some time before a trainer, tired of waiting for his regular farrier to show, took a chance on his abilities, allowing Mel to put shoes on the lead pony. When everything went without mishap, he was then given the other horses to look after. Now he was noticed, his name became known and things happened fast. Before long, Mr. Livingstone had another pursuit going strong: plating racehorses. After Fort Erie the horses returned to Woodbine, and so did Mel. It was about this time that Mr. Livingstone met up with the man whose name was to become synonymous with his -- Jim Smith.

Jim was one of the old guys on the track. He had hardly said two words to Mel the whole time the Woodbine meet was on. However, just prior to the end of the meet, he extended Mel the opportunity of working along with him and "fathering" him into the business, an offer he couldn't refuse.

For Mel it was like starting all over again. Between the two of them, business was soon going strong. But soon enough, Jim would leave to join Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technologies and launch the Farrier Studies program. In September, after only a short spell working with Jim, Mel found himself on his own again, scrambling to keep up with another prospering business.

Although they hadn't initially spent much time working together, Mel and Jim were always as a team and knew each other very well. Many hours were spent traveling together to competitions and conventions. Mel joined Jim at the college in 1985, when he came on as the coordinator for the program.

Jim, semi-retired now, was again handing the reins over to Mel, who now became his boss's boss. Laughing, Mel adds, "Not that you could ever tell Jim to do anything, anyway."

Jim Smith was a worldly person who pursued diverse interests aside from horseshoeing, although it is farriery we most identify him with. Along with Dan Dunwoody of Kemptville College, he was a founding member and a driving force behind the Ontario Farrier's Association. As an instructor, Jim saw groups of young, up-and-coming farriers eager to build careers and develop their skills. As a vehicle for postgraduate studies, the O.F.A. nicely fit the bill.

As an instructor with Seneca College for approximately twelve years, Mr. Livingstone considers becoming a farrier one of the toughest career choices anyone could make. Both the physical demands of shoeing horses and the mental demands related to managing clients as well as a business, put a great deal of stress on the individual. After a hard day of physical labour, who wants to come home and start another day's work making phone calls, booking appointments, etc? Mel encourages those who are determined to pursue this career to help relieve associated pressures by sharing the work load with a partner or spouse, when possible.

With the inevitable closure of the program at Seneca, Mr. Livingstone feels that this does not reflect on the equine or farrier industry so much as it demonstrates a sign of the times in the course of education as a whole. Certainly in the province of Ontario there appears to be a lack of faith in the education system. This is prevalent in the resurgence of children attending private schools.

Although in its day Seneca could theoretically produce thirty-six "farriers" a year, the reality was that the classes weren't always full, students might not complete the course for one reason or another, and not all the students who completed the course wanted to become full-time farriers. Many had reasons ranging from just a general interest, being able to tack a shoe on when necessary in an urgent situation, or enhancing another career choice such as veterinary studies. "Farrier Schools are definitely going to go on. There is a need for them to go on." Becoming a farrier was a fortuitous choice for Mel Livingstone. He has traveled throughout the world, shod racehorses in Florida while working at the track, and later, attended conventions and competitions throughout North America and abroad. He has had oppertunities to meet and network with other notable farriers. He has had many experiences, both great and humbling.

Mel has the highest regard for anyone willing to go before their peers for evaluation. He explains, "We all (at times) think we are at a different level in the farrier industry than what we are. There are basically four levels. We can be at an unconscious, incompetent level, we can be at a conscious, incompetent level, we can be at a competent, conscious level or we can be at a competent, unconscious level. In the first years you are going to be at the unconscious, incompetent level. Then you get to the conscious, competent or the competent, unconscious level very quickly. Going to a peer evaluation will definitely let you know what level you are in. That includes competitions and certifications, as well. What we are actually talking about here is finding out what you don't know, and that's a very difficult thing to do. We all think we know a whole lot more than we really do.

Let someone other than the horse owner (or the thirteen or fourteen-year-old girl in the barn that thinks you're wonderful this week) who is capable of evaluating your knowledge and your skills do that for you. I think that's the very best feed-back a farrier can get. I don't think we all have to be world champions or even provincial or state champions to benefit dramatically from these events and programs that are being held.

For the time being, Mel is considering his options. Not one to become easily discouraged, he is optimistic about his future and potential prospects.

The best advice Mr. Livingstone can give to anyone starting in the business is to go to a school and never stop where your education is concerned. Pursue all aspects of your chosen profession, including certification. In researching the school, instructor, or farrier you want to apprentice under, consider what they have done, and more important, how they are perceived by their peers. The first two to three years can be the toughest, and finding a good mentor can a great deal of difference.

Mel encourages anyone, before entering into a contract for an apprenticeship or internship, to be sure to spell out the responsibilities of both parties. A good apprentice is a self-starter but doesn't interfere; they know when to work. "It is how much of yourself you put into your chosen field, and that's what will make you a good or not-so-good horseshoer. Although going through the certification process or competing will not likely enhance one's farrier business, the skills that you will take to work with you on a daily basis becomes a huge advantage."

We wish Mel all the best, whatever path he chooses, wherever it leads him.

This interview was first published in The Spreading Chestnut, Volume 1, Issue 2, and is reprinted here with permission.

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