I gave up watching the news. Somewhere in 2019. Before the pandemic, because I remember a student’s family calling and telling me to stock up on toilet paper. Toilet paper? Seemed strange, but we were able to keep our bottoms clean for the duration. Point is, I was out of the loop. And gratefully so.
There has not been a time in my life when the news media has lied more than now. Bear in mind that my life represents only 55 years, and maybe only two score of those where I was cognizant enough to form opinions. But the fact remains, the stories we get from those that tell them are filtered and painted with the brush of their beliefs.
I wish I could give credit to the person whom I heard the following from. Even though I can’t, this story is a great example:
The Oakland Raiders were playing the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City. Rivals that bordered on hatred. A dog attacked a young girl in the parking lot, and a man grabbed the dog and killed it by slamming it to the ground. A journalist saw the event and ran up to the man.
“That was amazing,” she said. “Can I have your name so that I can write the story of how a Kansas City Chiefs fan saved a young girl from a rabid and crazy wild dog?”
“You can,” the man said, “but just so you know, I’m a Raiders fan.”
“Well then,” the woman said. “I’ll write about the Oakland Raiders fan who killed the harmless and beloved family pet at the game.”
It is so easy to tell the events of a single occurrence from several different angles, and we only get the side of the one that tells the story. Good to know when collecting data, and an even better trick that we can pull on ourselves.
The way we move through the world around us is 10% what happens, and 90% how we react to it. We can look at something that happens and supply an imagined backstory that makes us mad, sympathetic, empathetic, concerned, indifferent, or just about any other emotion you want to plug in.
When I look at an event, I like to imagine my personal journalist reporting on it. She looks like a 1950’s TV secretary. Glasses, pencil behind the ear, hair up in a bun. She filters the events I see and allows me to have a nicer perspective when I let her.
Think of an example from any event that has made you mad in the last little bit. Let’s say a car pulled out in front of you and cut you off.
You could look at that and let your personal journalist report: That poor man. I’ll bet he just got a call that his daughter is fighting for her life in the hospital, and he has to get there right away. No wonder he’s driving like that.
How much better than thinking: That @$&%* is an idiot and shouldn’t be allowed to drive. I’ll just run up on him and let him know what I think.
Imagining the story of those around you is a fun game to play with a companion. Everyone has a story, and most are stranger than fiction. It is fun to sit in a restaurant and look at the couple in the booth. Imagining how and where they met. How long they’ve been together. Where they live and what they do. The list goes on. When you play this little game, try to do so with love and benevolence in the heart of your personal journalist as they report the scene. Your eye will be turned to empathy and sensitivity rather than darkness. This little exercise will help you see wherever you may be with more joy, and that will infect every part of your life. How cool is that?
Here is the introduction and first chapter from my first memoir, For the Want of a Nail, The Shoe Was Lost. You can buy the book, or eventually get the whole thing for free down the road from these blog posts. (There are color photos in the book though.) I hope you enjoy it.
Although this is a book about some of the influential farriers that helped build my career, it goes without saying that Kelly Gregory has been the most important person that I have ever met. No matter what else you do, I recommend that you marry well. You can have an amazing or horrible career, wealth or poverty, live where you don’t want to live, etc., but if your marriage is great, your life can still be great. There is no doubt in my mind that I would never have accomplished anything without the support of that great woman, so this book would have been entitled Top One if it were about the one person who made the biggest impact on my life and career.
Added to that was the fortunate event of being born to amazing parents and a lot of family support throughout my life. My grandparents were important people in my young life, and my big-city aunt has been a loving ally since I was born. I also had two incredible kids that have become wonderful adults and parents of their own, giving Kelly and me some grandkids that are smarter and more advanced than any other young humans ever were (excepting your grandchildren, of course). I have to say that my life has felt like one blessing after another.
All of us can look back on our pasts and see the people and events in hindsight that brought us to wherever we have landed. This book is about twelve men I was lucky enough to cross paths with and their impact on my career. I decided to tell some of the memories I have of their part in my story. I sent all of them a list of questions and have included their answers at the end of this work in their own words.
“Top Ten” was a phrase that drove me for many years as a young farrier. It was in reference to a magical place and time: The World Championship Blacksmith Competition in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It happened every year in July during the Calgary Stampede. Billed as The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, it lived up to that title in my mind. What better place than The Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth to host a world championship in my chosen trade? I thought I would borrow that phrase, “Top Ten”, to write about my personal top ten career influencers. However, it wasn’t enough. To stop at ten would have left out some that needed to be included, so I went to twelve. Maybe a little selfishly at that, since there were a few years at Calgary where I would have been in the championship shoeing if they had taken twelve. I think “Top Twelve” has a ring to it, don’t you? I can remember being in eleventh or twelfth place more than once and thinking “if only”. Well, these are my memories, so I decided to make it twelve instead of ten.
My career, thankfully, began in a time before the internet. In fact, I often bragged as a young school owner that I was in an “internet-proof” business. As if such a thing exists. I thought the internet would probably not catch on, and only be useful to academics and such. Sure glad I didn’t do a lot of investing in Wall Street with my skill at seeing the future. I could not have been more wrong about the World Wide Web (and many other things as well), and I was ultimately forced to play the game of social media since I had become accustomed to eating.
For those that will never know the world without the internet, it was a time where you only got to learn by direct exposure to those that knew what you wanted to know. It took a lot of time, effort, and money to advance your skills. You were at the mercy of your ability to get to the right place with the right people. Nowadays, you can see and learn some amazing stuff at three in the morning in your pajamas, or when you need an answer in the middle of the day. However, there is the danger of so many opinions that the young farrier is tasked with winnowing the wheat from the chaff. As Jim Keith mentions, it is important to know anatomy at a high level so that you can determine whether the information makes any sense. Bad theory that is cleverly marketed has been a problem for a lot of horses because it was applied by someone that did not understand the application and the manner it would affect the horse.
There was no better place or time on the planet to become a competent farrier than to be at Calgary for that contest. Everywhere you looked you could see a new way to bend a toe, build a heel, or pull a clip. That week would fuel you for a year, and those that got involved found it to be addictive. I know I sure did.
I was never an amazing competitor. Although I wanted to be, it wasn’t in the cards. I was cursed by the same affliction as everyone else of only 24 hours in a day, and there were other demands that I had to meet. Not that I did not try my best. In 18 trips to Calgary, I only made the Top Ten once. (Maybe I will tell that story in another book.) I was between 10th and 20th over a dozen times, but there aren’t any prizes that far down the list. But I was exposed to, got to know and learn from, and expanded my horizon by being there amongst some very great farriers.
This book is about some of the inspirational people that played a huge part in my career. Let me emphasize the word “some”. When it came to people teaching me this craft, it has been happening since the beginning of my career and continues today, 35 years later. I have been to hundreds of clinics and got to work with and see many of the legends of farriery. I have spent hours at the anvil with many world champions and worked side by side with so many incredible farriers. Students teach me things all the time, and it is humbling to be doing this trade for so long and still have so much to learn. It would be impossible to name these people, so I have decided not to try. In this book are some of the ones that really stand out in my memory and were willing and able to answer the interview questions I sent them. These guys were part of those game-changing moments that we all experience in life.
There are times where I will work hard to get a student to learn something with no success. For instance, I’ll say, “This is the sweet spot, stay on top of the horn, this is where you bend the shoe, this is where you straighten it, etc.”—maybe a dozen times or more, saying it in every way that I can think of. Still they will look at me like I am speaking another language. Later, maybe hours, maybe days, that student might say to me, “Hey boss, Kelly finally taught me how to shape a shoe. She told me to hit it here and then hold it so that I work on top of the horn like this.” Man, that used to frustrate all of us as teachers. But what is really happening is that the student is finally ready to hear and understand, and the time you spent working towards that goal is what helped them get to that point. Kelly might have gotten the credit in the student’s mind, but that is not the important thing as long as they end up learning the skill. I would guess that when I was in the early years of learning, there were people that tried to teach me something but others ended up with the credit. That is just what happens as we go through life.
It is also important to emphasize that I am focusing on the farriers that were part of my early farrier career, not all of the other great people who were part of helping me achieve whatever measure I was capable of. I’ve had great preachers in my church, family support, friends in publishing, teaching, manufacturing, marketing, and so many other aspects of what it takes to go beyond the mechanics of shoeing a horse. I have also been exposed to so many amazing farriers around the globe, and a lot of them are close friends that have shared important parts of my career. I hope to continue the stories so that they can be recognized for their part, but it is beyond the scope of this work. Again, to name a few would be disservice to those that I would unavoidably forget, and I hope that as they read this they know how much I appreciate them all.
If you get the chance to write a memoir, you will find that amongst the great memories will be some regrets as well. First off, I didn’t take very many pictures before I started writing articles in the mid-1990s. This means that so many of these memories are living only behind my eyes and I don’t have the photo to share. The other regret is from some advice of Danny Ward’s that I did not follow. If only I had. Danny told me, “If you are going to teach farriery, you need to keep a journal of all the students and customers that you are going to have in your career. It will make a great book someday.” Thanks, Danny, but you were talking to an ignorant kid that did not follow that sage advice. Maybe someone reading can learn from my mistakes, which is another trait that I lack in spades.
I hope you get to enjoy meeting these great men through the pages of this book. Know that their legacy has been increased through many students of the trade that have passed through the Heartland.
This book is dedicated to the men presented in its pages, and to the hundreds of others that I owe thanks to. I am blessed to have crossed all of your paths.
My Top Twelve will be presented in the order of when they came into my career, and it does not have to do with their impact on it. I would be hard-pressed to rank them; I feel that God placed them in my path at exactly the right time. I hope you enjoy getting to know these amazing men through these stories.
Note: The idea for this little book came around about 2014 or so, and then it was picked up and finished in 2022. Even though it is being published after the passing of a few of the great men mentioned, I left those parts as I had written it back when they were still alive. Luckily, I captured their responses to my interview questions before it was too late.
HOW IT STARTED
In the throes of the ignorance of youth, a young man can find himself in some less than desirable circumstances, even though that young man may not perceive them as such. This is exactly where I found myself in the fall of 1986.
I was following my dream of becoming a rodeo great, and I was convinced that a part of that road led through the state of Kansas. Being from New Mexico, Kansas looked like a green and prosperous Garden of Eden. A rodeo hero of mine had invited me to live with him in this lush greenery and secured me a scholarship to a local junior college. It sounded too good to be true, which it was.
My hope was that I would go to school when I had to, and then spend the balance of my time throwing steers and being tutored and shaped into a steer-wrestling champion. What was really happening was that my roommate and I were living in pretty rough conditions in the rodeo office of a small, private, indoor arena. I slept under an Army blanket that I had brought with me from military school, and the pattern of the settled dust on my white sheet underneath would show the weave of the wool and leave the U.S. in white contrast. It was actually kind of cool to see, if you didn’t think of it as dust. My roommate and I were riding quite a few horses for the rodeo hero, cleaning stalls, hauling hay, building a barn, and doing yard work. The majority of steers on the farm were broken horned or crippled. There were some good calves, but they were used for his kids’ practice, and we were labor to work chutes and untie calves. The rodeo hero himself was doing what rodeo heroes do and was only home for 1 day out of 10.
From my parents’ point of view, I was taking quite a bit of a detour from doing what a responsible young man should do, but they were as supportive as any parents ever could be. As I look back as a parent now myself, it is a wonder that my folks were as good to me as they were about that whole situation.
Being a scholarship student, we all had to have physicals. Every athlete in the school was lined up around and through the gym, boys on one side, and girls on the other. There was a beautiful short blonde girl on the other side of the gym that was wearing a pair of purple shorts. I pointed her out to my roommate and told him that I intended to meet that girl. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was destined to know that girl better than any other.
A couple months into school, the English teacher gave my class a project that required us to pair up with someone else in the class. As the Good Lord intended, I was paired up with the beautiful little blonde girl, of previous purple shorts fame, named Kelly. I don’t remember the assignment, but we ended up in the dorm playing a game of pool. She was better at pool than I was, but pool was not really what I was there for anyway.
This pool game/first date just happened to be a few days prior to my first college rodeo. My interests at this time were pretty narrow. I wanted to rodeo. Other than that, I also wanted to rodeo. Girls were of interest for only specific uses, and I had no intention of forming any sort of long-term relationships. Many a cowboy had warned me how females could ruin rodeo dreams.
The first college rodeo was in Pratt, Kansas. The weather was wet. By wet, I mean the type of storms a kid from New Mexico thought only happened in the Bible while Noah looked out the window of his ark. Bulldogging in this type of mud and water is kind of fun when you are a young man. In my imagination, I showed up at my first college rodeo and expected to win all the money and take my pick of the women.
Reality is rarely a match to imagination, and I ended up not making a dime. I did make a decent run in the mud, but a 7-second time in the bulldogging at a college rodeo was not even close to the short-go. Surprisingly, I wasn’t interested in chasing the buckle-bunnies that weekend, although the opportunities are always there for a college rodeo cowboy. It was a strange thing for a young military school graduate/cowboy to avoid the embrace of a previously unknown damsel, but I had no desire to see what was available. Bear in mind that this was only days after losing a pool game to my English class partner, and not really getting to know her very much at all. It seemed that my perspective had changed, even though I did not know it yet.
God works in mysterious ways, and he had convened a lot of circumstances to bring me to Kansas for the purpose of meeting the love of my life. Hindsight will show you those threads through your past if you look for them.
Many things happened that first year of college. I had intended on being a veterinarian but had to drop chemistry to keep from failing it. Thank God. I look back on so many things and see the unanswered prayers, and that is a big one. I was made to be a farrier, and being forced to find a new path helped make that happen.
My rodeo hero left Kansas for greener pastures around Thanksgiving of that first year, so I ended up moving out of the arena and into the dorm at college. Kelly was also in the dorm, so that was great with me. I started doing better in rodeos now that I actually had time to practice with the team.
I was paying $25 a time to have my horse, Brandy, shod by a local shoer. Brandy lost a shoe about every week, and the local shoer started charging me $5 to put it back on. Plus it was a big hassle. So I decided to start shoeing him, and then that turned into a few more horses on the rodeo team. Not a job really, just a very small beginning, but a taste that I found intriguing. I decided to spend a couple weeks at a shoeing school the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, and when school resumed in August of 1987, I was hanging out a shingle. The shoeing school I chose was incredibly bad, and I would guess that less than 2% of the people that have gone through there ever ended up shoeing horses. But the advantage of a bad school was it made me feel like I really knew a lot about shoeing horses, even though I didn’t. Bear in mind, this was an advantage to my confidence as a farrier, and a huge disadvantage to the horses that became my early victims. That could happen in those days since your standard was only influenced by the exposure you could directly get. No social media to influence or intervene.
I was only charging $23 to shoe a horse all around with new shoes, but then again, gas was under $1 a gallon and the minimum wage was just over $3 an hour. My resets were $18, so a lot of customers would have me reset tinfoil to save the $5. Trims were $12, but my rent was $150 a month, so I could make almost my whole rent in one morning of trimming a dozen. It was incredible the amount of money that I had for a young college rodeo cowboy.
This picture (fig I-1) is the summer of 1987. Kelly is visiting the ranch I grew up on in New Mexico. Sitting beside me is my young cousin, Jeffery Cantalupo from Chicago, the son of that big-city aunt I mentioned in the second paragraph of this book. He is now a powerful businessman in the Windy City, and Kelly and I are currently growing old together. I still have and drive the 1969 Jeep we are sitting on.
[I-1 My cousin Jeffery Cantalupo, myself and Kelly. 1987 at the ranch in San Pablo, New Mexico.]
My rodeo career continued to decline that second year of college, but my farrier career was on fire. I was building a business that I never intended. My exposure to other farriers were those that had a very low standard, so I was able to hold my own. If you don’t know what you don’t know, you can go forth with the confidence of a fool. This does mean that I owe a lot of apologies to a lot of horses, but I did learn a ton and it ended up making me a better teacher in the long run. Not a better farrier, because having a low standard does not lead to greatness, but definitely a better educator from having been down that tough road to get to where I wanted to be.
I went to my first contest in Durango, Colorado in 1980-something. Dean Pearson was the judge. He made shoes to a standard that I never knew was possible. It was amazing. Now that I had seen a standard, and I had seen my first clinic taught by a man that could achieve the standard, I just had to figure out how to get to that standard. It was awe-inspiring and I began my quest to become a great farrier.
Kelly and I married during spring break that second year of college. March of 1988, I was 19. We didn’t wait for summer because I had to report to boot camp for the Army the day after school let out in May of that year. I ended up serving about seven years in the US Army Reserves, but that is a different story for another time.
When I returned from Fort Leonard Wood in the late summer of 1988, Kelly and I moved into a house in Franklin, Kansas, and started our junior year of college at Pittsburg State University. I had moved my prices up to $26, which was top of the market in that area at that time. Figure I-2 is the sign I put in the yard of the house we rented in Franklin, Kansas. The day after I erected it, I came home to find it laying in the yard with the holes filled in. It occurred to me that there may be another shoer in the area that didn’t appreciate my arrival. I dug the holes out and packed them harder. Fence building was one of my particular skills, so I figured they’d have to work hard to get it out. The following day, someone had pulled it up and laid it in the yard again. This was getting ridiculous. I was putting it up once again when a city truck pulled up to explain to me about ordinances, easements, sign erection permits, etc. The gist of it was I had to move it back about ten feet. Live and learn.
By the way, “hot, cold, of corrective shoeing” on a horseshoer’s card or sign is a good indicator of a young farrier that does not know a lot about what they are doing. In those days, I had a forge, but didn’t light it. It was a necessary piece of equipment for a farrier, but I didn’t know why. Funny to think back on now. I did use the forge to make the letters in the sign though.
[Figure I-2 is a sign I made to advertise my shoeing business in 1988.]
Luckily for me, school was easy. The expression, “The More We Sweat In Practice, The Less We Bleed In Battle” is something that I learned young from being raised by a man that was one of the hardest workers I have ever known. From a tough childhood in the mines in New Mexico, through Field Artillery during the Vietnam era, through law school to owning a ranch, my dad, Mike Gregory, defines overachiever. As kids, my brother and I worked harder than any of my friends. Mom cooked on a woodstove until after I left home, so my brother and I knew a lot about cutting wood. We built fence, fed cows, cut ice, and all the general stuff that goes with a ranch. We grew up without a television, and I was pretty much over the whole ranch life when I left home for New Mexico Military Institute at the age of 15.
My dad told me I could go to that military school, but if I did go, I could not quit and come home. NMMI had an unbeatable high school rodeo team at that time, and I was going purely for rodeo with no idea of what I was really getting into. That was a scary place and time, but one of the greatest experiences of my life. They lose about 100 cadets that first “Hell Week”, every year. If I would have had a place to go to, they might have lost me as well.
What the raising on the ranch followed by military school had done for me was to make everything that followed easy. NMMI was easier for me than it would have been because of my dad and the ranch raising. After the military and academic demands of NMMI, the actual army and college were easy. By the way, this is a principle that I have very much used throughout my career running a farrier school. There have been many instances where a graduate will call and tell me how hard their day was, but it was still easier than their easiest day in the Heartland. “The More We Sweat In Practice, The Less We Bleed In Battle”.
Kelly and I spent five years in college but graduated with $12,000 cash and no debt. I had a couple of bachelor degrees and a masters degree to go with them. College was a good thing for a youngster at that time, but I have come to believe that it has been very much oversold and given a place of importance in the US that it definitely does not deserve. I don’t believe that it is worth nearly what people pay for it, and if you become a tradesman, you can probably do better than a lot of people that have college degrees. In the last half of the 20th century, college was truly a place to learn. That has changed in many ways, in my opinion.