If the Shoe Fits

Part blacksmith, part horse-whisperer, farrier Hilary Cloos tends to horse hooves from one corner of the valley to the other.

Part blacksmith, part horse-whisperer, farrier Hilary Cloos tends to horse hooves from one corner of the valley to the other.

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An expert hard at work Photo by Thomas Moore

Hilary Cloos isn’t convinced that horseshoes bring good luck. But just in case, “I like to fix them if they’re hung the wrong way,” she says.


Of course, she’s probably given it more thought than the average person. As one of the region’s handful of female farriers — the official term for a horseshoer — Cloos spends her days visiting her long-maned clients, who need new shoes every four to eight weeks. Her multifaceted occupation involves diagnosing health problems with the animals’ gait or hooves, relaxing the giant beasts (“I tickle their tendons,” she discloses), removing the old shoes, forging new ones on the spot, and nailing them carefully into the hooves. It’s as though Cloos is part vet, part mechanic, part blacksmith, and part horse-whisperer. “Well, I’m certainly not a vet,” laughs Cloos. “But I’m most involved in the horse’s foot, and the foot is what makes them useful.” 

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While working outside a Stone Ridge barn recently, her toaster oven-sized forge cooking a couple of horseshoes, Cloos gets down to the business of removing old metal and debris from the hooves of Belle, a seven-year-old Irish sport horse. She works clockwise around the animal in calculated orchestration, her movements deliberate and sure. She pulls a red-hot shoe out of the propane-fueled forge, grabs a hoof between her chap-covered knees and suddenly, smoke billows up around her head as she presses the shoe into the bottom of the cleanly filed foot.


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Called “hot-fitting,”  this process usually ensures a better-fitting shoe. “As long as you have left a fair amount of insensitive tissue on their foot, you can generally hot-set them for 15 seconds before they feel it,” Cloos explains.


The smell of burning hoof disturbs some animals; anyone who spends time around horses knows you might be kicked or crushed with little provocation. Cloos admits, “I have been kicked — almost always inadvertently — when I’m in the wrong spot, and the horse has a bone to pick with another horse.” She explains that if you’re tucked in close under a horse, its kick has “no momentum. But any horse person will tell you that it’s all body language, and also a fair amount of inner confidence. If I become angry or frustrated, I try to remember to just walk away for a little while.”


Cloos grew up on Cape Cod in a decidedly unhorse-y family. She learned to ride on her seventh birthday — her librarian mother and orthopedic-surgeon father surprised her with riding lessons — and she was immediately hooked. She rode for Harvard’s intercollegiate equestrian team; after graduating in 1996, Cloos chucked her physics degree and followed her passion to Cornell University’s veterinarian school. She undertook an arduous four-month-long program to learn the craft of horseshoeing, apprenticed for three years under a number of established farriers, then set herself up to operate solo in the Hudson Valley — a region she had come to love for its rolling landscape scattered with picturesque horse farms. With the area’s growing riding culture strong enough to support a career, Cloos now has clients from Connecticut to the Catskills. “I do a range of barns; some have strong lesson programs, some have mostly adults pursuing a hobby,” she explains. “Some of the horses I work on are competitive and I am usually the farrier-on-call at a couple of horse shows each summer. I love going to a different place each day.”


The work is strenuous and demanding, requiring the ability to handle tools not usually associated with femininity: forge tongs, a blacksmith’s mallet, an electric angle grinder, and a drill press. Cloos also needs the strength to grapple a 90-pound anvil on and off the back of her custom-made truck. “I do a lot of Pilates so I don’t get too much back pain,” Cloos says. “But this job keeps you fit.” Cloos notes that “only three out of 50 of us are women in our local farrier’s association,” but she says that their numbers are increasing. Since a majority of horse owners and animal veterinarians also happen to be women, her career has no “glass ceiling” to break through. “A lot of my friends are vets,” she says, adding that the men in her professional community have never treated her condescendingly or with disrespect.


Regularly caring for 150 horses — five or six on an average day — Cloos works at a steady, but unhurried, pace. At times there are emergencies that require immediate attention: horse can sometimes “throw” a shoe, which can result in unhealthy pressure being placed on a sensitive foot.


But most of the time, Cloos and her black lab Josephine visit repeat clients for routine care. After watching the horse walk — “you’re looking for how the foot lands and if the foot has grown,” she says — Cloos pulls the old shoes off with a crease nail puller and trims the growth. Occasionally she will notice the start of laminitis, a common but devastating and painful ailment that can be a death sentence for the horse. In those cases, she will work with a veterinarian on a course of treatment. But for routine cases, she crafts each shoe in the forge, removing and replacing it numerous times to get the shape just right. When done, the shoe is submerged in a bucket of water to cool. Cloos admits that she burns herself on the hot steel “several times a summer — that’s when I’m most busy and I get distracted.” Once the shoe is cool enough to handle, Cloos repeatedly lifts the horse’s foot at different angles, checking for balance while measuring the new shoe against the hoof. When it is time to insert the 2 1/2-inch nails into the hoof, Cloos steadies herself on her own two feet. “Nailing shoes on is the most nerve-wracking thing,” she admits. “Especially at the beginning. At Cornell, we had some dead feet that we practiced on, but a dead foot can’t tell you when you miss. A horse tells you.” She recalls her horror at hurting a horse when she was an apprentice. “He was lame for a few days, and we had to leave the shoe off. It was very discouraging. But that was a long time ago, and it doesn’t happen very often anymore.”   


Cloos no longer owns a horse herself, “but every spring I’m tempted to buy one, so I’ll probably have one again some day,” she says wistfully. The intensity of her day-to-day equine experience prompts her to pursue other activities on weekends. She enjoys hiking, camping, plunking out tunes on her banjo, and playing fiercely competitive board games with friends. Her partner (Cloos describes him only as a “wonderful man from Saugerties”) is, ironically, allergic to horses. Instead of galloping across fields in equestrian bliss, they take to the roads and trails of the Hudson Valley on their bicycles. “Unlike a horse, a bicycle doesn’t mind being left untouched in the garage for a week,” she laughs.


As Cloos circles the Valley from one gorgeous farm to the next, crisscrossing the bridges east and west, she’s struck by the quality of light landing on the Catskills and the Berkshires. Meanwhile, her passionate appreciation for horses is grounded in a fascination with the way they move. “To my eye, their movement is what makes them beautiful.” Knowing that her work enhances their beauty, health and well-being, she feels richly rewarded. “What I love about them is how generous they are with us. There is nothing like watching an aged horse teach a seven-year-old how to ride.” Contemplating her career, the former physics major says simply, “I don’t really think of it as a business, it’s more like caretaking. It’s worked out really well for me.”

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