Dickinson man is one part blacksmith; one part horse whisperer
DICKINSON, N.D. - Horseshoes, and the people who shod them, have gone hand-in-hand with the rise and fall of nations since time immemorial.
Historical evidence of horseshoes and horse husbandry exists in cultures as different and far ranging as the Celts of the northern British Isles and the nomadic peoples of the eastern Eurasian steppes. An old French word for blacksmith, “farriers” trace their history as far back as the invention of the horseshoe and have today become synonymous with those breeds of cowboy blacksmith that keep the forges lit and the horses afield.
“I picked up horseshoeing after getting out of the Army,” Lee Hecker, owner of Lee’s Farrier Service in Dickinson, said. “Been shoeing horses ever since. You never stop learning and you can never learn it all.”
Hecker, who has personally forged nearly every tool in his shop and shod more horses than he cared to estimate, said that a farrier has always been “one part blacksmith, one part horse whisperer and two parts broke -- physically and financially.”
“There’s never been a rich farrier. You don’t get into this trade to be rich; you do it because you love it and there’s always benefits to learning a trade,” Hecker said. “I shoe mainly barrel-racing horses and ranch horses. I’d much rather shoe a barrel-racing horse than any other, because a pretty young lady smiling at you while you work their horse is better than some bulldogger smiling or growling at you with two busted front teeth.”
Born in 1949, the 70-year-old Hecker is witty and very much spry for a man of his age and profession. Hecker registered for the draft after graduating from high school in Belfield, but received such a low draft number that he expected he would never be called. So the next day he went down and volunteered for service. It was while stationed in Germany that he first encountered the European version of the blacksmith farrier -- Der Hufschmied.
“When I came back from my time in the service and got out, a friend of mine talked me into going to horseshoeing school and I’ve been doing this ever since,” Hecker said. “Americans almost forgot how to do much of what we do today, and if it weren’t for some blacksmiths traveling back to Europe, we might have lost this knowledge all together.”
Hecker was referring to the nearly lost art of “hot shoeing” a horse. When he first started in the business typical forges in the United States were heated using coal instead of gas, a reality that stoked more than fire -- it stoked fear. With the occasional fire and the ever constant threat of it spreading on the prairie, many farriers turned to “cold shoeing” horses instead.
“An entire generation of farriers never learned the technique and it nearly cost the trade as a result,” Hecker said. “Hot shoeing allows us to do a more extensive alterations of the shoe than banging on cold hard steel, and it’s something I still do today.”
The benefits of hot shoeing have been a topic of debate within the trade, but Hecker said it’s best practices for protecting the horse.
“After the foot has been trimmed, rasped and is ready for the new shoe, we heat the shoe in the forge and place it briefly on the foot to sear the path where the shoe will sit,” Hecker said. “It helps make a smooth surface between the hoof and the shoe and seals the cut horn tubules, making them less likely to dry out in the summer or take on moisture and soften in the winter.”
While many professions and trades in the United States have had to fear the encroachment of automation and technology, Hecker said that as long as there are horses there will be farriers.
“I believe that with American ingenuity we could invent a machine that could do all of this for us and wipe out the farrier business in a day,” Hecker said. “I don’t see that happening though, because we aren’t going to spend billions and billions of dollars to develop such a technology when we have farriers who will do it.”
Wade Entze, and his filly Cloudy, rely on the services of Hecker.
“He’s more than just a horseshoe guy, or a blacksmith,” Entze said. “Men like Lee are basically veterinarians in how they can help a horse. I brought in a lame horse to Lee years back and he worked it and fixed her up and by the time we had her back at the farm she was good as new. He’s a true horse whisperer.”