The Mirriam Webster dictionary says the term Farrier is now usually applied specifically to a blacksmith who specializes in shoeing horses, a skill that requires not only the ability to shape and fit horseshoes, but also the ability to clean, trim, and shape a horse’s hooves. When “farrier” first appeared in English (as “ferrour”), it referred to someone who not only shoed horses, but who provided general veterinary care for them as well. Middle English “ferrour” was borrowed from Anglo-French ferrour (a blacksmith who shoes horses), a noun derived from the verb “ferrer” (“to shoe horses”). These Anglo-French words can be traced back ultimately to Latin ferrum, meaning “iron.”
There is a lot of truth to the old saying ‘no hoof, no horse’. Without sound, healthy feet, your horse is a good as useless. Although farriery has been around as long as man has domesticated horses, it was not until fairly recently that it has started gaining status as a recognised skilled profession. While the concept of master farriers is common place internationally, it is taking a while longer to catch on in South Africa. Someone who is dedicating himself to improving, standardising and formalising the profession is Robbie Miller.
There are various pictures that spring to mind when one thinks of the word ‘farrier’. In old English paintings, a farrier is usually depicted working in a hot, grubby forge, with smoke billowing all around him. Reality is something a little more pedestrian – local horses are generally shod ‘cold’ and with it being a physical, grubby job, farriers are often seen as the grease monkeys of the horse world. Robbie does not conform to the typical farrier image. Clean cut and tidily dressed in branded clothing proudly displaying his name and qualifications. We meet at a racing yard, where he is gluing shoes onto a horse with particularly difficult feet. It is an intricate job and he is focussed and meticulous in his work.
Robbie was born in Durban on 5 January 1967 and grew up in Pietermaritzburg, although he’s moved around a lot and lived in almost every part of the country that has horses. Both his father and uncle were jockeys, so racing was part of life from an early age. “My father was an apprentice to Alan Higgins, but he didn’t ride for very long and eventually went into making saddles and bridles for the racing industry. My uncle (Arthur Miller) apprenticed to Hennie Coetzee and eventually became a trainer” (he is perhaps best remembered for 1994 Gold Cup winner, Stateway). In addition to riding work and taking part in amateur races in Kimberley in the days before it came under NHA rules, Robbie was a keen polocrosse player, making the national squad in 1998.
Hopes to be a jockey were dashed early because of his size, however he still had a desire to work with horses. After completing his National Service (and attaining rank, he adds proudly), he signed up for the permanent force in Berede, apprenticing as a farrier under Grant Store. He qualified in 1989 and started out on his own in Port Elizabeth. “I cut my teeth on old man Greeff’s horses. PE was seen as a bit of a last stop, so they used to get a lot of lame horses that us farriers had to try and keep sound. It turned out to be good schooling and I learnt a lot.”
Transfer to Cape Town
He originally came to Cape Town in around 2005 building up clients like Justin Snaith, Plattner Racing and Avontuur Stud. However, a few years later and vastly different personal circumstances saw him about to leave the country. “I was back in PE, I’d given up the business and was at something of a crossroads. I’d been offered a position in Dubai and was about to relocate, when Justin rang and asked me whether I wouldn’t come back. It was a new start and I grabbed it with both hands and ran with it. I’ve never looked back.”
Through his relationships with farriers around the country, he also shoes for a lot of visiting trainers while they are in town, including Sean Tarry, Dennis Drier, Mike Azzie and Duncan Howells and for this year’s Met, shod all of Futura, Legislate, Smart Call, Legal Eagle, Paterfamilias and Helderberg Blue amongst others. “It is amazing how many great horses I get to work with – I’m really lucky.”
Robbie also does a lot of work at some of the biggest stud farms around the country as well as doing remedial and specialised work for competition horses. “Pippa has been an incredible support over the years – I think I’ve been working for Avontuur for going on 12 years now and no matter where I’ve been in the country, she has always flown me in every month to come and do the farm.” He’s helped nurture Val de Ra and now both her fillies, Dream De Ra and Miss Frankel.
Apart from his passion for his job, the other thing Robbie is passionate about is raising the profile of farriery as a skilled profession and improving the local skill set by joining Robbie Dawson in setting up a new farriers’ association (the South African Association of Professional Farriers / SAAPF) and introducing the Farrier International Testing System (FITS) in South Africa.
It all started in 2002 when Andrew Timm arranged the first farriery competition in South Africa. “The deal was that the top two farriers got to go to the Kentucky Horse Shoeing School for a month and then on to a competition in Calgary. I finished second and went over with Scott Borland. It was a real eye opener for me. I met a guy called Chris Gregory who runs the Heartland Horse Shoeing School in Missouri and is considered one of the best farrier educators in the world. We became friends and stayed in touch. Chris became the 2nd or 3rd American ever to be made a Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Farriers in the UK and in 2009 he became an examiner for them. When Chris developed a farriery exam for Brazil, I suggested bringing it to South Africa and that’s more or less how the FITS (Farrier International Testing System) started.”
In terms of recognised farriery accreditation, there are two main avenues – the British Worshipful Company of Farriers and the American Farriers Association. “FITS is a sort of hybrid between the two,” he explains.
FITS consists of three levels – after a three year apprenticeship, there’s the Certified Farrier (CF) or entry level, then the Certified Professional Farrier (CPF) qualification and lastly the Advanced Skilled Farrier (ASF) level. Exams are held annually and judged by internationally recognised authorities. At each level, the exam consists of 3 modules and includes a written paper, a practical shoeing portion, and lastly a shoe display and oral (blacksmithing). The ASF is judged one of the toughest exams in the world and requires intensive anatomy knowledge, taking the qualification a lot closer to the traditional version of the term. “A lot of people have asked us to drop the forging part of the exam, but I feel strongly that you cannot really understand and perform your job properly unless you can build shoes from scratch. “It is expensive to bring in international examiners, but we feel it’s important to raise the bar and keep up with international standards. We’ve had huge support and sponsorship from people like Drakenstein Stud, the Snaiths, Bass Racing and lots of private individuals and it all goes towards helping raise the standards of farriery across the country. ”
“We held our first exam in in Robertson in 2010 and it generated a lot of interest. However, it also reinforced the need to make a serious effort in farrier education in this country. The existing SA Farriers Association had kind of fallen flat and there was a feeling that some of their ideas were outdated, so a group of us decided to set up our own association. We called it the South African Association of Professional Farriers (SAAPF). We spent three years gathering ideas and developing it and it was formally established in November 2015 when we held our international event at Alba in Durbanville.”
Under the newly formed SAAPF, members are required to accumulate a minimum amount of CPD points throughout the year to maintain their membership (either through clinics, competitions or writing articles for the website). “You can’t just register and get your membership badge and that’s the end of it,” he says seriously. “People are spending a lot of money on horses and we need to up our game and step up to the plate.”
This is where the competition element of the SAAPF and FITS comes in. The FITS exams are built around educational clinics and competitions and the SAAPF holds additional competitions throughout the year. “The goal is to improve the standard of theoretical and practical knowledge across the board. The competition side is something I love and a lot of farriers are getting into it now. It levels the playing fields and means you expose yourself to your peers. It can be a bit of an ego buster, but it’s a good way of improving your skills.”
“Another aspect is that the government is getting interested in having farriery recognised as a professional trade and at some point farriers will need to be qualified according to a recognised system. We would like FITS to be that system, so we are setting the standard high.”
They are getting organised and there is an SAAPF website, a Facebook page, a database of their registered members and regular events across the country. Why has he taken all this on? “After a race, you see people talking about the jockey, owner, trainer and breeder. Even grooms are starting to be acknowledged. But we’re also a crucial part of the industry and the end goal is to have farriers recognised as accredited professionals. It is a fundamental element of any industry to have an organisation that sets the benchmark. We want to provide a way in which farriers and aspiring farriers can learn and improve their skills as well as achieving a recognised accreditation. In addition to providing and promoting education it is hoped to become an extremely valuable resource for farriers. All horses have a fundamental right to be sound and have their feet regularly maintained and by providing a platform for discussion, support and tools for furthering education the SAAPF hopes to improve the service provided to the horse. I’ve got a vested interest because both my sons have joined my practice and this is their future, so I will keep driving it. ”