Photography by Brett Deering
We are, you understand, now in an era of highly specialized education. Want to become a computer repairman? Just bring your checkbook and sign up at the Ajax School for Computer Geeks. You’ve got your beauty colleges, your court-reporter courses and enough bartending schools to assure the American population a boozy binge until the next ice age. Online, by mail or in a classroom, you can learn how to enjoy a lifetime of fulfillment and good fortune by simply enrolling at a place where you’ll never be asked to conjugate a single verb or sit through one day of Latin or plane geometry.
Just ask Dr. Jack Roth and the thousands of students to whom he’s taught a trade that, on average, can earn certified graduates between $500 and $1,000 per day. Unlike traditional pillars of higher learning, his sits on the edge of a sprawling ranch just 30 miles south of Oklahoma City. The “classroom” is more John Wayne movie set than Ivy League campus. Welcome to the Oklahoma Horseshoeing School, where eager men and women come from throughout the world to learn a craft that predates the automobile.
The farrier didn’t fade away with the old apron-wearing blacksmith you saw in all those Saturday-matinee Westerns. Fact is, his business, though it’s now modernized, is thriving. That’s because one thing hasn’t changed: Horses, whether they’re thoroughbreds, barrel racers, ranch or rodeo stock, polo ponies or show competitors, still need new shoes every six to eight weeks. And somebody’s got to know how to provide them.
It’s a way of life that Roth, 68, decided on as a youngster, when his father bought him his first pony ride. “From the time I was little, I knew I wanted to be a cowboy,” he says as he stands in the shoeing barn, watching over his students. By the time he was a teenager, he had enrolled in horseshoeing classes offered at California Polytechnic State University, where he found his calling.
Those who enroll in his courses, which range from two weeks of instruction in basic horseshoeing to the 12-week Advanced Horseshoeing & Blacksmithing Course, stay in a nearby dorm and work sunup to sundown six days a week. There are daily classroom lectures that deal with everything from the anatomy of horses to the proper use of tools, custom-fitting a shoe to a horse’s hoof and how to launch one’s own business. Then there’s the daily routine in the barn where horseshoes are forged and molded and where a dozen or more horses are being shod.
Roth opened his school in 1973 while he was a practicing veterinarian. He ultimately sold his medical practice to teach the craft full time. “Over the past 40 years,” he says, “I think I’ve taught more students to shoe horses than anyone else in the world. In some instances, I’ve instructed as many as three generations.” A Master Farrier, he estimates, without boasting, that he has personally shod approximately 20,000 horses.
And, be aware that he has hardly cornered the market. According to the Lexington, Ky.–based American Farriers Association, there are more than 50 such schools now in operation in the United States.
Roth’s students have come from all over the United States, Canada, England, Taiwan, Korea, South America, Italy and Israel to learn the ancient trade. He has had students as young as 15 and as old as 65. Today, 15 percent of the enrollees are female.
A 2001 graduate, Justin Wildman, 36, now has a thriving business in both Vail and Gypsum, Colo., shoeing about half a dozen horses on his daily route. “I knew,” he says, “that I wanted to do two things professionally — work with horses and be my own boss. Learning this trade made both things possible.” And it is hardly a routine task. In recent winter months, for instance, he spent considerable time in nearby Leadville, providing special shoes for horses trained to pull thrill-seeking snow skiers along a course of jumps. Equestrian ski joring, they call it.
Though the trade Roth teaches may date as far back as A.D. 500, there will always be some new challenge to address, a new technique to perfect, new students eager to learn. So, how long does the owner and headmaster plan to continue to teach? “As long as horses need shoes,” he says.