Inspired by his love of horses, a now locally-based man became a farrier. NADIA SAWYER battles the smoke to meet him
I breathe in the smoke and the sweet smell of burning and see a somewhat impatient customer in front of me. He is getting irritated by the flies and is stamping his feet. A rather tall and handsome chap, his tetchiness is tempered by kind eyes and a withered brow. No, I am not in my local kebab shop queuing behind a hungry young man but the Lapatsa equestrian facility in Tseri keeping a watchful eye on half a ton of live horse flesh.
Bent over at the flank of this magnificent beast, is a diminutive, leather-aproned man holding a hoof in one hand and a shoe-bearing tong in another. Having heated a piece of steel to around 1,000C in a mobile forge and then hammered it into shape on an anvil, the blacksmith carefully places the metal shoe on the underside of the hoof and presses down hard. The stench of the burning keratin (a horse’s hoof is like human hair) is pungent but quite pleasant, and the smoke wafts upwards into the eye line of the spooky stead. It knows what is coming – imagine how you would feel if someone tried to brand the soles of your feet with a red-hot iron. Once the smoke wafts away, the animal relaxes a little, the scary part is over.
And what of the man who strikes while the iron is hot? He is farrier Martin Haigh from Yorkshire in the UK. Encouraged by his horse-mad mother, Martin first became involved with the animals when he took up riding at the age of eight at a local stable. “I enjoyed it so much that at weekends I would go there and help out. We didn’t have a lot of money so I used to work for rides,” he says.
By the time he was a teenager he was also labouring part-time at a farm and had saved enough to buy his own horse, a mare called Poppy. But riding and soling them are different things. “There was a horse at the yard that had a problem that required a specialist farrier, so they took it up to a place in North Yorkshire. I was young and intrigued about the ins and outs of the job, so I went with them,” explains Martin. “It was a very traditional forge, with big coal and gas fires, and I just fell in love with the place. I decided then and there that that was what I wanted to do.”
So, at the age of 16, having passed Poppy over to his mother, Martin took himself off down to Hereford for a year to do a pre-farrier course. “It involved welding, fabrication, blacksmithing – the metalwork aspect,” he recalls. At this point, the difference between a farrier and a blacksmith requires some explanation. A farrier specialises in equine hoof care, combining the blacksmith’s skills of forging metal with some veterinarian knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of a horse to correctly trim, balance and, when necessary, shoe the hoof.
“I got welder and student of the year, and distinctions for all my work because I really enjoyed it,” says Martin, adding that the manual skills he had acquired while assisting his father, a carpenter, helped enormously in this regard. In 2004, Martin began his four-year farrier apprenticeship at the traditional forge that had once inspired him, while also attending specialist courses every few months or so.
The apprenticeship was hands on, shoeing everything from shire horses to Shetlands, “but I also used to shoe a lot of racehorses,” Martin says. The most famous and expensive he used his rasp and clincher on was Amadeus Wolf, which won three races as a two-year-old and went on to become a successful breeding stallion in Ireland and France.
Part of his apprenticeship saw Martin travel to the USA on a three-month cultural exchange where he worked with “innovative” farriers in several locations, including Colorado, Florida, Kentucky and Wisconsin, also learning that climate plays an important part in the health of horse feet – knowledge that would stand him in good stead when he eventually came to Cyprus.
Such was his passion for the job, he even took part in farrier competitions, which is where he would meet the woman who would become his wife, Holly – another horse lover. And it was Holly that provided the connection to Cyprus, having lived on the island when her father was in the military. In 2012, the couple came to the island on holiday and it was on this visit that the manager at Episkopi Saddle Club told them of a British farrier who had come to the island to retire but found himself back at work due to popular demand. A chat with this farrier led to the couple relocating to the island – a place where they felt they could start and build a business and have a better work/life balance. But what to do with Holly’s horses.
“She had a young horse that she had bred and a competition horse that she was show jumping and she had a real connection with the both of them, so we thought that we would just bring them with us,” says Martin. But instead of flying them over or sending them by land and sea with a transport company, they elected to load the two horses into the back of a trailer along with their two dogs and Martin’s farrier gear and towed it through Europe.
“We thought we could have a bit of an adventure,” says Martin wryly. Using a satellite navigation system and a travel map provided to them by a horse transport company, they were able to drive the horses to locations along the route where they could overnight them in stables, although finding accommodation for themselves proved to be more difficult due to the accompanying canines.
“The horses travelled really well. Our main concern was dehydration, so we stopped every three or four hours to offer them water. Someone gave us a really good tip to put carrots and apples into the water to encourage them to drink,” explains Martin. The worst bit of the nine day journey for the horses was on the cargo ferry from Greece to Cyprus where they were stuck in the trailer for three days and could not move.
“Although the captain said we could take them out, we didn’t as the deck was steel and with steel shoes it would have been very slippery for them,” says Martin. I notice as Martin is shoeing his charge he is extremely careful and patient, talking in a quiet, gentle voice to the nervous horse, and waiting until the animal is sufficiently calm before proceeding with nailing on the shoe. He even speaks to the creature in Greek. “I’ve picked some up along the way and the horses must understand because they’ve never told me they don’t,” he laughs.
On their arrival in Cyprus in 2013, Martin and Holly leased some land in Pissouri, building a barn and stables and creating paddocks and field shelters for their horses, eventually developing the site into a livery yard where Holly also teaches riding and general horsemanship. To make up for a lack of soft grass pastures, every summer Martin buys in lorry loads of local seaweed, gathered from the beaches of nearby hotels, and spreads it over his paddocks so that the horses have cushioned ground under foot and something to lie on.
“In the summer, the ground gets so hard that every time they lie down they get cuts on their legs. With the seaweed, the horses are happier, because they have a comfy place to lie down instead of on rock-hard soil and the salt in the seaweed is also good for their feet,” he explains.
While he was building his farrier business, Martin used his blacksmithing skills to get other work, but eventually the word got round that another experienced British farrier was in Cyprus, which was further boosted when a vet called him asking for help with a racehorse. “It had a crack in its hoof and was lame, but it was due to race within a week and the vet asked me if I could do something about it,” recalls Martin who then shod it using a clever trick. “It actually won the race”.
As he lives at the other end of the island, Martin does not undertake the regular, on-demand work at the Nicosia race track, nor does he want to tread on the toes of other farriers working there. Instead, he prefers to be called upon only for his specialist work. Of the few local, time-served farriers (there are no farrier qualifications in Cyprus) with whom he has built up a very good, reciprocal relationship, he gives them due praise.
“With the background knowledge that they have, the actual job that they are doing is very good,” he confirms, which leads us to discussing the specific problems horses have with their hooves in Cyprus. The main issues are shock absorption problems affecting tendons and ligaments, caused by the hard ground and the continual stamping of hooves to get rid of the biting flies. Although Martin encourages owners to keep their horses in their natural state and go ‘barefoot’ – regular hoof trimming without the addition of shoes – there are some cases where shoeing is imperative, in particular in the competition world of dressage and show-jumping.
“For me, the main reason for shoeing a horse is grip, protection and correction,” he says.
As for the shoes themselves he no longer makes them from scratch. “To be honest, even in England now, farriers are using pre-made shoes,” he admits, adding that he buys them in Nicosia.
And has he had any mishaps in Cyprus?
“One horse fell asleep while I was burning a back shoe on when it suddenly woke up and kicked me in the jaw, literally branding me in the face,” Martin recalls, pointing to a scar now hidden underneath a beard. I consider telling him that the author Ian Fleming once wrote that horses are uncomfortable in the middle and dangerous at both ends, but think better of it as the horse he is shoeing gives him a cheeky nip on his behind.
“It’s a job you have to love to do. It’s very difficult and it’s very intense. Every horse is different,” he says, adding that he has also undertaken special courses in Germany and the UK which concentrate on the communication between man and horse.
“It gives me a better understanding of my work. Sometimes when I approach a horse, if it’s got a problem, it might not be the hoof. It might be another issue it’s dealing with. I can then try to help the horse itself and in turn I will be able to sort its feet as well. My love for the animal comes before the actual job.”