While he’s never smoked a day in his life, Hank McEwan coughs with the familiar wheeze of someone with the habit. As he stands on the fringe of the barn entrance, the 82-year-old watches intently as his former students frantically turn steel to horseshoe.
As the reigning Canadian farrier champion Iain Ritchie places horseshoe to hoof, a thick white smoke rises into the air. It is that smoke over the past 64 years that brings on McEwan’s coughing. It is that same smoke that drives his passion for his work.
“I’m still shoeing horses and I’m 82 and not doing too bad,” McEwan says as members of the 2012 Canadian Farrier Team wrap up their final preparations at Ritchie’s Pitt Meadows farm before heading to take part in the World Championship Blacksmiths’ Competition at the Calgary Stampede, starting today.
“I’m still staying on the right side of the grass, that’s the main thing.”
McEwan has spent a lifetime learning his trade and gladly passes it on to others. He left his home in Salmon Arm in 1948 and set off to California, where he started work as a farrier. He spent years plying his trade before he moved back to Canada and began teaching at Kwantlen College in the early 1980s.
James Findler of Langley, one member of this year’s Canadian team, was McEwan’s student in 1982.
For anyone in the business who has met Ritchie, if they are paying attention, they will have been his student.
McEwan revels at the chance to help, to pass on a piece of history that runs through his veins.
While he no longer teaches in the classroom, McEwan still has plenty to offer. He serves as a mentor to the team, offering insight and a wealth of knowledge that members hope can propel them to the top of the podium in Calgary.
“It really is an art,” McEwan. “So much goes into the iron work that goes into the shoes, and the labour that goes into it. These guys are all dedicated to their profession and really top-notch farriers.
For Ritchie, success is evident in the his national title, his second in as many years. He also has a fifth-place finish at the Calgary Stampede, back in 2009.
As Ritchie finishes his final preparations, he notices a mistake. A small one – a millimetre by his own estimation – but a mistake nonetheless. It’s the precision in his work that drives Ritchie to constantly improve.
“I love it. It’s a passion of mine. It’s a hobby, it’s a job. It’s all wrapped into one,” says Ritchie, who grew up and learned the trade in Scotland before moving to Canada 14 years ago.
Ritchie, along with Findler, Matt Kuechler and Nathan Powell make up Canada’s entry to this year’s championships in Calgary. All will gather under the enormous tents as six tonnes of burning coal and sheer determination will rearrange iron to horseshoe, all in the hopes of winning the overall title and sharing in some of the more than $50,000 in cash and prizes.
“It’s a hell of a camaraderie we have here. These are some of my best friends. Plus, I love the travel and taking my little brown leather bag of tools on the road with me. You learn all the time, your game’s improving and your everyday shoeing is improving.”
It’s the everyday shoeing that pays the bills for Ritchie. But like with any business, you’re only good as your last customer, and if they aren’t satisfied, word can spread quickly.
So Ritchie, like his other three teammates, knows there are no days off. Burning coals turn a muggy barn into an oversized sauna as smoke constantly wafts through the air. Hands and arms are scarred from previous days work. For one of the few industries that hasn’t been rendered obsolete by technology, Ritchie relies on his past to forge the future.
“You know, I could have fixed my mistake, it was quite evident to me. I just think next week in the championships there will be no time to fix it. You’ve got to get it right, right off the bat. But I’ll be ready for it next week, I’ll be up for the challenge.”
While the challenge is competing against more than 70 of the best farriers in the world, The competition is also about battling the elements, says Ritchie.
At an elevation of more than 3,500 feet, 100-degree temperatures combine with thin mountain air to make their job all that much more arduous.
Yet Ritchie wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a tough go, getting finished on time. It’s a real test of your fitness. There’s going to be 72 guys there competing, but there’s only going to be one winner. Only one guy’s going to get that reward. But, inside, it’s definitely rewarding knowing you left it all on that shop floor, you left nothing behind. It’s the usual cliches, but it’s true. You’re sweating, you’re so tired and so thirsty, but you just got to keep going.”