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Confessions of a Horseshoer
By Ron Tatum
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2012 Ron Tatum
All rights reserved.
Reflections Before Charging Ahead
That sentence about my daddy's influence has got me to thinking. Maybe before I go any further, I should try to figure out exactly why I've taken the paths I have. What were the influences that drove me toward horses and hard physical work, while at the same time driving me toward a bunch of graduate degrees? I'm pretty sure my dad had a lot to say about all this, but his influence also had some subtle aspects to it.
He started me off doing pushups probably about the time I first opened my eyes. I could pound the stuffings out of all my little friends by the time I was six months old. No one messed with me!
When I got older, Daddy didn't push me into sports even though he had been a professional football player, a boxer, an Olympic-caliber track man, etc. He was the complete athlete and had no insecurities on that score. I felt an unspoken push toward sports, but he who always talked with a loud and dominating voice never got on my case if I didn't excel in a sport, or even if I dropped out of one in mid-season. He was always pleased with any athletic trophies or prizes I won, but never showed any disappointment in me if I failed. In fact one time when I only got second in a company picnic contest where I usually won everything, he blamed himself. That was an unusual event where my dad had to lie down on his back in the center of a circle of kids and whirl a big hawser rope around in a circle about a foot off the ground. The rope was 20 feet long and it must have been an incredible feat for him to swing it around as each kid tried to jump the rope as it swung by. If the kid tripped, he or she was eliminated. It finally came down to just me and another kid, and neither of us seemed to be tiring. Daddy told me to take off my jacket, and as I was doing that, I tripped on the rope as it came around. Afterwards my dad said it was his fault for asking me to take off my jacket. I was surprised.
I used to wonder why Daddy was so casual about my playing sports, but now I think I know what was going on in his mind. A lot of pushy dads who yell at their kids for striking out in Little League and making errors in other youth sports are probably frustrated high school jocks and are trying to live vicariously through the athletic successes of their kids. These dads most likely were not great athletes in their youth, but they want their kids to be the champions they never were. It's the male ego again.
My dad, however, was a successful athlete. He was a totally fulfilled athlete, excelling in all kinds of sports: football, track, baseball, basketball, boxing, watersports, handball, skiing, whatever. He didn't need to have the son win any trophies for the father's ego. He was big, competent, confident, aggressive, athletic, and a friend to everyone ... except me, I thought. He encouraged me to always be in good condition, but didn't have any investment in my winning sports medals.
One exception: He was proud when I won the 6- to 12-year-old swimming race at the age of five. (They lied about my age so I could enter.) The race was a 50-yard swim from a raft in a lake to the shore. There were 15 kids entered. I won by mostly swimming underwater, since I didn't really know how to swim on the surface. First prize was a restaurant meal and movie tickets for the family, a sheet of candy suckers, and my picture in the paper.
My mother told me the story of how I learned my underwater swimming technique. I was two years old. At the lake in Tacoma where my dad was the lifeguard, a big log extended from the shore out into the water. The kids all ran out on the log, jumped off, swam to shore, and did it over and over again. There was even a German Shepherd who sometimes took his turn. (He also took turns going up the ladder to the high dive and jumping off. He never took cuts.) One day my mother was inattentively watching me when she looked up and saw me run out on the log. She jumped up to rescue her baby boy, but hesitated for a moment to see what I would do. I jumped in and disappeared under water. She had just started forward when I reappeared, a little closer to the shore. Down I went once more, coming up again closer to shore. I made it to shore in about six tries, got up on the log, and did it all over again. I didn't know how to swim, but I knew how to push off the bottom and struggle along under the surface.
Daddy was a fulfilled athlete, but he was not a fulfilled scholar. He worshipped his next older brother who was not a jock; he was a college professor. So Daddy tried to push himself in the direction his revered brother had taken. After graduating from college in 1927 with a teaching degree, my dad taught and coached at the junior high level, but he had no confidence in his intellectual abilities. He tried to improve himself. He read books about how to be a public speaker, how to increase your vocabulary, and how to win arguments through the use of logic, but he was never comfortable in his own mind. So he pushed me in that direction. Like the frustrated high school athlete pushes his son to excel in sports, my dad, the frustrated scholar, pushed me to excel academically. (Ironically, the respected college professor brother died trying to be an athlete. At one of his college reunions, he entered a foot race and died of a heart attack on the field. He was 58.)
Daddy was always on my case to get A's, only A's. Never mind the sports. They won't help you in life. Good grades will! He pushed me to get better grades by telling me I was stupid. I guess his theory was that I would try extra hard to prove him wrong. But he said this so often, I began to believe it. I can understand now that he was pushing so hard because he probably thought he was "stupid." He had no confidence in his ability to read and understand good books, or to carry on any kind of an intellectual conversation, so he pushed me toward what he had failed to accomplish.
It worked, to some extent. I always got good grades, even if I had to cheat. In the second grade I was the only child at the end of the school year who hadn't missed a spelling word on our weekly tests. In one of the last tests, I finished quickly, and while waiting, glanced at the girl's paper on the desk in front of me. She had spelled a word differently. So I changed mine. She turned out to be wrong, and it was her fault that my perfect record was broken. I was outraged and told the teacher that I had correctly spelled it at first. I showed her my paper so she could see what I had originally written and she could see that I had been correct. She gave me credit. I'm not sure I understand that teacher's reasoning, but I'm still proud of my perfect second grade spelling record.
So I spent my early years trying to figure out what I needed to do to get my dad to love or at least accept me. Being good in sports didn't work. But neither did getting good grades, because he expected that. My mother was always warmly pleased and proud of my grades, but my dad just looked at my A report cards, nodded, and went on with whatever he was doing.
I got frustrated trying to please him. I knew, at least subconsciously, that he wanted me to be a tough guy. That's why I got all those exercises and boxing lessons. (Of course my mother wanted me to be a little gentleman. She was so proud of me when I addressed older people politely, and used good manners in public.) But I also knew he wanted me to be a scholar and the kind of person who didn't have to read a thirty-days-to-a-better-vocabulary book. The problem was I didn't feel like I was doing either one of these things good enough for his approval. Somewhere in all my youthful confusion, I must have tried to be as much like my dad as I could. Maybe that would work. He was a lefty. I tried to become a lefty, on and off, clear into my adult years. (I almost got it, even though I about cut my throat trying to shave left-handed. I still notice immediately a left-handed person, and I'm really pleased that two of my children are left-handed.) And he had been a Texas cowboy when he was younger, helping to work the cattle on the family's large ranch. His family were cattle and horse people all the way back to the Revolutionary War. He always said, "They were all horse thieves." I think he was joking. (My wife, an avid genealogist, has done an in-depth study of my family and has discovered that they were mostly horse and cattle people. "It's in the blood," she says. The first immigrant Tatum took up ranching/farming in Virginia in 1619. One Drake ancestor was in the Marine Corps during the Revolutionary War. A Hogan ancestor was a "Long Hunter" friend of Daniel Boone, and the first schoolteacher in Tennessee.)
Daddy had lots of stories about his early days, but he never encouraged me to get involved in that kind of life, either.
All of this collected in my growing mind. What was I to make of it? Where could I fit in?
As I look back on my life, I realize I tried to fit it all in, one way or another. I tried being a lefty; I tried all the sports, knowing he didn't really care (but maybe he did); I tried being the compleat scholar. I tried all of these things for Daddy.
What amazes me is that I'm still trying. I've studied at 13 colleges or universities. I've picked up three master's degrees. I took up surfing at age 45, and collegiate wrestling at 55. And at the age of 70 I finally got my Ph.D. (Now that should please him!)
Daddy taught first aid and water safety most of his life and when I was in the third grade I started going with him to his classes. This continued all the way into my high school years. He used me to demonstrate some things and every now and then he let me teach portions of a class. He once told me I was the best teacher he had ever seen. That was his first clear message. So of course I started teaching everything I could, sometimes without having learned the subject myself. I still teach, and coach, and profess. Fortunately I thoroughly enjoy teaching.
But, just to make sure I covered all bases, I forced myself to become a Marine Corps officer, a Presbyterian minister, a stock market representative, a juvenile probation officer, a ski instructor, a licensed family counselor, a drug/alcohol counselor, a college professor, and a horseshoer. Somewhere in these lifestyle occupations I must have hoped to please Daddy. I probably knew he wasn't impressed with my choosing to shoe horses, but I probably hoped that deep down he would approve. (I have to use words like "probably" and "maybe" because I don't really know.) Maybe I pleased him, maybe I didn't.
He's gone now and in some ways I look back and feel my life has been empty and meaningless. I'm sure this feeling comes from all those years of trying to please Daddy rather than myself. I've had a lot of what other people call success, and I have enjoyed most of what I've done, but I guess I'm still working on who I am and what I want to be.CHAPTER 2
The First Horse
I put a shoe on my first horse at horseshoeing school. We students were all excited to finally get out of the classroom and put our hands on a live horse. We were working in pairs, each person required to put on one front and one hind shoe. The horses came from local skinflints who were willing to sacrifice the feet of their horses to inexperienced horseshoeing students in order to save the cost of a shoeing. The school charged nothing for this service, and, as I recall, that was the right price for our work.
Nervous students were working on the horses who had arrived, but my partner and I still waited for ours. We wandered around criticizing everyone's work, occasionally joined others in trying to make the first cut on the mid-summer, stone-hard feet of these first clients. It was hot and discouraging. I wondered what had possessed me to get involved in this ridiculous way of life, and I hadn't even started yet. Heat, fear, frustration, and a sense of hopelessness all mixed together.
Finally, someone pointed at an approaching truck and horse trailer racing down the narrow dirt road, careening around curves, sending clouds of dust swirling across the fields. The driver skidded to a halt in front of us, leisurely climbed out and opened up the trailer. Out flew this sweating, wild-eyed, black, giant of a horse, in a state of panic. He was probably 17 hands high. Our horse. My palms are getting sweaty even as I write this some 37 years after the fact.
My partner and I gaped at this animal as he snorted and plunged against the rope that the owner eventually tied him with. Then we gaped at each other. The instructor was saying something about this being an interesting case. Yes.
I went first. I picked up a front foot and got thrown about six feet forward. I still can't figure out how he did that. And I can't figure out how I ever got a shoe on that foot, but I did. I remember nothing about it, except that it took me something like 2 ½ hours to get my two shoes on, and that he kicked me in the leg with his hind foot. My partner started on the other hind foot, but by the time he got to the front foot, the horse had had enough. He'd been standing there, a nervous wreck, for about four hours, and he was through with the whole business. As soon as anyone touched this last leg, he kicked out violently. By this time, all the other students had finished their horses, and having become sated with watching the violence, had gone home—probably to reconsider the direction their lives were taking. Remaining were my partner and I, the owner, and the two instructors who reluctantly concluded that we would all be there until the horse died if they waited for us to get a shoe on that last foot. So the instructors took over. Failing miserably to secure a hold on the leg, the head instructor, who consistently and tenaciously had advocated that the shoer should never get angry or strike a horse in any way, started to yell, curse, and kick the horse in the belly. Nothing worked. My partner and I, from ten feet away, were enormously but quietly amused. Eventually the two instructors tied the foot up off the ground, and while one instructor hung from the horse by a lip chain, a very painful control device, the other managed to get that last shoe on. The horse owner, having enjoyed the entire spectacle, contentedly drove off with his horse into the dark, leaving the four of us to stare after him, two of us doing our best to hide the smiles that would have endangered our lives had they been seen.CHAPTER 3
I remember clearly one of my first encounters with a customer's horses. Just out of horseshoeing school, I had been an "official" horseshoer for about a week. The only dirt on my leather chaps was from dragging them around on the ground at the horseshoeing school. Everyone did this. It's embarrassing when you're a brand-new horseshoer. Customers watch you with skepticism and suspicion. But it's even worse being a brand-new horseshoer with a spotless pair of chaps. On this first day, I was helping my new customer and his son round up six or seven horses for me to work with. It was a hot, dusty day in Northern California and the horses were racing in all directions around the corral. When they ran toward me, I took off for the fence. "Don't run!" shouts the owner. "They won't run into you. Just stand there and head them toward me."
The owner told me to stand still with my arms outstretched. His 17-year-old son was doing the same thing about eight feet away from me. Horses everywhere. I watched the son who seemed to know how to do this correctly. As I watched in frozen fascination, two horses ran out of a cloud of dust right over the top of the son, wheeled around, and looked in my direction. I left the playing field.
The son survived. He had two broken ribs, but he was OK. I'll never forget him lying there flat on his back, sunken down in the dirt, a bewildered look on his face, and his arms dutifully outstretched.
That was a good learning experience for me. I've never believed anything a horse owner has told me since.CHAPTER 4
What Do Horses in the Wild Do?
This is a question I get all the time. People want to know how horses who aren't privileged to have a visit by a horseshoer every eight weeks get along by themselves. I'll try to shed light on that question, although, as with most questions about horses, there's a variety of conflicting answers. An old cowboy pal once told me about what he called the "Golden Trim," where, he claimed, shortly after the birth of the foal in the wild the mother chews off the excess growth of the new baby's hoof to the exact proportions needed for that baby. From then on, he said, the baby's foot would remain perfectly balanced in angle and length. (I couldn't help but picture in my mind the baby extending its foot to be carefully examined and chewed to the exact angles by the mother who had learned this in some kind of instinctive equine birthing clinic ...) Then, my friend said, the horse will run around on perfect feet that will never need any work until it is caught by a human and ruined by restricting the terrain available to the horse, and by putting iron shoes on its previously
Excerpted from Confessions of a Horseshoer by Ron Tatum. Copyright © 2012 Ron Tatum. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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