Forging Ahead: Farriery in Art

Since the horse was first domesticated about ten thousand years ago, we’ve been worrying about their feet. The old saying among horse people, “No foot, no horse” is found in many slightly different versions across many cultures but translates into the same basic truth.

To keep a horse, before anything else, there are two fixed costs that never vary; feed, and farriery.

Some of you may have learned to manage your own horse’s feet, so that’s ‘one down’ well done. And yes, I know there’s a terrifyingly large amount of other costs; agistment, for some, dental and vaccinations, gear and lessons and vet bills – but here I’m thinking around the most regular and frequent necessities. As the French might well say, L’argent ne se trouve pas sous le sabot d’un cheval (Money isn’t found under the hoof of a horse).

It’s a cost we’ve brought on ourselves. Back in the wild, horses’ constant wandering about kept a steady level of wear on their hooves. Being prevented from wandering, and being put to work, horses have needed trimming and protection from abrasive or man-made surfaces.

Enter the hoof boot…

Well before the birth of Christ, horse-based societies on the steppes of Asia Minor made hoof boots for their horses from either hides or woven plants.

The hoof boot solution was the only one available for nearly a millennia after the Scythians. The Ancient Greeks didn’t nail-shoe their horses, although Xenophon had much to say in his treatise on horse care on the importance of good hard feet. The Ancient Greeks also developed a range of remedies for sore feet, including applying a poultice boot woven from ‘Spanish broom’ (a plant used in weaving) and an ointment made from oil, tar and ‘old hog’s lard’ – a treatment that sounds similar to us today applying animal fat and tar-based hoof oils.

The Romans, aided along by their translations of the Greeks’ veterinary manuals, applied a kind of early Tuff-Rock to sore forelimbs, (a paste made from finely powdered clay and water) and used leg bandages. Somewhat later, the Romans – thanks to their invention of the hard, straight, (abrasive) cambered roads, developed the ‘hippo sandal’ or soleae ferreae. (See Image 2)

Resembling today’s scoot boots, the hippo sandal was based loosely on human footwear. 

It had a metal base which cupped the hoof, and was attached with a system of rings and leather straps around the coronet to affix it to the hoof. These hippo sandals were apparently worn only by draft and pack animals walking on ‘paved’ roads, since a gait faster than the walk seems to have been impossible when wearing them.

Despite its likeness to a Scoot Boots, the hippo sandal remains a perplexing archaeological discovery. The notion that ridden horses wore these is contradicted by the fact that none of the best-preserved archaeological examples show any signs of inside wear from a hoof.

The idea that hippo sandals weren’t what we think they were, was tested out in an episode of Channel 4 UK’s ‘Time Team’ series, when master English farrier Cliff Barnes forged up a pair of front replicas exactly like the originals, and tried them on a horse, whose normal walk straight away became strange and tentative, like a person in high heels.

In fact, the original purpose of the ‘hippo sandal’ is a subject of much debate in archaeological circles, with some claiming that they were not early horseshoes but a) a form of hobble, or b) a training aid to encourage high stepping.

Yet further suppositions have been put forth, notably by the 1860s era vet George Fleming, who claimed that the hippo sandal was not a device for horses’ feet but in fact a wheel clamp; and he contends “Was it not a skid or drag (sabot or enrayeur) to put under the wheel of a carriage to moderate its descent on steep places?”

A problem nailed

Problems with the cumbersome Roman scoot boot were largely solved with the advent of nailed shoeing.

When this first appeared in history is also a bit mysterious, but it appears to have occurred in the so-called ‘Dark’ ages. Dated to around the 5th century AD, a horseshoe, complete with nails, was found in the tomb of the Frankish King Childeric I at Tournai, in Belgium. References to nailed shoes can also be found in the ‘Tactica’ of the Eastern Emperor Leo VI, (AD 886-911), in which we read in a list of all things needed for battle including ‘lunar or crescent-shaped iron shoes and their nails.’

It’s evident from the excavation of strange wavy edged horseshoes with nail holes that the Celtic Gauls nail-shod their working horses and mules. Their discovery was adopted quickly, and spread across Europe through Germany, Gaul, and to Britain. The Norman cavalry brought farriers and spare iron shoes with them on their way over the Channel in 1066 for the Battle of Hastings.

A rise in status

Nail shoeing became so popular it inspired Dark Ages folk tales. For example, there was the invisible farrier ‘Welland Smith’, who replaced horses’ lost shoes when the owners’ backs were conveniently turned. After Welland came the patron saint of nail-shoeing, St. Eligius, (St Eloi, or Eloy – there are several different spellings) whose name day is still kept as a holiday by farriers in France.

St Eloi was a real person in history. He was the Bishop of Noyons in France, in the 700s and had a character and personality that shines out beyond his sainthood. His confidence in his own skill, and impatience with those of his equine clients who wouldn’t stand still, might raise a knowing eyebrow amongst many of us today.

St Eligius’s myth follows that one day he was required to shoe a horse so restive it was considered ‘possessed by the Devil’. The saint got fed up and cut the horse’s leg off and shod the severed leg. But so great was his dedication to his craft, and his goodness in other ways, that Christ himself turned up to assist in re-attaching the leg.

In doing this, Christ is said to have taught St. Eloy to be humble. Botticelli (See image 2 above) gives us a somewhat graphic account of this miracle, with St. Eligius hammering away on his anvil while holding the severed leg, in his workshop, and in the presence of an angel, a slave, and a most annoyed horse.

Divine intervention aside, St Eligius’s skills as a farrier were to become increasingly significant in Western Europe. Horseshoes also became valuable in themselves. As Dressage Today informs us: ‘During the Crusades of the 12th century, horseshoes were accepted in lieu of money to pay taxes.’

The origin of the lucky horseshoe starts around this time as well. ‘On festive occasions a “lucky” silver shoe was lightly hammered onto a horse’s hoof just before a parade, and the retriever won a prize. To ward off bad luck, shoes were often kept as talismans for fending off the devil, whose cloven hoof was injured by a wayward nail delivered by a chaste farrier.’ 

Shoeing began to gallop ahead (pardon the pun) by the thirteenth and fourteenth century, the first farrier’s guild, or ‘Fellowship’ was formed in 1356 in the City of London, and its ordinance, or mission statement, was written in Norman French. The Fellowship was responsible for ensuring a consistent quality of work, and disciplining those farriers who overcharged for their work.

The skills and talents of ‘master’ farriers began to proceed them in certain elite circles. Andrew Snape’s ancestors were one of the most influential farrier families in the seventeenth century, and there were always two to four Snapes serving as farriers to the king at any one time. (See image 6, below).

Edward Snape was farrier to the king throughout the second half of the eighteenth century as well as farrier to the Second Troop of Life Guards. By his mid-forties, in 1774, he received the title ‘Marshal Farrier’ to the king. His cousin Edward became a professor of farriery and equine medicine and set up England’s first horse hospital. 

The eighteenth century saw a craze for fine horses spread through the aristocracy, directed primarily through the sports of hunting and racing. It was to wealthy horse owners that the wave of advice literature on farriery was marketed, with dozens of titles springing up, some pocket-sized for easy perusal in the stable. Francis CIater’s ‘Every Man His Own Farrier’, ran to twenty editions by 1810, giving him international recognition.

The eighteenth century might thus properly be considered the ‘great age’ of farriery. With a dramatic increase in horse numbers in England, more farriers were needed. Joan Lane has stressed that eighteenth-century farriers were so important because they cared for the most important animal in English society; plus, they attended to its shoeing and caring for its fractures, illnesses and lesions.

Recent studies of the careers of farriers and ‘horse leeches’ [or horse doctors] show that at this time, there was a very blurred line between farrier and vet, and the latter were called upon to give advice and treat problems well above the hoof, using typical eighteenth century human medical treatments such as bleeding, purging and plant and herb-based pills and ‘balls’.

Surgery and the manufacture of equine pharmaceuticals was also the territory of the ‘medic farrier’. Thus, in the 18th century, there were three practices that define the farriery craft: shoeing, surgery and physic.

While the Snapes of eighteenth-century society catered to the elite, there were many country farriers whose customers were local farmers and their working horses. Here we see a lovely portrayal of the of the ordinary farrier’s shop, by George Morland, whose horse paintings I explored in Horses and People, May 2018 ‘George Morland; Hack or Hero?’

The white horse is the artist’s own beloved rescue, and model for many of his paintings, the charismatic draught horse, ‘Whitey’, who proffers his affected foot, his near fore, helpfully towards the farrier. 

The companionableness of the farrier’s shop is underscored by the sundry figures in fore and background, exchanging gossip and, in the vicinity of the forge, tuning in to the lameness issue at hand. Standing in hat and long pale coat, boxer dog at his side the owner (possibly Morland himself?), absorbs his farrier’s advice.

In the end the ‘physics’ or medics broke away from the farriers. The London Veterinary College was founded in 1791. Ironically, they originally did not intend to establish a veterinary college; they were simply attempting to ‘improve’ farriery. On December 2, 1785, it was proposed to improve horse care through the ‘study of farriery upon rational scientific principles’. Not long afterwards another famous school for horse vets was founded by William Dick in Edinburgh in 1823 becoming the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

By the nineteenth century, attention had turned to the proper training of farriers, and this is when the many academies and guilds were set up.  Consequently, Edwin Landseer’s well-known and much-loved work ‘Shoeing’ presents us with a somewhat more elevated view of the trade in comparison to Morland’s.

Landseer’s painting shows Betty, a mare owned by Jacob Bell, Landseer’s close friend and business advisor, apparently unconcerned while her hind hoof is shod by a farrier.

Meanwhile, Bell’s old bloodhound Laura is slobbering in the foreground, watching intensely and ignoring the hoof parings, and there is a blackbird is sitting in a cage above. Bell had initially wanted Landseer to depict the mare with her foal, but the painter kept putting off the commission until the foal was bigger than its mother, so he substituted the foal for a donkey.

‘Betty’ is of a different order entirely than old Whitey. She is dappled and shining with good health, each of her dapples is picked out with the most precise brushwork. The donkey’s rough coat also contrasts in a pleasurably tactile way with the mare’s sleek coat, and further plays on texture occur with the soft hair of the dog and the farrier’s cropped brown hair.

Betty has a refined and beautiful head, and she is shown turning and wrinkling her nose. No doubt smelling the sizzle of hoof and cautiously observing the farrier as he taps a nail into to her near hind foot. This is a hot shoeing process, as we see from the thin trail of smoke around the farrier’s hands.

Landseer through various means conveys the idea that this is in some way a ‘holy’ space and that rendering services to the wellbeing of such noble creatures as horses, with the care and concentration this farrier is showing is a Christian endeavour. Landseer’s painting was a way to show that both humans and animals shared similar emotions, an idea that in its own modest fashion at that time was revolutionary.

What I find fascinating about the history of farriery in horse art through the ages, is not their differences but their resemblances. From the earliest times the job itself doesn’t seem to have changed much, although it has become increasing high tech, and sophisticated. And yet the places in which it occurs retain very similar qualities.

From the fifth century, down to our twenty-first century, the space around the work of the farrier seems to have remained remarkably consistent. It’s an eternal space between horses and humans that carries some of its significance from an intrinsic process of making the horse comfortable in its feet, it’s very practical, and it’s very regular.

As we’ve seen with the painting of St Eligius receiving Divine assistance, it can also be a space of miracles. And yet through St Eligius down to Snape, to thence to Morland and the Landseer, we see this space similarly understood by artists as one of serenity; as one of regularity, of contemplation.

It is a conversational space, (if in doubt, ask a farrier) a calm (hopefully) space, and a necessary one that we create around horses, wherein there is an aspect of both work, (the farrier’s) and for the owner, the experience of simply being with one’s horse without it being required to do more than lift its foot.

It’s a space outside the horse-human interaction norms because it’s not about the horse’s performance, it’s a different kind of ‘being with’ and one that I at least, look forward to every six weeks. It is yet another link in the chain of life with horses that takes us back to our very beginnings together.



George Fleming, Horse-shoes and horse-shoeing, Chapman and Hall, London 1896. p. 70.

(Channel 4, Time Team Series 13 Episode 13, 2013)

Fleming, p 328.

Fleming, p 98.

Michael Hubbard MacKay, ‘The Rise of a Medical Specialty: The Medicalisation of Elite Equine Care c.1680 – c.1800’, PhD Thesis University of York History August 2009.

MacKay, p 62.

MacKay, p 63.

MacKay, p 27.

 Image Captions:

IMAGE 1:  Edwin Landseer, Shoeing the Bay, Tate Gallery London. Image source Wikimedia commons.

IMAGE 2: Hippo Sandal Schematic. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

IMAGE 3: Archaeological Museum of Lower Bavaria: Ancient Roman hipposandal, from Alkofen. Image source Wikimedia Commons. 

IMAGE 4: George Morland, A Farrier’s Shop, Manchester Art Gallery 1792. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

IMAGE 5: ‘The Miracle of St. Eligius, predella panel from the Altarpiece of St. Mark’ was created in 1492 by Sandro Botticelli. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

IMAGE 6: Andrew Snape; Sergeant Farrier to King Charles II 17th century.

IMAGE 7: ‘Shoeing the Bay’. The author with horse and paperwork. Photo courtesy their farrier, P Snape.