Living life to the beat of an anvil and hammer
At the Woodland Oaks Ranch in San Dimas, the welcoming committee is out. Hens and roosters, clucking and crowing in the morning light, are the first ambassadors, followed by Milo the Lab, Julia the Corgi and Sparkle the goat.
Digger, a chestnut gelding, sticks his head out of a barn and watches as John Gorton steps out of a white Ford F-150 pickup and lifts the side panels and rear door of the shell, revealing racks of horse shoes and a clutter of tools. He pulls on chaps, hefts an anvil onto a knee-high table and fills a bucket with water.
“Hi, Digger, how you doing?” He stands in the doorway of the barn, halter in hand. “Let’s go get some new shoes on you.”
He has a calm voice and a quick but easy manner. Little about him is startling. Gorton can sneak around horses better than most and has been shoeing them for 36 years.
Like pool cleaners and gardeners, he is part of the wandering workforce of Southern California, and in a region better known for its more cosmopolitan pleasures, his trade occupies a vital, if gritty, niche.
Horseshoeing may be a throw-back to the past, but so too are the rural neighborhoods and communities that Gorton visits: nooks and crannies in the region’s topography, forgotten easements and municipalities where horses are still accepted.
Out here paved roads turn to dust. The rattle of the city doesn’t quite disappear. It recedes, and when Gorton puts heat to metal, hammer to anvil, the digital world goes analog and when he stands beside a horse, his senses quicken to the flicker of the ears, the darkness in the eyes, a wildness that is beautiful, dangerous and life-affecting.
He keeps to a tight skein of freeways and sees about 200 clients in the San Gabriel Valley, the Puente Hills and the Inland Empire, all within 30 miles of his home in Chino. He built his business through word of mouth, making the rounds of stables at 17 and sloughing off the question, “Where’s your dad?”
He’s 53 now, and clients like Tonia Looker, who owns Digger and 11 other horses at Woodland Oaks, wouldn’t trust her animals to anyone else.
Not all of his customers are pricey champions in the jumping circuit like Digger, who is valued in the low six figures. Just the day before, Gorton spent the morning at the L-S Ranch in Whittier. The horses there may not offer the same return on investment but they get the same care.
To understand the farrier’s trade, you need to realize that the horse’s hoof is a shock absorber that evolved almost 50 million years ago. Its development allowed the species to grow big and to run fast. Domesticity, however, has not been easy on the hoof. In confined settings, it doesn’t wear naturally and needs to be trimmed or shod every six to seven weeks.
One horse takes about an hour, and on a busy day Gorton can get to six. If he has to do eight, he wakes up the next day back aching, hips and knees sore.
The trade has a sharp attrition rate; most farriers quit after five years. The work is physically challenging, hours spent stooped over, horses’ legs pinned between knees. They have to negotiate the whims of horse owners, know how to use their hands and run a business that in a good year can bring in close to $100,000.
Gorton often partners with other farriers. He likes the company and the advice. Shoeing a horse is more than hammering a bar of iron onto a hoof. It requires understanding the complex relationship between the hoof and the leg, and Gorton doesn’t pretend to know everything.
That morning at L-S, Clem Crum joins him. Tucked between the 605 Freeway and a Metrolink rail line, the L-S — that’s “L Bar S,” as if it were the brand for a cattle ranch — sits at the end of a road just beyond warehouses and storage yards. Scarlet trumpet vine carpets the sound wall, and the whoosh of traffic is inescapable.
Gorton and Crum head to the stalls to grab two quarter horses. They walk past a red three-story barn that houses the office and a water tank, covered with a trompe l’oeil of a countryside that would make Grandma Moses proud. Horses gambol through green pastures divided by country roads.
A little more than 50 years ago, this scene might not have been so fanciful. Before development overtook the Puente Hills, L-S and a broad swath of surrounding land was owned by one of the region’s largest dairy farms, itself just a few land barons removed from California’s Spanish heritage.
Gorton and Crum tie the horses by the truck. With long-handled nippers they trim the hooves’ front edges. Clem pares the sole with a short curved knife, and Gorton lights the propane burner to the forge.
Both men learned shoeing at Valley Vocational Center in the City of Industry. While other students studied auto mechanics, welding and appliance repair, Gorton applied himself to equine anatomy and the dynamics of the forge. His teachers were “half horse,” and each hammer strike was a lesson from generations past.
Crum, 63, came to shoeing after working as a baker and attended classes just before the program closed in 1996. Becoming a farrier had been his dream since childhood.
The men work quickly. Burns, strains, cuts and scrapes are taken in stride; Gorton wears a back brace and prefers Naproxen to Ibuprofen. It’s the skittishness of a horse, though, an animal that often weighs more than a 1,000 pounds, that makes him most wary.
When a noisy garbage truck pulls into the parking lot at L-S, the farriers step back, not certain how the animals will react.
“Working with horses is like working with elementary kids,” Gorton says. “You have to be sensitive to what they want and to how they’re feeling, and you have to know the difference between scared and belligerent.”
Almost 10 years ago, he was standing beside one horse that suddenly kicked and threw him head-first into a rail. The accident put him in traction for six months, and he still hasn’t recovered full strength in his right hand.
“You can’t do this job and be a sissy,” he says.
A week after putting shoes on Digger, he is in La Habra Heights, the southeastern edge of Los Angeles County, where Barbara Stracner keeps Rascal in a small barn 30 feet from the master bedroom.
She leads the gelding into the driveway. She is concerned about Rascal’s left foreleg. Gorton massages and pinches the muscles and judges the reaction. He thinks it might be a sore shoulder.
Stracner, 59, grew up in this home after her father bought the property in 1959. It was a world that Gorton is familiar with. When he was 10, his newly divorced mother bought a third of an acre in Hacienda Heights where he and his sisters kept a variety of animals, including his first horse. He bought the pinto for $175 with money earned at a stable in Industry Hills where there is now a hotel and conference center.
Over the years Gorton has seen barns, paddocks, riding trails converted into tennis courts, pools and landscaping. Mansions with sweeping driveways are preferred to the ranch-style homes of the 1950s, which still front many of the equestrian properties in the Heights.
Gorton and Crum give Rascal aluminum shoes and special rubber pads that help keep his legs and hooves in alignment. Stracner writes a check for $205.
The final stop is down the street. Gorton and Crum take a private driveway past an aging split-level home to a ravine where a complex of dusty ramshackle barns lies in the shade of spreading ash trees. Across the ravine is the neighborhood church.
John Connell and his wife bought the property a year ago. They left Seal Beach for nearly two acres with chickens, bees, peacocks, quail, a cat, two dogs and seven horses, five of which belong to neighbors.
Bobbie-Socks is the first to be worked on. Crum starts trimming, and Gorton fires up the forge. He seldom bends straight bar stock anymore; it is too strenuous. Instead, he lays a glowing prefabricated shoe on the horn of the anvil and makes adjustments with his hammer. Heavy blows mix with light blows.
Twer-rink. Twer-rink. Twack.
He places the iron lightly against Bobbie-Socks’ hoof. The air smells of singed hair; the burn mark confirms the fit. He cools the shoe in the bucket of water and centers it on the hoof.
One tap sets the nail, and three blows drive it flush. Bobbie-Socks doesn’t flinch. The tip flares through the wall of the hoof, and with a twist of the hammer’s claw, he shears the end, cinches it down and rasps it smooth.
Sound of sirens drifts from the city streets below. A hawk sails over head. On most days Gorton likes his work. There are times, though, when he gets home and thinks about other jobs, but he knows he takes for granted what he appreciates most.
Once a horse lets him into its world and he hears its breath, feels its heart up close, there is no turning back.
“You feel life,” Gorton says.
The next day he returns to San Dimas. Digger will be heading off to a jumping competition the following week, and Gorton has no reason to bother the gelding. Casey and Sable instead are on the schedule, and after examining their hooves, he decides that they can go longer without a trim.
That is fine by him. The sky is threatening rain, and the welcoming committee is nowhere to be seen.
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