In many ways, Donna Watson represents the best of what we might expect of a health-care provider. She asks questions, she listens more than she talks, she takes the time to observe the patient and use her years of training and experience to judge where a problem lies and how best to fix it.
Watson is thoughtful in her answers, as she believes in the uniqueness of each patient. In her practice, there are no cookie-cutter solutions, only individuals with their own history, issues and needs.
In many other ways, Watson is no ordinary health-care professional, not when her average patient weighs a thousand pounds and could send her to the emergency room with a mere flick of a foot. Watson is a farrier, an equine professional who trims horse hooves, makes and fits their shoes, and nails the shoes to the hoof.
While most horses are seen by their veterinarians once a year and the dentist twice a year, a horse sees a farrier every six to eight weeks. Why is it so important to have a horse’s hooves cared for by a farrier? Horse hooves grow continuously, much like our own fingernails do. Corrective trimming and fitting of horseshoes can protect the foot, provide traction, and help correct foot and leg problems. Foot and lameness problems can affect a horse’s usability and even quality of life. A lame horse can be unrideable or prone to stumbling, which can cause the horse to fall or the rider to be thrown. Both instances can have disastrous results for both horse and rider.
Watson, a lifelong horse owner, earned her farrier’s certificate from the Oklahoma Farriers College when she lived in the Midwest. It was a trade she could put to good use, even if only for her own horses. But, as often is the case, you don’t always end up where you think you’re headed. Jump forward fifteen years and Watson found herself living in the Northeast, married with three kids, and working full-time as a calibration and repair technician at Raytheon. Farriering seemed part of the distant past. Fifteen years in a windowless office has a way of slowly erasing plans you once had. Fifteen years in a windowless office can seem like the floor dropped out from under you when you suddenly find yourself laid off due to federal spending cuts and a general economic downturn. It was an opportunity for Watson to look at what she’d been doing and what might lie ahead. Not surprisingly, windowless offices were not high on her list. Watson decided to return to the trade she’d learned and make her living as a farrier.
Getting back into this physically demanding field had particular challenges. “Breaking back into the field wasn’t easy. Everyone already had their own farrier. I did my own horses and apprenticed with other farriers.”
It was through chance that Watson got her first big gig. “I went up to Greenville to look at a horse’s feet for a friend. I happened to mention that I was getting back into ferriering and the barn owner, who had over two dozen horses, asked me to take her on as a customer. I wasn’t sure I was physically able to do 10 a day, but the barn owner said ‘do what you can.’ I started with two a day, and slowly worked my way up to more.”
When asked if she had any regrets about leaving the business world, Watson pauses then gives a small laugh. “That I didn’t do it sooner!”
“I should have stayed with it,” she continues. A lot had changed over the years. It was by apprenticing with other farriers, particularly Dave Kaspberg of Phillipston, that Watson got caught up on all the changes in the field over the previous 15 years.
“When I went to school, farriers didn’t talk to one another. There was only one way to do things: the perimeter fit. Nowadays, they hold clinics, share tricks of the trade. They all realized it’s better for the profession.”
Not only had the knowledge base and willingness to share information grown over the years, the natural horsemanship movement has greatly influenced the field. Natural horsemanship draws on the horse’s natural instincts and means of communication as herd animals, rather than management through force, fear or pain. Farriering had typically been considered a man’s job, in part due to the physical demands, but also due to the expectation that some horses might need a firm hand to keep the farrier safe. Men were often more accepting of using traditional practices like using a twitch to calm a horse. A twitch is a device that clamps onto the horse’s lip or ear, causing a low level of pain that releases endorphins to counteract the pain, often producing a calming effect on the horse. With the rising interest in natural horsemanship, horse owners came to value the kindler, gentler approach of farriers working under these newer principles. Women farriers found the demand for their skill set growing exponentially.
While the field has undergone many changes over the years, farriering is still a physically demanding job. The work is often done in unheated barns or outside in the elements, bent over from the waist, trimming, filing, and shoeing horse’s hooves to provide the best support and contact for the horse. One must know horse physiology and therapeutic metalworking and that’s just the technical aspect. Knowing how to work safely on a 1,000-pound animal who can kick with bone-crushing force takes patience and nerves of steel.
“I’ve been bit, I’ve been kicked, I’ve had nails slice open the top of my knee and rake right across the top of my hand, ” says Watson. If a horse is nervous, bad tempered, or just flicking their foot to get rid of a fly, serious injuries can happen in a split second. When working on her own horse, a stallion who decided to display his impressiveness for a few nearby mares at in inopportune time, Watson received a playful kick to the face that sent her flying through the air to the tune of 21 stitches and one incredibly sore but amazingly unbroken jaw.
Watson bases her work out of Ashby, covering a 15-mile radius. She often works in tandem with many of the local large-animal veterinarians. Vets can x-ray horses’ feet and joints onsite using portable x-ray machines to diagnose and correct problems. Together, farrier and vet talk over the issues and propose solutions that will work for each individual horse. Once, Watson refused to implement a vet’s recommendations, knowing that it would lame the horse. To her, that has been the greatest freedom of being her own boss: being able to say no when she believes it’s the wrong thing to do.
A member of the American Farrier Association and secretary of the New England Farriers Association for the past five years, Watson sees herself as someone who is always trying to learn more. “Many farriers today continue their education, talking to each other, going to farrier clinics, offering opinions. You learn to try different things for different horses. You’re lucky if what worked well for one horse works well for another.”
And how does sub-zero weather, nails driven into her hand, and having to tire out a horse before you can even work on it measure up at the end of the day? This soft-spoken grandmother and mother of three doesn’t hesitate. “There’s nothing better than fixing a problem and easing a horse’s pain.”
Spoken like a true medical professional.