Riding into the Men's Club
One of Hawaii's only female farriers shows how hammers, nails and powertools aren't just for men
Story and photos by Kaainoa Fernandez
The Making of a Horseshoe, the Making of a Farrier
Patty May isn’t a morning person, ambling up to a red-and-white Waimanalo barn around 10 a.m. The ground is soggy, still saturated from the week’s rainstorm. Her plan is to pull four steel shoes off a horse and replace them with four new ones. That sounds easier than it is to do. Soon, she is hunched over, with the leg of a 1,400-pound horse held securely between her knees, with the sound of her hammer hitting the horse’s steel shoe echoing across the barn.
Clank, clank, clank.
Hear the hammer at work
Some of the farrier's tools
Atticus quickly pulls his leg away and knocks May off-balance, just as two copper nails sticking out from either side of his hoof whip around and barely miss the veins of May's wrist, by just centimeters. May takes a deep breath, sits up, looks Atticus in the eye and talks to him.
“Easy. We’re almost done,” she says, stroking his shoulder with her free hand.
Her unusually gentle approach distinguishes May from other farriers, who are professionals specializing in shoeing horses. May tends to react calmly to often nervous or difficult horses while others might be quick to jab an elbow or fist straight into the horse’s ribs. The 46-year-old comes dressed the part, in baggy blue jeans, boots and a t-shirt that just about covers a rattlesnake tattoo on her upper arm. But she also takes pride in how she's different.
May has spent most of a hot and humid Hawaii morning trimming hooves and shaping shoes at A-tri-K Stables, an equine facility in Waimanalo. Part craftswoman, part horse whisperer, part teacher, farriers are trained in equine hoof care, with special talents for trimming and shoeing horses.
Fewer than 20 professional farriers work on Oahu and even fewer are female. By her count, May is one of three (or, during some months of the year, four) actively practicing. Being the only woman in her class at the Colorado School of Trades, May always felt like she had to be better than the boys. On the first day of class, for example, while the men chose the average-sized horses to work with, May took on the largest, a draft horse with hooves larger than a dinner plate.
Wayne Shizuru, who owns Atticus, is standing in the kitchen of his house overlooking the 30-stall A-tri-K barn tucked beneath the Ko’olau Mountain Range, when he reminisces about all of the farriers he's tried during the past 50 years. He compares them in his mind to May, then remarks, she is “by far the best. ... She’s dependable, conscientious and quite capable at her job.”
May, constantly feeling like she needs to prove herself in a male-dominated profession, holds Atticus’ hoof in such a way that her eye level is parallel to the hoof. She checks that the angle and placement of the new shoe is perfect. One mistake could cripple a horse for life. One mistake like that also could kill her career.
She lets Atticus stand evenly on all fours, while she checks for balance and accuracy between the two front hooves. A few more strokes with the rasp to smooth out the edges, and the shoe’s are done. It took about an hour, which May considers about an average length of time. She lead Atticus away, watching how he moves in his new shoes. She likes what she sees.
Atticus has had a resurgence under May. In 2013, after a year of being sore and unusable, the ex-racehorse was running out of options. Shizuru decided to try a new farrier on him. May, at the time, was working as the barn’s groom, the primary caretaker of the horses. But she convinced Shizuru she could do the job. He gave her a chance.
(Left to right) Before and after photos of the horse's shoes
Learning the Tricks of the Trade in this Town
In May's quaint – mostly white – living room in Kaneohe, pictures of her and her dog, Molly, are perched upon a wooden dresser. The sun casts a shadow of a palm tree on the wooden floors, just below her trade-school certificate hanging on the wall.
May graduated from the Colorado farrier school at 27. She attended it after seeing an ad for the program on the back of a magazine. “That’d be cool,” she thought to herself, not thinking she’d one day make a career out of it. She recalled a moment that changed her outlook on shoeing when an instructor told her she might be one of the ones who actually makes it.
“I really took that to heart,” she said. “So I was like ‘well I better make it then.’ I didn’t want to disappoint him.”
May apprenticed with a professional farrier for nearly three years in Colorado. Learning the tricks of a trade passed down through centuries, May gained the skills to begin her own business in California.
Once there, she quickly built a robust client list. Working full-time as a farrier across Southern California, shoeing eight to 10 horses a day and on-call seven days a week. The stress, she said, was intense.
In the horse world, like many other high-stake and costly sports, the pressure to win is often boundless. As the hoof specialist, the farrier is quickly blamed for a sore horse. After 10 years, May said, the fast-paced and busy lifestyle of the industry overburdened her. She said it wasn’t the life she wanted to live anymore.
“I got super burnt out in California," May said. "I was working so much. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.”
The Southern California native wanted to start fresh, with her then-girlfriend, who accepted a job offer that sent the couple across the Pacific to Oahu in 2012.
A few months after moving to what many consider a tropical paradise, May said she soon realized the movie perception of the island lifestyle left out the premium price it costs to remain. She needed money. So her Craigslist job hunt began.
After answering a few ads, to no avail, she came across an ad for a horse groom. She didn't want to work with horses anymore, but she needed an income. The following week, she was interviewed and hired on the spot at A-tri-K Stables.
“It paid the bills,” she said.
After a few months of working part-time as a groom, she also found a job making crepes at local farmers markets. No horses or owners were involved. Fresh food, new people, less stress, just what she was looking for.
Less than a year after she started, the crepe business went up for sale. She didn’t want to be a groom forever, so she decided she’d go for it. She purchased a crepe maker, a tent and a table and opened Paradise Crepes.
Yet, with no luck selling her "dream" truck in California, a special-ordered 2008 blue Dodge RAM, with a custom farrier unit that replaced the bed of the truck, she decided to send it across the Pacific to Hawaii and keep her options open. “I just thought, ‘I might as well bring it here and start working I guess,’” she said.
With a new crepe business and her custom farrier rig, she was confident she could do both and quit the groom job. However, establishing herself as a farrier in Hawaii has been a “long process,” one she said she’s still working on.
May's dream truck: 2008 Dodge RAM with custom farrier unit
Dream Come True
At a barn just a few blocks from A-tri-K, the sun is just about overhead, when Angela Woods, standing at the center of the arena, calls out “watch that shoulder, nice and easy.” One of her students on a dark horse rounds a corner, steadying their rhythm as they approach a jump. The two fly over the fence, seamlessly.
Woods is a horse trainer at Malu Olu Ranch in Waimanalo. She said the nearly diminished horse community on the island is making a comeback.
“Three or four years ago, it was shrinking and the industry was shrinking,” she said after the lesson, while sitting on a stool under a shady spot of the arena.
“Well, the economy was bad,” her student, Sarah McMillan, interjected from her nearby horse.
Woods said, “Yeah, economy is a big factor.”
Hawaii has been voted the worst place to make a living for seven years in a row by MoneyRates, a personal finance website. Living the HI life, in that sense, makes owning a horse a luxury for most.
The once-common paniolo lifestyle has become nothing more than a cowboy's memory on the island of Oahu. Kapiolani Park, for example, used to be a crowd-filled racetrack, attracting visitors and equine enthusiasts from around the world. Today, that same public space is covered by tennis courts, a waterfall and picnic benches.
Oahu’s horse community, in turn, has become a small but close-knit group of enthusiasts. In such a small community, where word gets around fast, outsiders are often unwelcome.
At first, May found herself on the outskirts trying to get in.
She reached out to local farriers, but instead of a foot in the door, the door was closed shut. Shizuru described the farrier culture here as a men’s club that wouldn’t let her in. Many local farriers are born and raised in the islands, with most coming from long lines of horsemen.
Kip Kaopua is one of them, who learned his craft from another, Chuck Uhler. While he believes mainland farriers have a good chance at making it here in Hawaii, he also said, “When push comes to shove, the local guys can pretty much do better than the mainland guys.”
May says she frequently has to prove and re-prove herself to gain recognition and appreciation, especially because of her gender. She has stopped by barns, ranches and feed stores handing out business cards, sharing information and connecting with local horse people.
After eventually taking over farrier duties of all of the horses at A-tri-K, May’s client list began to grow.
Woods said May’s reliability and personality stand out from the rest.
“She’s kind. She sensible. She takes time and cares,” Woods said. “She
responds when you call her; that’s the biggest thing.”
Horses, like high-performance athletes, require regular and closely monitored care to perform to the best of their abilities. If a horse is left with a hoof or shoe issue for too long, the results can be costly and permanently damaging to the horse’s health. Woods said a responsive and reliable farrier is of utmost importance.
With more than 45 horses regularly under her care now, May said she is satisfied with her workload. Being careful not to overwork herself, though, she usually only is working on three to four horses a day, instead of 10 or so, like she did in California. Working part-time gives her the option to step away from the horse world and to do other things, such as create fresh crepes around the community, if she so chooses.
Written By: Kaainoa Fernandez
Published: May 14, 2018