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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Bill Balling on working the farrier trade in Hermon

May 4, 2018
By AMY FEIEREISEL - NCPR Correspondent , Lake Placid News

HERMON - Bill Balling describes himself as a "late back-to-the-lander."

In 1979, he and his young family moved from New Jersey up to Northern New York, to the town of Hermon in St. Lawrence County.

He's the first to admit he was looking for cheap land, and like so many others (the St. Lawrence Valley was a particularly hot spot for the back-to-the-land movement), he found it in the North Country.

Article Photos

William “Bill” Balling shoes a draft horse on a farm in Waddington, circa mid 1990s. Photo courtesy of Bill Balling and taken by Phil Ashwood of Calcium, New York.

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From back-to-the-lander to farrier

"I was looking for property. Looked at land in the south, and we got stuck in a snowstorm in a field in Kentucky and decided I didn't like it," he said. "My second choice was New York state for cheap land, and the farther north I traveled, the cheaper the land got, and I ended up here."

Balling was 31. He'd been working in construction, and had no experience living off the land or farming. But he and his wife knew they wanted to get closer to nature, and he had the very specific dream of working with draft animals.

His first foray was with John Scarlett, another back-to-the-lander who was working with oxen. Balling decided oxen weren't quite his favorite, and having no experience with them at all, he bought a pair of Belgian draft horses named Queenie and Jill.

"I had never handled a horse in my life," he said. "The team I purchased was a good team, they taught me how to work with horses."

Balling farmed the draft horses out for work, doing jobs for local farmers and skidding logs out of the woods for lumber and firewood. A lot of that work happened in the winter, and he decided his team needed shoes with a hard, roughed-up surface so that they wouldn't slip on the ice. The problem? There was no one around to do the work.

"Turned out there was no one in the area that made those shoes!" he said.

It was quite the process. Balling ordered generic shoes through the mail, then went through three different men to get them on the horses:

"I had to find a person to shape the shoes," he said. "That was Eli Tracy. I had to find another person to put the hard surface material on, and Leo Rasley, who lives over in the Macomb area. He actually nailed the shoes on the horses for me."

A light bulb went on. Maybe if there was no one around to do this work, it'd be something Balling could do. He started investigating farrier schools, and ended up choosing a school in Woodstock, Vermont called Green Mountain Horseshoe School. It was essentially a three-month apprenticeship with only three students. They learned forging and shoe-shaping in the mornings and trimmed and shoed horses in the afternoons.

Balling commuted back and forth from Hermon to Vermont until the apprenticeship was over, and then started out for himself. By then he had the basics down, so he started building a customer base.

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Clipping and shoeing in St. Lawrence County

It wasn't exactly a lucrative trade, and especially not in St. Lawrence County, where Balling said there were plenty of horses and plenty of work - but not enough money. A lot of folks couldn't afford it, even though he charged around half of the going rate. He says if he'd really wanted to make money on it, he would've gone back to New Jersey, where there was a bigger market and more affluent customers.

"But I made enough up here to get by," he said. "Quite a few of the horses I worked on up here were horses that needed the work. I kept my prices low so that folks that normally wouldn't have been able to afford to have the work done could have their animals taken care of."

Balling hated seeing horses that had been neglected, which was a huge motivator to keep prices low. He said he couldn't have done it without the support of his then-wife, Georgie, who owned a natural foods business in Canton. Without two incomes, he doubts they would have gotten by.

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Tools of the trade and the physical toll

Even with low prices, Balling said more than a few times he showed up to trim a horse's hooves and the owners would bring out a box of tools and explain they'd been doing it themselves for years.

"And they'd have a rusty old rasp that might've been good for woodworking, and a pair of nippers were invariably nail clippers, and when I saw nail, I mean the actual horseshoe nail."

The holy trinity of the farrier's trade are a hoof knife, nippers and a rasp.

The hoof knife is a small knife with a hooked blade that can trim the sole of the horses's hoof. Once the bottom of the sole of the hoof had been cleaned up, he'd use thin bladed nippers to trim the hoof itself to the proper length, and finally he'd use a rasp to level things off and shape the hoof. A rasp is a long file with two sides, with a coarse blade and a finer grade for finish work. For the shaping of the shoes, he used a forge, hammer, and nails.

Balling said he mostly worked with saddle horses, what he calls "hobby horses," but also clipped and shoed draft horses and pulling horses. It's an incredibly physically demanding job - grasping the legs of a 2,000 pound animal, forging shoes, constantly bending over. But he said there is something really special about getting to be so close to an animal.

"This kind of work ... I have to be in contact with the horse all the time. So I was either leaning against the horse with my side or my back. You had to be able to read the horse. If it decides it wants to do something you don't want it to do, you can generally feel the movement of the horse first before it reacts, whether it's a jump or a kick or a quick movement. I would be able to feel the tenseness of the body or a muscle tightening. ... I enjoyed it."

But those magical moments came at a price. Balling said his knees were shot after decades of bending over, and he had back pain as well. In fact, when he entered the business, a farrier school outright said he was too old and too tall to do the work.

"There's a lot of stress on the legs, on the back, and on the upper arms. But it's just the way it is. I did it anyway. ... I don't know if I showed them or they showed me!"

A typical workday saw Balling traveling somewhere within a 50-mile radius of Hermon (he served most of St. Lawrence County and into Jefferson), and working on anywhere from a single team of draft horses to a dozen saddle horses.

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Connecting to the wider community

Balling and his wife were socially connected to the other back-to-the-landers in the area, who informally organized potlucks and other celebrations. A few owned horses, but Balling said the majority of his customer base was local, and his work as a farrier gave him the chance to make friends with what he calls "the old timers," or local farmers.

Then, when the Amish began moving into the region in the early 2000s, he found peers in Amish blacksmiths.

"Most of the Amish have their own blacksmiths or farriers, but if there was a corrective problem they were not familiar with, I would work for the Amish; over the years, I maybe worked a dozen times for an Amish family. Actually, I was good friends with two or three of them [Amish farriers]. If I needed a type of horseshoe I didn't have, I would take a drive over to their shops to see what was available."

Balling also made, or "dressed" a lot of horseshoes for Amish farriers with hard surface material.

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Changing times and retiring from the trade

Since he started, Balling said draft horses have all but disappeared, and saddle or backyard horses have been on the rise. There's a wider range of shoe materials and types. But his work hasn't changed that much.

"It's not something that can be done with a machine; you still have to have hands-on work to trim the horse's foot, cut to the proper length, then the physical work of shaping the hoof."

Balling retired in December 2017 after about 35 years of work as a farrier. He said it was a fun ride, and he hated to give up his last customer, but the work and his lifestyle was taking a toll on his body. When asked if it was worth it, he said: "Yep. Absolutely."

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(This story comes to you from North Country Public Radio's North Country at Work project, which explores the working lives and history of our region. To see all the stories and the photo archive, check out www.northcountryatwork.org.)

 
 

 

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