When Cathy Lesperance left high school in Elmira in 1981, she figured she had at least three career options she might want to pursue – and a fourth that was interesting.
Her main choices were accounting, psychology and law. Instead, she decided to try for work as a farrier – shoeing horses. The result was, in one instance alone, two broken ribs, her back broken in two places and a 21-stitch cut to her head – all from a kicking horse. But Lesperance has no regrets at all about her career choice.
Placing shoes on horses is a long way from spreadsheets or the courtroom, but she already had a three year start. At 15, growing up in Elmira, she bought her first horse and eventually found herself at a blacksmith shop getting shoes for it.
“When I watched that blacksmith I thought it was absolutely fascinating,” she said.
And when it came to a career, “I decided, ‘I need to try this first’ – or I didn’t think I ever would.”
It wasn’t easy. Lesperance was an 18-year-old high school graduate, but she was a woman. In those days, even with women’s liberation causing a major societal shift in all walks of life in North America, women in the world of blacksmithing and horseshoeing was unheard of – so it was a tough place to gain a foothold. Finally, she got a break.
“I found a blacksmith in Guelph that would actually take on a girl. It was his wife who talked him into it. He didn’t want me either,” she said. “I didn’t go in with any feminist attitude. I just went with the attitude I was going to do the best I could do.”
Lesperance looks around today and the world of the farrier has changed. There are schools that teach the trade now, but there were none in Ontario when she began, although she did say there were probably a few in the United States. Even so, many people today still seem surprised to find female farriers.
A search on female farriers on the internet showed that in 2005, someone set up a search for females in the trade – and found quite a few – but that the question was even asked indicates some people then still thought it is an oddity. Lesperance knows several women who do the work, and cited two young women from Fergus who are planning to attend a school or take an apprenticeship in the near future.
But even after school, students will still have to find a blacksmith or farrier and apprentice. The government does not regulate farriers and anyone can try the trade, but clients can be picky and those who are unable are soon weeded out.
Lesperance said of her apprenticeship, “I stayed with him for nine months. Then I went on to work with [her future husband] Larry Lesperance for six years.”
When he decided he wanted to get out of the trade and operate a group home, she simply carried on the business. Farriers work specifically with horses, although they need training as a blacksmith to learn techniques for shaping shoes. In short, all farriers are blacksmiths, but not all blacksmiths are farriers.
There are still many similarities. “I have a forge. You still have to heat them up and beat them on an anvil. The hotter they are, the more gentle you have to be.”
Her shop is portable, with nary a spreading chestnut tree in sight. It looks like a camper trailer, is pulled by a truck, it carries her forge attached to the back door, has side windows for ventilation and a neat sets of tools and various horseshoes hanging on the walls, ready to be shaped for the horses. She travels to her clients, instead of them coming to her. And she still dunks those red hot shoes, and the steam still sizzles as it rises.
“It’s still done where you burn it onto the foot,” she said. “Then you nail it on. You have to nail it on.”
Anyone who ever watched old westerns on TV or in the movies remembers the Plains Indians did not ride shod horses. Lesperance said the reason most horses are shod today is people are using them more, surfaces are rougher, they are used for racing, games, eventing, hunter and jumper and a variety of other uses, all of which would be difficult on unshod hooves.
Plus, she said, “Horses wear off their feet faster than they can grow. For show horses, or jumpers, or any horse that needs purchase on the ground – grabbing, per se – shoes give more than the hoof will give them.”
As for speed, she said race horses use very thin shoes, and they are made out of aluminum. That gives purchase, but they are also light, which is important for speed.
“They’ve got some serious grab,” she said. “They can run completely unimpeded.”
Regular shoes, which she mainly uses, are “made out of mild steel,” but she noted, “You can get plastic, rubber or titanium shoes.”
Lesperance does not work with race horses or with the big ones, like Percherons, but she has still handled some fair sized horses, with the biggest just over 18 hands. She also has shoed four-month-old miniatures so small she looms over them.
She moved to Fergus nine years ago and gets her shoeing supplies in Orangeville. She knows of many people who can shape iron into various shapes, but she is a farrier. She works with horseshoes.
“I love shaping horseshoes. I’m not creative with blacksmithing at all. Some [blacksmiths] are artists. I like shaping horses’ shoes. Each one is different.”
To place four shoes on a horse takes her about 40 to 50 minutes, and to reset them takes about 35 to 40 minutes. She estimates she shoes “a couple of thousand” horses each year, and her hours range from 40 to 60 per week, which she admitted “can be tough.”
Most of her clients are in the Caledon, Orangeville, Palgrave, Guelph and Fergus area, but she has one client in Mitchell she still works for because she likes the client.
Lesperance is all business when it comes to satisfying her customers. She has heard the horror stories about farriers who are supposed to show up at 2pm on a Wednesday and arrive in February. She said she always calls when she is going to be delayed because people’s time is valuable and she respects that. She added she would never re-shoe a horse when she can simply repair old shoes. The money would be nice, but … “My clients are my bosses. I take a lot of pride in my service and integrity. I run my business the way I would want to be treated.”
Lesperance smiles and remembers how she freaked out her sister during one of her injury stints with a nasty horse several years back. She was bringing Ronda Lobsinger something from Fergus to a nearby city and asked her sister to come to the farm where she was working. That was a time she got seriously hurt from a kick. When Lobsinger arrived, staff at the barn seemed a little frantic. When she asked for Cathy Lesperance, a worker told her, “Don’t worry; the ambulance is on its way.”
Lesperance said until she saw her sister she was doing just fine, but when she saw her, she lost it and started to cry. Today, she shrugs off such hurts as simply part of the job. She gets kicked, she gets stepped on.
“I have aches and pains. I have earned them legally and rightfully – they’re mine. I deserve them,” she said.
Lesperance looks around at the horse world today and sees nothing but opportunity ahead. She noted southern Ontario has more horses per capita than Kentucky, which is still acknowledged as the horse capital of the world.
And, she said, “There are a lot more women now. It’s not the same industry.” She said there was a time that a blacksmith used a bellows instead of modern propane-fired forge, and what was needed in those days was generally stereotyped as “a strong back and a weak mind.” Today, she said, “It’s about horsemanship and finesse.”
She still rides, and has continued that for nearly 40 years now. She added this area has many farriers. Some are full time, some do only their own horses and some work at it part time. With so many horses around, there is plenty of work.
“It’s a huge industry. There are a lot of them.”
There is also the occasional bonus, too. Lesperance obtained the work for Medieval Times, a show out of Toronto. “I get to watch the knights practicing.”
Are there any second thoughts about that career in law or accounting or psychology?
“No. Not at all. I wouldn’t change a thing. I would do it again. I still like my job.”