SUPPORTING THE EQUESTRIAN INDUSTRY: how Chapel Forge Farriers & their apprentices provide an equine podiatry service from foal to racehorse
Founder Gary Pickford using the forge at Chapel Forge Farriers' Lambourn headquarters
In Upper Lambourn there is a disused cemetery beside a former chapel which now houses two forges - inside on the upper floor is the headquarters of Chapel Forge Farriers. It is Europe's largest firm of farriers employing a team of up to 28 farriers at any one time - as well as apprentices.
The firm was founded in 1986 by Gary Pickford. Gary's love of horses was influenced by his father Peter Pickford, a professional jockey who left home at 13 to work as an apprentice jockey and went on to ride regularly for the Queen Mother.
Gary had been considering following his father and becoming a jockey, but he did not make the exacting weight standards. Aged 15 and wanting to stay working with horses, he began a four year farriery apprenticeship in Lambourn under master farrier Tony Hailstone - working for trainers from the Lambourn roll of honour such as Fulke Walwyn, Fred Winter and Stan Mellor.
Soon after qualifying Gary was approached by Sheikh Maktoum Al Maktoum, then ruler of Dubai, to work at Gainsborough Stud in the UK and Ireland and as a consultant in Kentucky. In Kentucky Gary worked alongside Dr Ric Redden at his exclusive equine foot practice - the first in the world. Redden was trained as both a farrier and a veterinarian and there Gary learnt innovative techniques and concepts he later applied to his work with Chapel Forge Farriers.
Returning home in 1988, Gary bought the disused chapel in Lambourn turning it into a working forge for his business. Horses could also come along and be hot shod there.
The floor above the forge was converted into offices and Chapel Forge Farriers Ltd was founded. The company is run by three senior staff, two secretaries and Gary's wife Christine who oversees all the management of the company.
General Manager Michael Towell joined the company in 1990 and runs all the racing yards. Ashley Berry, who joined in 2014, oversees all the apprentice training.
Gary has been an Approved Training Farrier (ATF) for 30 years. This makes him qualified to train apprentices and he has trained over 50, many of whom have gone on to qualify and run their own successful businesses.
Chapel Forge Farriers provides a farriery service to a large proportion of racing yards within a 40-mile radius of the Lambourn Valley. The team also works with many stud farms in the area and as far afield as Dorset, Scotland and Newmarket.
Gary now mainly works on angular limb deformities in foals and yearlings and vet referrals for remedial farriery, using state of the art techniques including acrylics, glue on shoes, and leg splints. His work has taken him all over the world - regularly working in France, Germany, Ireland, Greece, the USA and the Gulf States.
The firm also has a wider reach in Britain. The day I met Gary in Lambourn, a Chapel Forge farrier had been working in Preston and on his way home had been called to work on a 'million pound mare' near Nottingham who had a foot infection from laminitis and needed a special shoe.
Lambourn is, of course, famously known as the ‘Valley of the Racehorse’, and has numerous flat and national hunt racing yards. Most horses are shod or plated every 21-28 days.
All racehorses are plated with aluminium shoes for racing and Chapel Forge staff attend these yards six or seven days a week to provide continuous attention to a yard's needs.
How many shoes does the firm get through in month? "Ninety-five per cent of the shoes we use are manufactured, we import about 10,000 from Germany and Malaysia each month, the rest are handmade in our forge using a straight bar."
Major advances have been made in the farriery world over the last 10 years with many horses wearing glue on shoes applied with an acrylic, which was developed by NASA to keep the heat-shield tiles on the space shuttles from falling off. And now a high proportion of racehorses have shoes which have a ‘built in shock absorbers’ for racing.
Over the past 25 years thoroughbreds have been bred to run faster and this has led to their limbs becoming more fragile. Chapel Forge farriers works alongside nutritionists, vets, stud managers and racehorse trainers to ensure the horses get the greatest of care.
Gary knows that much of Chapel Forge farriers' success has been down to choosing the right member of staff to put forward as an apprentice. Candidates must have five GCSE’s at grade C or above, including English and Maths.
Gary tells me: "CFF asks any prospective candidate to attend for a three week trial so they can see how we work, what it means to be a farrier and observe our staff in practice. And of course, we can see how they may work alongside the horses, what their abilities on the forge may be, and how they work with our busy team."
"At present we have nine apprentices and two pre-apprentices - those waiting to be put forward for an apprenticeship to college."
Once accepted for an apprenticeship, they have a two-month probationary period followed by the full four-year apprenticeship. Each year this includes two blocks of three weeks at one of the country’s three farriery colleges.
The college work includes a heavy dose of equine anatomy ‘bones, nerves, blood vessels, everything from hoof to shoulder’. The success rate is not high. Nationally about one in twenty complete their apprenticeships. Gary sighs: "We lose some who would make fantastic farriers, but they cannot make the grades especially on anatomy."
I meet apprentice Elliott Read who is about to start the third year of his apprenticeship. He is thirty-three, grew up in Surrey and had his own horse - a former racehorse - for eighteen years: "I was always interested in horses, but after school I did different trades. This apprenticeship is certainly hard work and needs dedication. The hours are long. But I take the view that if you want something, you'll work for it."
He now lives in Lambourn and goes to the Warwickshire Moreton Morrell College for his courses - it is accredited by the Farriers Registration Council and The Worshipful Company of Farriers.
Elliott works daily at three of Chapel Forge Farriers' Lambourn yards - Ed Walker (with about 85 horses in training), Brendan Powell (about 40 jumpers) and Sylvester Kirk (about 50.) His ambition is to qualify, continue to work for Chapel Forge and then slowly build up his own business.
After Elliott has gone off to work at another yard, Gary says he likes to get apprentices shoeing within fourteen to sixteenth months: "I've learned from experience that keeping them back doesn't work. But they have to show they know a racehorse is not the same beast as Mrs Smith's pony. These are expensive beasts - and, as I explained, they're pretty fragile."
I asked if it was common to sign-up thirty-year-olds for their apprenticeship scheme: "I did select an ex-Royal Marine captain of 38 with 4 active tours to his name. This was on the basis he would bring his experience of discipline, presentation and organisational skills to our younger apprentices. He's now qualified and runs his own farriery company."
What makes a good farrier? "The only thing is passion. I only shoe horses because I'm passionate about it - the money comes from that...that and a determination to be successful. Our apprentices have a fantastic chance to make serious money - and help the equestrian industry."