The only job Ann Szolas has ever had has been shoeing horses.
So it was a departure when, after 16 years as a professional farrier, Szolas decided to take the shoes off of her horse’s back two feet.
“I had a client that wanted to go barefoot so I started looking into it,” she said. Szolas’ horse Cory, it turns out, was heading toward a condition described as a “negative plantar angle” in his back two hooves. He was becoming thin-soled there and was crushing what is called the “digital cushion” in his foot. When he went on rides, this was putting too much strain on tendons and ligaments, which in turn was making them more prone to injuries.
“I thought, ‘You know, if he’s barefoot I can maintain that so much better,’” she said.
After taking the shoes off, Szolas saw an immediate improvement in Cory’s form. With the success of the back feet, Szolas decided to try taking the steel shoes off of his front feet.
“He had a hoof injury with nerve damage and I never thought he could go barefoot in the front,” said Szolas. “Well, he’s fine. His feet are better now than they ever were with shoes.”
It was the beginning of the end of Szolas’ farrier career. For the time being, it was enough to keep her own two horses off of shoes while plying her trade with other people’s horses. But that all came to an end when she attended a natural hoof care clinic in Idaho with barefoot proponent Pete Ramey.
Ramey taught the group about hoof function. He talked about how the horse’s foot is supposed to interact with the ground and how a shoe can interfere with that interaction. It was the how and the why of the barefoot movement that made everything click for Szolas.
“I went to the clinic and it suddenly made sense,” she said. Then she made a promise to herself. “I can’t continue to do that to horses. I’ve got to stop shoeing.”
Destined to Work With Horses
Ann Szolas’ love of horses runs deep. Her mother, Clara Ramsdell, who acquired her first horse when she was 14, put Ann in the saddle at the age of 1. At age 6, Szolas had her own pony. She got her second pony when she was 9 and graduated to horses at age 17. She can’t remember not having horses in her life and never had any doubts that her career would somehow involve them.
After graduating from Aberdeen High School in 1989, she briefly considered becoming a veterinarian, but was put off by the amount of schooling required. After a couple of quarters at Grays Harbor College she enrolled in the farrier program at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia.
To shoe a horse, one has to first trim the animal’s hooves before nailing on the steel device. To do this, a farrier uses a heavy duty plier-like tool for the clipping and a rasp for finishing. To access the hoof, the farrier has to bend over and lift the animal’s leg, often supporting the hoof between their own two legs. It’s a vulnerable position for a farrier. An intimate dance that relies on the horse’s cooperation.
“On one of my first jobs I landed on top of a boat,” Szolas said. She was getting ready to trim a hoof when the horse decided to kick. She was too close for a damaging impact, she said, but she was still thrown.
“I took on some bad horses. Because the people that hire you when you’re new are the people who nobody else will do their horses,” she laughed. Still, she was pretty thrilled to be earning some cash working with horses. “I went flying through the air and landed on this boat and I remember thinking, ‘Look at all this money!’”
In time, Szolas built a client base that kept her traveling throughout Grays Harbor and Thurston counties. It has been a rewarding career, but she never questioned its impact on the health of the horses until recently. This spring, after the clinic with Ramey, she told her clients that come year’s end she would no longer be shoeing horses.
Anatomy of barefoot
In her home in the Wishkah Valley that she shares with her husband, Steve, Ann Szolas keeps a preserved cross section of the hoof of a feral Australian horse called a Brumby.
The specimen clearly shows the three smaller bones that make up the foot fit with tendons, ligaments neatly into the crust, or wall, which is the dark keratin exterior part of the hoof. Keratin is what is visible on a hoof. It grows like human nails and needs to be trimmed for domestic horses.
Not so the Brumby. A nomadic lifestyle with daily treks of up to 100 miles in a day ensure that the animal will not be troubled by overgrown hooves.
“The hooves of wild horses trim themselves,” said Szolas.
Toward the back of the foot, there is a fleshy knob similar to a human heel called a “digital cushion.” On the Brumby, the digital cushion is robust, and comes into contact with the ground with each step. Studies have shown that this constant compression of the digital cushion is a critical component in the legs’ blood flow. In contrast, the digital cushion of a shod horse is barely used.
Whereas Szolas’ life as a farrier had more to do with the mechanics of nailing shoes to horses, now she is studying horse anatomy and diagnosing ailments. She is a certified trainer for the Pacific Hoof Care Practitioners, an international organization devoted to the barefoot movement.
“She educates herself in all areas of horse care and I really rely on her,” said longtime friend and client Jan Simons who, with her daughter April owns four horses. “She knows my horses because she sees them regularly and she notices if something’s not quite right. If they have a problem she gives me really good advice on what to do. She goes the extra mile.”
Szolas recently taught a barefoot clinic in her garage on the anatomy of distal limbs (from the knee down), which attracted barefoot enthusiasts from three states. After the class she had a surplus of samples.
Ann Szolas lost four clients immediately after announcing her intention to stop shoeing. Still, she is so busy trimming hooves that she has put a moratorium on new clients.
“You can do way more trims in an hour than if you are shoeing. You can get way more done,” she said. “The maximum I’ll let my client go between trims is eight weeks. So I have way more horses in my clientele now.”
She still uses the same tools for trimming, but her technique is different. Instead of trimming hooves so that they can better accept a steel shoe, she is trimming them in order to better suit the individual’s gait. It may mean the difference between clipping a bit here and leaving a bit there, but the small adjustments can have profound effects.
“Some of our horses’ feet were just horrible when we first got them,” said Simons. “They were so bad that Ann took pictures to document the difference. Basically they’ve done really, really well.”
Szolas is also happy to teach horse owners how to take care of their own horses and to trim their feet specifically for each animal’s lifestyle and needs. She also teaches people to become professionals.
Besides maintaining her client base, she is heavily involved in Pacific Hoof Care Practitioners. She serves on its board of directors, is on the training committee, and is the clinic coordinator. She is currently helping to organize a conference for Sacramento in September.
While Szolas is full steam ahead with the barefoot movement and fully committed to helping her clients’ animals walk their way to better health, she maintains that she’s not out to change the world or get horse owners to unshoe their stock.
She maintains it’s a personal decision and wants people in Grays Harbor County to have a non-shoe option.
“It’s not that I learned what’s so bad about shoes,” she said. “It’s what I learned about how much better this is.”
MacLeod Pappidas, a Daily World photographer/writer, can be reached at 537-3934, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org