- CHARITY BENEFIT
New York has a reputation for being a city in which the only constant thing is rapid change. Yet even in the fast-paced, high-tech city, ancient trades, crafts, and skills find niches where they can survive—and sometimes even thrive. When I wanted to report on a craft that was truly an example of olden times, I set out to find a farrier—a blacksmith who shoes horses. I was intrigued to learn that the New York Police Department has several farriers on staff. I then began my research by walking into the headquarters of Mounted Troop A in Lower Manhattan and asking the desk officer if he could point me in the right direction to research a story on New York Police Department farriers. He gave me the phone number of the public affairs office. After several calls and e-mail messages, I was invited to the stables of one of the five NYPD mounted troops.
That’s where I met Jimmy Murtagh. Murtagh, a native of Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland, has been a farrier for nearly 20 years and has worked for the NYPD for five years. He is one of three full-time farriers—the official job title is horse shoer—that the city employs to take care of the more than 120 NYPD mounts. Police horses spend their working lives on city pavements and need to have shoes replaced every four to six weeks.
Murtagh showed me around the stables of NYPD Mounted Troop B, a bright, modern facility housed in what was once a cruise ship terminal on the Hudson River at West 34th Street. Troop B has about thirty horses in the stable at any given time. He needed to replace the shoes on two horses and do a “consultation” concerning some hoof tenderness for another horse. Murtagh’s usual rounds take him to three stables in Manhattan and the Bronx; his two colleagues cover the other boroughs. Farriers are also frequently stationed at events in which NYPD horses are being used for crowd control or in parades, where they are liable to need shoes replaced on site.
When a new position opens up, the word goes around that the city is looking for a farrier. Farriers need at least five years of experience, have to provide references, and must perform a demonstration of their skills in order to be hired. The benefits, of course, include steady employment and access to the city’s health and pension plans.
While today’s farriers get from stable to stable by truck, the tools and techniques of the trade haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. The large pliers-like tool used to remove old shoes and the curved-bladed implement for cleaning and trimming hooves are of ancient design. And certainly the most dramatic part of the process—the cloud of smoke that’s released when the heated shoe comes in contact with the hoof—is an image that stems from time immemorial. Hooves, incidentally, are similar to our fingernails and have no nerves, so the animal feels no pain when the heated shoe is being fitted.
There have, of course, been changes over time: horseshoes are now factory-made in various sizes and heated and pounded over an anvil for final sizing, rather than being custom-made from bar stock. Forges are fired by gas rather than coal and are portable. A hard metallic alloy called borium is added to the shoes at three bearing points to improve traction on city streets. But the essence of the farrier’s craft—man, horse, and glowing metal—has remained largely unchanged over the centuries. At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, the NYPD that uses cutting-edge technology to fight crime and thwart terrorism still needs the farrier’s ancient skills.
A version of this article appeared in the Spring-Summer 2008 issue of Voices magazine and is reprinted with permission.
Paul Margolis is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in New York City.