A passion called farriery

Emiliano Scipioni (on the left) and Carlo Montagna preparing a horseshoe

Emiliano Scipioni (on the left) and Carlo Montagna preparing a horseshoe

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

“If you exclude prodigious and individual moments that destiny can give us, to love your own work (which unfortunately is the privilege of a few) is the best approximation to real happiness on earth” (*). Primo Levi is right: there is a sense of freedom and deep joy in being competent in your own work and in taking pleasure in doing it. And, of course, this is true, no matter what the job is. There are many professions that require special skills and sensitivity, making it perfect to develop the passion of those who practice them. Think, for instance, of the farrier. In his job, there is the manual skill in working iron, the knowledge of anatomy to understand how to trim the hooves, the sensitivity to be aware through touch and sight of how far to sink the knife into the sole, and how this all comes together. Moreover, a farrier also has to deal with strong and enigmatic animals, who can be docile as lambs and rebels like wild beasts. And under those big beasts he must bend and work. In short, it is a profession that it is really impossible to do if you don’t like it, but for those who love this work, it is a field for infinite discoveries.

Daniel Anz forging a horseshow under the watchful eye of Domenico Bertolami

Daniel Anz forging a horseshow under the watchful eye of Domenico Bertolami

Recently I was invited to an equine podiatry and trimming clinic, organized by Emiliano Scipioni at “Casale San Nicola” Equestrian Center in Rome. The teacher was Daniel Anz, a brilliant Argentine podiatrist who travels the world spreading his trimming method, called Balance F. For me it was an opportunity to discover a new world, that of the farriers, which I knew only in a rather superficial way. It was a very surprising discovery, which revealed to me the passion with which the majority of these professionals carry out there jobs and the curiosity with which many of them are ready to question their own experience, in order to learn new techniques. A desire for knowledge, an openness to new ideas and an enthusiasm that I rarely, at least in Italy, have found among riders. The clinic was open not only to farriers, but also included a group of veterinarians who are specialists of the horse’s foot and limbs, and who have studied Anz’ method as related to a scientific evaluation. These varied professionals and their experience fed a very animated and stimulating debate.

In the profession of the farrier craft skill, knowledge of anatomy, manual sensitivity come together

In the profession of the farrier craft skill, knowledge of anatomy
and manual sensitivity come together

The main issue of the clinic was as essential as (apparently) simple: how can we bring the horse’s hoof to its natural balance, eliminating the disproportion resulting from the natural process of growth and from deterioration? Different answers have been given to this question throughout the centuries. And recently, about this matter, there is a great proliferation of theories and methods. I do not pretend to have the expertise of explaining in detail Daniel Anz’ approach, nor of evaluating its effectiveness. Anyone interested in learning more can get an idea by visiting his website (by clicking on this link: http://danielanz.com/podologia-equina/). What I found interesting is Anz’ effort to establish parameters as objective as possible to determine what he calls “the zero point” of the hoof. That is to say, the point where the foot is in its condition of full functional balance.

Allessandro Canni forging a horseshoe

Allessandro Canni forging a horseshoe

Unlike most traditional methods, which tend to adapt the hoof to an ideal model, Anz suggests to use the information that the same hoof capsule provides to the farrier. Therefore, he uses some natural factors that are visible on the hoof to determine the point where the foot should be brought back through trimming. That is to say, to know where and how much to trim, how and how much to rasp. His goal is to bring the foot back to the level of what he calls (with a clear similarity with the concept of “uniform sole thickness” developed by the Californian farrier Mike Savoldi) “functional sole”, i.e. the “good” layer of the sole: the one which performs the real structural function in the balance of the foot. It is not said, Anz explains, that this layer is on a unique plane. Indeed, it has a certain mobility because of the longitudinal flexibility of the hoof. While traditional methods tend to trim the foot evenly on one plane, according to Anz it is instead necessary to determine the functional limit of the hoof, and follow it, independently from where it is. For example, examining the horse’s heels, Anz identifies what he calls “stress points”, where the horny tubules show a slight deviation, which mark the plane of the “functional sole”. And it is always analyzing the hoof that the farrier should spot the other signs that indicate to him the plane to follow. As for the sole, the farrier must “search” the functional layer with the knife eliminating the part that is exfoliating, but only that one.

Daniel Anz, Emiliano Scipioni and Dr. Caroline Rengot

Daniel Anz, Emiliano Scipioni and Dr. Caroline Rengot

This method requires the farrier to use great precision. For example, Anz emphasizes the importance of using a compass to take the measurements of the hoof. “Even the most experienced eye – he explains -, is not enough.” Similarly, the gestures with which tools such as the knife, the tongs and the rasp should be handled must be extremely careful and guided by a great concentration and awareness. Being a layman, I was struck by this accuracy and by the delicacy with which I saw the participants work on the hooves during the practical training. “It’s a way quite different from the one to which we were accustomed,” Simone Cioni, from Bologna, said to me. “For example, the rasp should not be used on both sides of the hoof wall to level the hoof, as it was usual in the past. By following the functional limit, you must always use it on half of the hoof, with a spiral movement. You do not need to use more strength, but it is a gesture to which I am not still completely accustomed and that’s why I make more effort,” he added, wiping his sweaty forehead.

Anz recommends to always use a compass to check the measurements of the hoof

Anz recommends to always use a compass to check the measurements of the hoof

However, what really impressed me was the attention with which the participants have followed Anz’ theoretical explanations and practical demonstrations and the way they compete with each other in order to practice the new technique, under the guidance of the master. There were people coming from all over Italy: some from Milan, others from Bologna and many obviously from Rome and its surroundings. Domenico even came from Sicily. And everyone was asking questions, not only to Anz, but also to the most experienced and respected colleagues in the group. They were all exchanging opinions and jokes with each other, and they all gathered around the veterinarians, who checked the results obtained by applying the method with radiographs. So much so that at lunchtime I had to amicably complain because they did not even want to take a break to grab a bite!

The effects of the method Balance F were verified with radiographs  (from left) Ermanno Ciavarella, Gioacchino Ventura, Lorenzo d'Arpe, Ilaria Grossi

The effects of the method Balance F were verified with radiographs
(from left) Ermanno Ciavarella, Gioacchino Ventura, Lorenzo d’Arpe, Ilaria Grossi

(*) The quote is from one of Primo Levi’s most beautiful books of: The Wrench (USA), (The Monkey’s Wrench in the UK) (1978). [By clicking on the following link, you can access the page of Primo Levi Foundation’s website, dedicated to this beautiful novel:

GruppoDaniel AnzLorenzo d'Arpe e Franz ChiavelliMisurePiedeCarlo MontagnaFerriMarco Cappai e Lorenzo d'ArpeGioacchino Ventura



Horseback riding in the Middle Ages – Jordanus Rufus of Calabria

Miniature of an armed knight of Prato on horseback, attribution to Pacino di Buonaguida, from Convenevole da Prato, Regia Carmina, Italy, Central (Tuscany),
c. 1335-c. 1340

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Although the importance of the horse in the medieval European civilization is known and recognized, given it’s central function in the definition of the identity of the dominant classes and the prominent role that the cavalry held in the military until at least the fourteenth century, we unfortunately know little about the equestrian practices in the period from the classical era to the Renaissance. The so-called chivalric literature and chronicles handed down to us by memory, are often cloaked in the misty aura of myth, of innumerable deeds accomplished on horseback, but telling us little or nothing about how medieval knights rode their steeds and how they were tamed, trained and cared for. Yet, as noted by the French historian Nicolas Thouroude (Thouroude, 2007), at least with regard to the late medieval age documents, there is evidence of the existence of a ludic equitation which provided a refined training of the horse. This type of riding found it’s expression in tournaments and jousts which were to celebrate various events involving court rituals and real shows, in addition to combat, in which horses always had a leading role. The equestrian education of the young nobles was indeed considered essential. Ramon Llull in his Livre de l’ordre de chevalerie (1274-1276) recommended that gentlemen insist on instruction for their children on how to ride horses in their very early years, and that during their education, they should also be taught how to care for the animal.

Battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, from Grandes Chroniques de France
(Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève 782), c. 1274

In medieval times, we do not find texts which deal specifically with riding techniques. The theme of the care and breeding of the horse is often discussed in encyclopedic works, such as Geopónica (overall work about agronomy, compiled in Constantinople under the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, in the tenth century), or in the Liber de animalibus by Albert the Great (1206-1280), De rerum proprietatibus by Bartholomew de Glanville, called the English (XIII c.), or the Ruralium Commodorum libri XII (1304) by Pietro de’ Crescenzi (COCO – Gualdo, 2008).

Illustration from the Roman de Tristan
(Musée Condé MS 648, fol. 199r), 1440-1460

In this framework, there is a particular importance given to the treatise by Jordanus Rufus of Calabria, miles in marestalla (that is to say an officer of the second order in the imperial stud farm) in the court of Frederick II. Born around 1200, in Gerace or Monteleone di Calabria, he wrote a work transmitted through a manuscript tradition under various titles Mariscalcia equorumLiber de curis equorumCyrurgia equorum (Ruffo, 1999 e 2002). The text was certainly written in Latin, although there are different versions in the various languages: Tuscan, Sicilian, Catalan, Provençal, French and also in German. A Hebrew version has also been identified, which testifies to it’s widespread diffusion. The work is divided into six parts. The first four books are about breeding, feeding, reproduction, hygiene, taming and training, bits and shoeing, and the physical structure of the horse. The last two are devoted to describing diseases, which are divided into natural (Book V), and accidental (Book VI). It is to the latter that the bulk of the text is devoted: fifty-nine chapters, covering various diseases and their treatment. The chapters devoted to taming and training are quite basic, but they give an idea of the equestrian practices of the time and contain precepts that will be found again in later works (some of which are still in use today).

Henry I battles his enemies, Grandes chroniques de France
(Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève 783, fol. 177v), 14th-15th century

Rufus recommends to keep the horse tethered in the stable, in order to prevent him from hurting his limbs, and to prepare for the night, a straw litter up to his knees. There are also dietetic prescriptions to keep the horse neither too thin, nor too fat. It is also suggested to water him with turbid water, because it is considered more “nutritious” («ideoque efficientur equorum corporibus nutribiliores refectiores ad plenum»). The author advises against riding in the evening because, in the cooler hours of the night, it is more difficult for the sweat dry completely before the animal is brought back to the stable. Similarly, he warns against riding in the hottest months of summer, or in the coldest of winter. Shoeing must be done with light steel horseshoes, but he recommends not to shoe the horse when he is too young, in order to avoid damaging his hooves.

Tournament of the Chastel of Brut,
from Romance of the Round Table
(BNF Fr. 112(1), fol. 181v), c. 1470

At the beginning of the training, Rufus recommends to use the lightest bit possible («frenum debile et levius»), making sure to smear it with honey or some other sweet syrup, to make it more pleasant to the horse. Once harnessed, the horse must be led by hand by a groom until he has learned to follow him obediently. Only then he can be mounted, without saddle or spurs, and accustomed to turn to the left and to the right. After about a month he can be mounted with the saddle and trained gradually to trot on plowed soil, so that he learns to raise his feet well. It is also recommended to train him to turn especially to the right because, it is said, horses naturally tend to turn more easily to the left («quod equus est naturaliter pronior a sinistris»). Once trained to trot, the horse can be ridden at the canter, but keeping a collected gait  («in minore et breviore saltu») and only for short distances, to avoid tiring him. He also recommends, both at the trot and at the canter, to keep contact with the bit, and to bend progressively the horse’s neck, in order to control him better and to let him see where he places his hooves. To accustom him to noise and to crowds, Rufus suggests to often ride the horse inside the city, especially in noisy places (for example, near the forges of the blacksmiths), taking care not to punish him if he is initially scared and unwilling, rather gently encouraging him («blandendo ducatur»), in order to prevent that he will later associate noise and movement with punishment,.

Frontispiece of the French edition of Lorenzo Rusio’s Hippiatria sive Marescalia (Parigi, Christianum Wechelum, 1532). This later work was significantly influenced by Jordanus Rufus’s treatise

Nevertheless, there are also suggestions that today make us shudder. According to Rufus, when the horse has attained his full adult dentition, his four canine teeth (scaglioni) must be pulled out, because they are considered adverse to the mouthpiece («a pluribus nuncupantur freni morsui continui adversantes»). According to the author, this operation would also have the advantage of keeping the horse from getting too fat and, if he is wild, to appease his ardent character. The bit to be used with the colt is the one that, in later periods, will be called “cannon”, consisting of two transversal bars and one in width «ad duas barras extransverso et una per longum composita est»). The author then mentions other stronger bits, with twisted or grooved mouthpieces, or with a shovel that acts on the palate, but he advises not to use them because he considers them too strong and, for this reason, he does not give much attention to them. He stresses that, once the right mouthpiece for the sensibility of the animal is found, it must not be changed with others of different shape, so as to not ruin the horse’s mouth. The horse must be trained to stop and to respect the bit before working him at a faster pace. The canter must be practiced progressively for longer distances, without abuse, to prevent the horse from getting too tired and becoming resistant. Similarly, he must be urged forward frequently to avoid that he becomes lazy.

Horse’s anathomy, from Carlo Ruini, Anatomia del cavallo infermità et suoi rimedii, in Bologna, presso gli heredi di Gio. Rossi, 1598

Rufus’s text had a wide diffusion and has had considerable influence on the chapters devoted to the cure of the horse by Pietro de’ Crescenzi and on the subsequent treatises about the art of farriery1 by Lorenzo Rusio (about 1340) and by the Florentine Dino Dini (1352-1359), up to the Anatomia del cavallo infermita et suoi rimedii ((Anatomy of the horse his infirmity et remedies, 1598), the work of the Renaissance precursor of veterinary medicine Carlo Ruini. 1 It’s important to notice that, at the time, the farrier was not only the horseshoer, but also the veterinarian.


AA.VV. 2011  Cavalli e cavalieri. Guerra, gioco, finzione, edited by F. Cardini and L. Mantelli, Ospedaletto-Pisa.

COCO, Alessandra – GUALDO, Riccardo 2008 Cortesia e cavalleria, la tradizione ippiatrica in volgare nelle corti italiane tra Trecento e Quattrocento, in I saperi nelle corti. Knowledge at the courts, Firenze, Sismel-Edizioni del Galluzzo, (Micrologus XVI), pp. 125-152.

GUALDO, Riccardo 2005  Ippiatria in Enciclopedia Federiciana, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana, Vol.  II, pp. 81-86.

LULLO,Raimondo 1994  Libro dell’Ordine della Cavalleria. Italian edition with Catalan parallel text, edited by G. Allegra, Carmagnola, Arktos Edizioni.

RUFFO, Giordano 1999  Nelle scuderie di Federico II imperatore, ovvero L’arte di curare il cavallo, edited by M.A. Causati Vanni, Editrice Vela, Velletri. 2002

Libro della mascalcia, edited by P.Crupi, Soveria Mannelli, Rubettino Editore.

THOUROUDE, Nicolas 2007  Les prémices d’une equitation ludique à l’aube de l’epoque modern (XIVe -XVe siècle), in AA.VV., À cheval! Ècuyers, amazones & cavaliers du XIVe au XXIe siècle, edited by D. Roche and D. Reytier, Paris, Association pour l’académie équestre de Versailles, pp. 33- 47.

You may find a remarkable collection of links to pictures about the Medieval and Reinassance material culture on Larsdatter.com