PITTSBURGH - Debi Gurdock was surprised how still and silent the mustang was as she trimmed his front feet. She walked around to the back, placed a foot between her legs - and it happened.
"I flew like Superman. I was still hanging on and he shot me like a slingshot. I hit the barn door 20 feet away. My shoulder hurt for a week!"
Such is the life of a farrier, one who practices the ancient art of horseshoeing.
Debi, 50, was in her early 30s and fairly new on the job when she had her run-in with that wild horse. He had been rounded up just three months earlier out west and was to be bred with some local mares.
"I don't think he felt bad," she says, laughing. "The owner felt bad. He called me to trim him again and I said, 'Nope.' "
These days, the Ford City, Pa., farrier doesn't have to take on mustangs or other ornery horses just to make a buck. She has enough regular customers in and around Ford City, and she doesn't set foot in another farrier's territory.
"Nobody tries to steal work from anybody," Debi says. "If someone calls me from somewhere else, I say 'Let me give you this guy's number.' I don't like to step on other people's toes."
What about her toes? Don't her four-legged clients sometimes misstep?
"All the time. That's why I wear steel-toed shoes!" she says.
They're mandatory equipment, along with leather farrier's chaps. She had to have hers modified to fit her 5-foot, 1-inch frame. "I needed a shorter waist and the pockets in different places."
Women account for fewer than 1 in 10 working farriers, but not because they can't handle the work. "It's physically demanding, especially in summertime. You have to be in decent shape."
The hard part is overcoming horse owners' expectations.
"People see me coming and say, 'You're gonna shoe that horse?' and I'm, like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna shoe that horse.' "
Trying to build a reputation and client base is difficult for any farrier, but especially for women. It helps that about 70% of the owners she works for are women. Horses seem to be comfortable with her, too. They can sense if you're nervous or unsure, Debi says, and she can recognize when a horse is not in the mood.
Yearling colts and mini horses can be as rambunctious as a kid getting new shoes, she says, and pregnant mares are no walk in a park.
Spring is usually her busiest time, with hooves growing fast and people starting to ride more. Horseshoeing is considered an essential agricultural business, and horse farms that provide harness racers to The Meadows and other tracks have been calling. But COVID-19 has made some horse owners skittish.
"They're social distancing and they don't want me around. Sometimes they stand 10 feet away and watch. It's kinda weird."
Debi never considered being a farrier as a kid growing up in Bayville, N.J. But this "barn rat" wanted to do something with horses. She got her first one when she was 12. She has had as many as five horses but now has just one, Monty, 17.
When she was in her early 20s, Debi put aside her childhood dreams and took an IT job with a utility in New Jersey. She could have found a similar job when she moved to southwestern Pennsylvania in 2002, but decided to try a new career track.
"I would sit in a cubicle and stare out the window or at the clock," she says. "I have no regrets. My worst day is probably better than most people's best day at work."
To make sure she was suited to the work, Debi apprenticed with a veteran farrier in Florida. Then she signed up for training with Glace Rider, who runs the Pennsylvania Institute for Horseshoeing near State College. For nine weeks, Debi rode with him and learned how to trim hooves, rework shoes and treat laminitis and other foot problems. He told her she would make two mistakes, but only once.
"If you miss the shoe, the hammer bounces off the anvil and clonks you on the head," she says.
The other mistake has to do with a bevel on one side of the special nails used to attach horseshoes. If it faces the wrong way, the nail could bend and cause the horse pain. The one time Debi did it, she realized her mistake immediately and never did it again.
A good farrier knows how to drive nails only into the narrow white band on the hoof where a horse feels nothing.
Monty doesn't need horseshoes because he runs only on Debi's 15 grassy acres and the 50-acre horse park next door. He is a Paso Fino, a Puerto Rican breed famous for its gait. Debi showed me a video of one whose feet were a blur but he was hardly going anywhere, like a person running in place. She hasn't worked with Monty, so he doesn't do it very well anymore. But she loves him anyway.
"He is so sweet and kind and fun to ride. He is my favorite," she says.
Visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at www.post-gazette.com