Meet Paul Heller, the man who makes sure every horse puts its best hoof forward


Pound Ridge resident Paul Heller has been shoeing horses for nearly half a century. (Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo)

It might have been the clip clop. The unmistakable sound of horse hooves crossing over a wooden bridge at the dude ranch the Heller family visited for one week every summer in the 1960’s and ‘70s.

Clip clop.

Clip clop.

That sound, of forged metal striking wood, was so distinct from what Paul Heller heard in his daily life. As a kid growing up in suburban Larchmont, New York, Heller was accustomed to hearing car horns honking, buses sighing and the Metro-North train blaring its horn as it stopped to pick up passengers en route to New York City.

The son of a lawyer and a certified public accountant from suburban New York City was never supposed to grow up to be a horse farrier. But with each successive summer that the Hellers spent their annual week out west, Paul Heller’s passion for horses grew.

Heller is now 45 years into a career as a farrier. He has built a life and a livelihood caring for horse hooves, the distinct and vital part of a horse that made an imprint on Heller’s soul so many decades ago.

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

Stepping into a calling

As Paul Heller drew near the end of his high school career, he knew that college was not in his future. “School wasn’t for me,” he said with a shrug and a smile. The way Heller saw it, he could earn a living pursuing one of his two passions: horses or skiing. He decided he would eventually become a horse trainer, with plans to someday move out west where the ‘real’ horses were. But first, he figured he’d start out shoeing horses. According to Heller, “it’s a trade that you do if you’re not good in school.”

In the United States, a professional certification is not required to become a horse farrier; farriers can simply buy tools and go to work shaping and fitting horseshoes, though Heller, who holds a certification from the International Association of Professional Farriers, wouldn’t advise it. “Farriers are all about hoof function,” Heller explained. “And the horse’s hoof is a very complex structure.”

“No foot, no horse”

The old saying, “no foot, no horse” refers to the critical role that the hoof plays in a horse’s well-being. Horses, Heller said, are “probably the most delicate animals out there. There are so many things that can go wrong with them.” Horses’ heels are susceptible to dryness, cracking and sores. Fungal infections can destroy the ‘frog,’ or the interior of the hoof. Laminitis can inflame the tissue between the bone and hoof wall. When a horse’s hooves aren’t healthy, it cannot compete, ride, or even exist comfortably. Farriers are often the first line of defense in keeping horse hooves healthy and functional, and in spotting issues before they become full-blown medical emergencies.

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

The American Farrier’s Association, an industry group, offers a certification program for entry level through experienced farriers. Candidates who pass the AFA Certified Farrier Examination are designated capable of maintaining “the highest standards of workmanship and professionalism.” The Association hosts an annual convention which includes a competition in which farriers compete to forge a full set of horse shoes to a certain standard of quality within an allotted time period.

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

Horse shoeing requires its practitioners to be as comfortable operating a forge, anvil, drill press and grinder as they are being still, calm and gentle, connecting emotionally with the horses in their care. For horses, getting shod is the human equivalent of a dentist visit; they tolerate it. To shoe a horse, a good farrier must, above all, gain the horse’s trust.

“You have to have the attitude that every horse is going to kill you,” Heller said. “The times I’ve gotten hurt working under horses are the times that I’ve gotten complacent.” Every time Heller approaches a horse, no matter how long he has known it, he keeps in the back of his mind that he could potentially scare the horse. An accident with an animal the size of a horse, which can weigh upwards of a half ton, could be deadly.

“There are certain ways to act,” Heller said. “I can walk in a barn and look at a horse and know what he’s going to do.” Heller’s intuition comes from decades of experience. Early in his career, he cared for up to 400 horses at a time, leading a team of two other farriers. As his reputation and work quality grew, he focused on a smaller client list. Today, Heller services around 100 horses, a mix of ‘backyard barn’ horses and those belonging to large commercial barns involved in the competition circuit.

Heller's dog helps him inspect the equipment. (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

Heller’s son Kyle recently began working alongside him a few days a week as an apprentice. “We have a great relationship; we’re horse people,” Heller said. In fact, Heller’s entire family are ‘horse people.’ Heller’s wife is Katharine Burdsall, an award-winning equestrian who competed as an alternate on the 1986 U.S. Olympic team and won the 1986 and 1987 World Championships in show jumping riding famed horse The Natural. Their daughter, Melanie, works at Beval Saddlery in Cross River.

Paul Heller and his son, Kyle, work out of Heller's custom farrier's truck this spring. (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

Life as a farrier

“Farriers travel everywhere for their clients,” Heller said. “If you’re not there when there are problems, somebody else steps in and takes the clientele.” During the winter, Heller regularly commutes to Wellington, Florida, where many of his clients take their horses when the weather in the Northeast gets cold. Each December, he drives one of his two custom-outfitted trucks, which operate as mobile machine shops, to Florida so that he’ll be stocked and ready to service clients as needed.

Hooves are fingernails, and as they grow they need to be shod because the hoof gets too long. “A lot of times we use the same shoes,” Heller said. “We take the shoe off, trim the hoof, and put the shoe back on.”

Whether he’s working here in New York or in Florida, Heller arrives at each client’s property prepared to trim hooves, reshape horse shoes or make new shoes from scratch, depending on their needs. From his rig, Heller has everything he needs to care for any kind of horse - from show horses who need to be shod every 4 to 5 weeks to non-competitive horses who can go up to six weeks at a time between farrier services.

A typical day for Heller starts around 8:30 in the morning when his helper arrives. The pair make sure that the truck is stocked before heading out around 9:00 a.m. In the New York metropolitan area, they travel from barns in Brewster and Carmel to commercial estates throughout North Salem, Bedford and Heller’s own town of Pound Ridge.

“If you want to make a living in the horse business, you need to be near a metropolitan area, “Heller said. Prices for horseshoeing services range from $200 - $500 per visit. At the larger barns, Heller’s team will service several horses in one day, working as a finely attuned team in which one person works on a horse while the other person preps the next for its turn.

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

When the Fix came in

The relationship between a horse and a farrier is critical to the horse’s well-being.  When horses walk, run, or jump, all of that activity, that force, is happening on their fingernails. Farriers are the first line of defense in addressing common horse hoof problems such as sore feet, thrush, cracks and other diseases that afflict horse feet.

Years ago, a former apprentice of Heller’s shared with him a Canadian-made formula designed to treat those common hoof ailments. Heller started using it and then began adapting the formula to better suit the needs of the horses under his care. Before long, he was mixing up batches of his special blend in his garage and selling it to his clients.

Farriers' Fix is made from venice turpentine, cod liver oil, wintergreen oil and safflower oil. (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

In 2009, Farriers' Fix was born. The all natural oil is a therapeutic, topical treatment designed for hoof maintenance and for treating common hoof issues. Farrier’s Fix quickly took off among fellow farriers, trainers and riders. One rider calls the product, “the best money you ever spent for the health and happiness of your horse.” The product is sold in boutiques, saddlery and tack shops across the country.

The equine dream team

In his work, Heller spends a lot of time communicating with horse trainers, barn managers and veterinarians. “The trainers and barn managers are in charge,” he said. “I can talk with them, know what the horse’s program is, and whether the horse is having any problems.” All of these individuals play a critical role in the health and well being of a horse. Heller acknowledged that farriers and vets can sometimes be at odds with one another. “We’re coming from two different worlds,” he explained. “Vets are trying to protect everything above the hoof; farriers are all about the hoof function.”

Heller has worked to help improve the dynamic between farriers and vets. He previously was involved in a committee working to improve farrier-vet communication. “Horse, Vet & Farrier,” an online magazine published by the Northeast Association of Equine Practitioners, exists to provide practical education so that vets and farriers can work more collaboratively with one another.

Heller never did end up becoming a horse trainer. Instead, over all these years, he stayed focused on establishing himself as one of the best farriers around. He’s the guy who owners, trainers, managers and yes, even vets, call when they want to ensure the very best level of hoof care for their prized and precious animals.

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

“It’s amazing what horses do for people,” Heller said.

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