We've talked a lot about the importance of veterinarians and veterinary officials in keeping the Olympic horses healthy and safe. But as every horse owner knows, there's another member of the horse-care team who's equally important: the farrier.
There are farriers at the Olympic Games (like the official farrier at a horse show); but as with veterinarians, many nations choose to send their own hoof-care experts with their equestrian teams. Since the late 1990s, the Team USA pros have been from the well-known farrier group Chester County Farrier Associates, based in horse-centric Unionville, Pa.
CCFA partner Steve Teichman was the first to get involved, shoeing the U.S. event horses. Since 2003 he's been joined at major international championships by his CCFA colleague Todd Meister, 44. Meister's first U.S. Equestrian Team assignment was the 2003 Pan American Games in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Meister served at the 2004 Athens Olympics and at the 2008 Hong Kong Olympics; and after Teichman completes his duties for the U.S. eventing squad in London, Meister will fly over to take over at the anvil for the jumpers and the dressage horses at the 2012 London Olympics. TheHorse.com asked Meister to describe the duties and responsibilities of a team farrier.
As is the case with the U.S. Olympic team veterinarians, team farriers are hired and paid by the U.S. equestrian national governing body, the United States Equestrian Federation.
"It's kind of donating your time," says Meister. Team vets and farriers receive a daily stipend (the International Equestrian Federation [FEI] suggested rate is 200 euros per day), but "the amount of money that vets and farriers get paid versus what we could make at home" -- well, let's just say these professionals don't take the gigs for the money. And although the USEF covers airfare and lodging, they're on their own for meals.
A Team Farrier's Job
"It's a very specific job: make sure that, once the team is named, the horses get through," said Meister, referring to the veterinary horse inspections and then to the competitions themselves. "Sometimes it's minor maintenance; sometimes it's major. It can be as simple as [replacing] a lost shoe or as complicated as a foot-related lameness."
Meister is uniquely qualified for the position: an American Farrier's Association certified journeyman farrier (CJF), he's also a veterinarian, holding a VMD from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. He practiced as a veterinarian before focusing on farriery, and he brings his knowledge of equine anatomy and biomechanics, among others, to his farriery practice.
Meister is quick to add, however, that his veterinary expertise does not supplant that of the official team veterinarians.
"The team vet has more responsibility than I do, and ultimately I defer to them," he said.
"My job isn't to change it [the way a horse is shod]; my job is to maintain it," Meister said of his duties. "It's not to tell anybody what's wrong [with a shoeing job], although I'll offer an opinion if asked."
(Here's one of Meister's opinions: Although the farrier of an Olympic horse must be doing something right, Meister doesn't necessarily think every horse he sees in high-level competition has a grade-A trimming and shoeing job.)
Taking One for the Team
Meister and his colleagues are dedicated to the cause of helping the U.S. equestrian teams attain peak performance, and that can mean doing whatever's necessary.
"I'm the farrier. I [also] might be the chauffeur. I might be the tack-trunk mover. We're there for the team," Meister said.
There's a lot of equipment to move. Packed away with the USET-logoed tack trunks at USET Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., is an entire farrier forge setup, and the whole enchilada ships to Olympic Games and other such competitions, Meister said.
The travel, too, can be demanding. "We have to hire people to fill in for our regular clients while I'm gone. It's hard to leave your local clientele for ten days." And that's assuming no Olympic horse needs Meister's services before July 31, when he's scheduled to leave for London. If a team horse needs farrier care before that date, then yes, Meister will probably be making an impromptu flight to England.
It can be particularly tough for Meister, who's married with two children, ages six and seven. He clearly enjoys and is proud of his contributions to the USET, but he wouldn't speculate as to whether there will be another Olympic Games in his future. But he says he's grateful for the travel opportunities the team-farrier position has afforded him, particularly in regards to expanding his world view.
His most memorable experience, Meister said, was in Santo Domingo for the 2003 Pan Am Games -- a trip he recalls as sobering for the exposure to "essentially a third-world country."
"My kids are going to see this before they're 30," Meister said, referring to the reminder that we in the U.S. have tremendous advantages compared to so many others.
A Farrier's Philosophy
"Shoeing is like riding: You have to have good basics," said Meister. (No, he's not a rider, but he's an animal lover who's married to a rider.)
"I treat all the horses the same, whether it's at the Olympics or in someone's back yard," he said.