In a small, cinderblock building just a mile west of campus, 10 MSU students are learning a rigorous hands-on trade that blends science, skill and intuition. The work is physical and sometimes dirty. Extreme heat and cold are common. The roar of forges and hammers on anvils drown out casual conversation, and if it weren't for the Carhartts and T-shirts, the scene could be from pioneer days.
These students are here -- as they will be all day, every day for the next three months -- with a singular dedication: they want to learn to shoe. And MSU's Horseshoeing School, affiliated with the MSU College of Agriculture, has built a reputation as one of the best programs in the country.
These students come with a multitude of motivations, though most want to make a career out of this trade. Horseshoers can make a decent living and are in high demand. No machine exists that can replace a farrier's interaction with the horse.
"It's usually just a dirty old foot in front of us," said Tom Wolfe, the instructor for the last 25 years and de facto personality of the MSU Horseshoeing School.
The farrier's job has changed little in 100 years: Balance the horse and help its legs bear weight evenly by trimming each foot. Like people, no horse has perfect posture, and the farrier must understand equine anatomy in order to evaluate the horse's legs and feet: Has the horse been injured? Does one foot flare to the side? Is it a working horse? A show horse? Or put out to pasture for months at a time?
And like a human with ill-fitting shoes, a trimming mistake can cause lameness or keep an injury from healing properly.
If a horse needs shoes, the farrier acts as blacksmith, heating an "out of the box" preformed shoe to 2,000 degrees in the forge or bending steel to create a custom shoe. It's physically demanding: hammering hot metal on an anvil, then lifting and supporting the horse's leg and bending over double to measure the shoe against the foot. Then it's back to the forge and anvil to reshape, re-measure, reshape.
The farrier attaches the shoe by nailing it to the thin "white line." This quarter-inch-wide band separates the hoof wall, which is non- living like a toenail, from the sensitive living laminae, which is tender and will bleed. These are tiny nails in tiny holes on a 1,000- pound creature who might object.
The work can be nerve-wracking and physical, but these aspiring shoers talk about their craft with conviction. Some aspire to run their own businesses, others want a ranch manager position. Surprisingly, about a third of each class comes with no significant horse experience.
MSU Horseshoeing School students have plenty of horses to work on -- partially due to the area's numerous guest ranches.
That's no problem for Wolfe, who wasn't raised around horses, either. After graduating from the University of New Mexico in political science, Wolfe said he started hanging around a guy who shoed -- enough so that he took an interest in learning the skill himself. Wolfe apprenticed, took some courses and eventually opened his own business, which he ran for 12 years before coming to MSU in 1983.
"I had no background in horses at all," said Wolfe. "So when people come in with no experience and they're nervous, I can empathize. I tell them, 'Don't worry.'"
Like Wolfe, a number of MSU students come by shoeing in a roundabout fashion. There was the lobsterman from Maine who decided he needed a few months away from the perpetually rocking boat. A former student from Hawaii told Wolfe he was the chauffeur to the last living princess of the Hawaiian royal family, and that she'd promised to pay for any vacation he chose. He picked attending horseshoeing school.
Wolfe said the MSU program is long enough and rigorous enough that any student who completes it will have the hand-eye skill to shoe. However, said Wolfe, a truly successful farrier -- one who knows the art as well as the science -- is one with "horse sense," the ability to read and anticipate a horse's behavior and movements.
"Especially when you're going to crawl underneath them," said Wolfe.
Kat Sweet, a current student from Three Forks, is what they call a born horse person. Raised in Texas, Sweet said her mom was terrified of horses, but the family lived down the street from a boarding operation, and Sweet found every opportunity to ride. She was a high school rodeoer and worked for a farrier some 20 years ago, but put that career on hold while raising three children. Sweet said shoeing came up again when she and her husband had trouble finding a reliable farrier for their six horses.
"My husband said it's cheaper for us just to send me to school," she said.
Like many students, Sweet said the farrier lifestyle is also a draw -- working with horses, understanding their needs. She said a bonus is "getting to know the other people and what led them to be here."
Another current student, Bill Lawrence, 55, from Moose Pass, Alaska, said he and a friend were lined up to attend the school's second-ever class, back in 1971. His friend had money for tuition; Lawrence didn't. And throughout a lifetime of working with horses, he always regretted not going.
"I was around a lot of horses that I always knew I could help, if only I had the training," said Lawrence.
Thirty-seven years later, Lawrence made the journey to MSU from Alaska, where he makes his living as an artist. He sees shoeing as a nice complement to painting.
"You're only good for painting so many hours a day," he said.
"I was tired and burned out on regular school," he said, "and I still had a long ways to go. I've ridden all my life. I appreciate good feet, and this sounded right up my alley. You're working hard and working outdoors." Stuart said he knows plenty of farriers back in Kentucky and Virginia who have all the work they want and make a good paycheck, too. The national average income for a full-time farrier is about $79,000 gross, but that does not take into account the expenses of running the business, estimated at 40 percent, or the region of the country. Also, many farriers work part-time.
As Stuart said, "Worst case, it's a hell of a thing to know how to do."
Stuart said he chose MSU's school over others because he wanted a rigorous program, not a short course. Despite the hard work, he said, the school has been "like one big vacation."
Wolfe estimates there are about 40 similar horseshoeing programs in the U.S., many private, some associated with community colleges. Only one other four-year university, Cornell, offers a program like MSU's.
MSU's is well-known for its reputation and longevity. The original Montana Agricultural College taught blacksmithing in the 1800s, but when the automobile replaced horses as primary transportation in the early 20th century, the courses were discontinued. In the 1950s, when the horse population resurged, MSU considered bringing the program back.
After a trial run in 1970, the school was officially started in 1971 by Bob Miller (after whom MSU's horse pavilion is named) and Jack Catlin, a local veterinarian, along with others from the College of Agriculture. Classes were first held at the old pea cannery near Oak Street in Bozeman. The first instructor was Scott Simpson. The second -- and only other -- is Wolfe.
MSU's school caters to those who want to shoe for a living. A typical day includes an hour of classroom time before working the rest of the day on horses. Some students trim, others practice their metalwork on the forge. Sometimes the class visits a veterinarian or travels to a location offsite.
The horseshoeing school is affiliated with MSU's College of Agriculture, but is completely self-supporting, down to the instructor's salary, overhead and supplies. Tuition for the 11-week program is $2,795. Students do not earn a degree or license -- it's not required of a farrier -- though Wolfe said many of his students go on to become voluntarily licensed through the American Farriers Association.
The school's most famous alumnus is likely former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., who attended in 1976. Many of Chafee's online biographies list MSU Horsehoeing School right alongside his degree in classics from Brown University.
Wolfe said MSU's school benefits from the College of Agriculture's veterinarians, as well as relationships with local vets that he has cultivated over the years.
"The school emphasizes lots of lameness things and would bring in a vet every Monday. I really wanted that," said Steve Fontanini, 50, who attended the school in 1985 and is now an artist and blacksmith in Jackson, Wyo.
MSU's location is ideal for a horseshoeing school -- "a good horse anything school," said Wolfe -- with access to an ample population of horses. (Wolfe estimates Gallatin County has an astounding 32,000, or about one horse for every two residents.) Students also tend to the university's herd, as well as horses from Yellowstone Park and local guest ranches.
"Horses are a big part of the agricultural community," said Wolfe. "The school fits well here in the old sense of the Land Grant university."
"The school adds value, is high-quality and complements existing programs," said College of Agriculture Dean Jeff Jacobsen. "The horseshoeing school supports our Land Grant mission to provide education and training in agricultural fields. And with students from around the world, it does wonders for our reputation. It's working very well, and it just feels right."
Wolfe said the school's demographics have changed little in his 25 years of teaching; the average age has remained steady at 31. The youngest-ever student was 17; the oldest, a retired dairy farmer from New York, was 68. About 30 percent are women, up from 15 percent in the early days. Just one in 10 students is from Montana.
A map on the classroom wall shows students from across the globe: South Africa, Italy, England, Chile, Japan, Australia. The school's national and international reputation leads to continuously full classes. The school accepts 10 students into each of its three yearly sessions, and Wolfe said only three classes in the school's history haven't been full.
Much of that credit goes to Wolfe, whom students say brings that rare combination of professional expertise and the ability to share it with others.
"He's the nicest, coolest guy," said Stuart, the student from Virginia. "He knows so much stuff.he knows tons about shoeing horses and about horses in general. He knows stuff that 80 to 90 percent of farriers don't know."
Carl Jolliff, a professional farrier in Bozeman, attended the school in 1988. As a local, Jolliff said MSU's school seemed an obvious choice, but he also based his decision on many recommendations for the program.
Jolliff originally signed up because he wanted to learn to shoe his own horses, but ended up making it his career.
"Tom is a great teacher," said Jolliff. "He took me from knowing nothing to the point where I could run my own business."
Fontanini concurred, crediting Wolfe with teaching him the skills he uses in his own business, Steve Fontanini Blacksmith, as well as how to be a good teacher himself.
"Tom is friendly and funny and enjoys what he's doing," said Fontanini. "He talks about it, then leaves you alone to let you do it."
Fontanini said that as a student, he enjoyed the MSU program so much that he would often stay working at the forge until 9 or 10 at night, ordering pizza delivered to the barn.
Brigitte Malessa traveled from Colorado to attend the school in 1999. Now working full-time as a professional farrier in Denton, Colo., she said, "(Choosing MSU) was one of my best decisions so far, and I would do it 10 times over. The course is the perfect blend of classroom time, forgework time and actual shoeing time, all of which are vital.
"Even 10 years later, I am confident that MSU's program -- mainly because of Tom -- was the best start I could have made as a farrier.
Instructor Tom Wolfe teaches students of the MSU Horseshoeing School how to sharpen the files used on horses' hooves.
"His vast knowledge of, and experience in, farriery and forgework make him a natural teacher," added Malessa. "His lectures were packed full of information, but also chock-full of fun, anecdotal examples that made things stick. I have been exposed to some incredible clinicians since leaving MSU, but still never inspired in the same way that Tom inspired me."
That Wolfe is a natural teacher seems obvious, even to a casual observer. He treats the students with warmth and respect, and genuinely delights in their accomplishments.
"It's hard for all of them at first," said Wolfe. "No matter how much experience they have, it can be frustrating for them, and frustrating for me. But, without exception, they get thrilled when it all comes together. The joy is almost childlike, and seeing that come together is still really exciting. It's why I keep coming back."