Bending over a forge and stooping to trim hooves takes its toll on the body. Rambunctious or ill-mannered horses add to the risk for injury. Ironically, world renowned farrier Steve Kraus says that after 50 years of caring for horse’s feet, it’s just his own feet that are failing him. The certified journeyman farrier had the unlikeliest of starts in the field. The senior lecturer and Head of Farrier Services, at Cornell University grew up a few blocks from the original Yankees Stadium in the Bronx. A black and white television inspired his interest in horsesthanks to the 1950s primetime line-up featured Gunsmoke, Hop A Long Cassidy, the Roy Rogers Show and others. He caught every episode possible and longed to imitate his cowboy heroes. His grandparents owned a summer house on Rocky Point along the north shore of Long Island and a nearby riding stable offered ample riding opportunities.
“Almost every Saturday morning I got to ride a pony for 25 cents,” he says. “My father had ridden horses in his younger days so as I became more confident, he suggested we go out on a trail ride.”
That first trail ride could have been his last. About a quarter mile out, the horse hightailed it back to the barn, dumping him along the way. Rather than scaring the then 6-year-old, the episode fueled his desire to ride. A few years later he attended his first overnight summer camp, Camp Huskee, owned by the Hartung family.
Located outside of Binghamton, New York the camp was surrounded by steep green hills - a sharp contrast from the miles of grey concrete sidewalks and manicured block-sized city parks in Steve’s childhood neighborhood. He repeated the journey for eleven summers, but never could have predicted the experience would inspire his career.
“It has always amazed me how a quirk of fate can send your life in a certain direction,” he says. “When I caught my first glimpse of the camp, I had no idea the influence it would have on my life.”
“I knew horses wore shoes and I knew a blacksmith put them on, but I had never seen it,” Steve reminisces. “I decided to insert myself into this process without a second thought. Originally, it was part of my quest to be a well-rounded horseman, I really did not know this would become an obsession.”
Because shoeing was dangerous, he wasn’t allowed to get too involved as a camper. But he learned how to pull shoes and pestered the farrier with endless questions. With each passing summer he became part of the Hartung family who gave him increasing responsibility, which culminated with trimming and shoeing the camps nearly 30 horses alongside Chris Hartung.
“We learned on the job how to shoe,” says Hartung. His parents owned the camp and decided that instead of paying a blacksmith, Chris would take over the job. “Like anything it was a lot of trial and error at first.”
The riding string had its share of easy-going horses that were a breeze to work on and that was balanced with resistant horses that had to be convinced to cooperate. In 1965, Chris decided Steve was ready to shoe his first horse.
“We had a gentle mare named Maverick that was to be my first go,” Steve says. “I do not recall how well the job was completed, but I do remember how my legs shook. If anyone had told me then that I would become an internationally known farrier and educator, I would have questioned their sanity.”
That first job gave Steve the confidence to pursue the craft. With every subsequent trim and shoe he became increasingly more proficient and experimented with shaping shoes to best support each horse’s conformation faults.
“Steve took it to the next level. He got into making custom made shoes for draft horses and racehorses and his career took off from there,” Chris says. He’s got an incredible amount of energy and dedication to the profession.”
When Steve picked up his first set of nippers, he had to make do with what was available. The original Camp Huskee farrier used a piece of modified railroad track as an anvil. World War II had decimated the blacksmithing trade. After the United States Calvary stopped using horses and motorized vehicles replaced four-legged horsepower in society, horseshoes and farrier tools were more valuable as scrap to produce armor for the military.
“Horseshoes and anvils were sent by the railcar full to be melted down for armor,” Steve explains. “After the war we were using left over Heller pull offs, clinchers, and steel handled knives. The hoof nippers were something used for cows and we had a heavy ball pein hammer for shaping.”
He was more than “making do” with the antiquated tools available at the time. He developed a lucrative horseshoeing business while he
was a student - first at Farmingdale State College and then at Cornell University - where he studied Animal Science with a focus on beef cattle. At Cornell he discovered the farrier shop attached to the University’s veterinary medicine school.
“I had been shoeing on my own for several years and mastered some very rough horses. I thought I knew a great deal about shoeing,” he says. “When I walked into that shop, saw the beautiful horseshoe collection, forges and Harold (Mowers), I knew I was kidding myself about my knowledge.”
He visited Harold often, asking as many questions as he could. But he was attending Cornell for livestock management, which nearly took him away from working as a farrier. A relative had bought land down south to begin a cattle operation and asked Steve to run it. His father advised against it.
“That was saying a lot because my father wasn’t keen on horseshoeing,” Steve says. “But my dad was a B25 pilot who flew the China-India-Burma Hump and wanted to be an aero engineer after the war. His father told him no, that he was going to work in his garment business.”
“The polo and lesson horses, over the years became very valuable to me,” he says. “Many of these horses were donated and came with problems and injuries from their prior work. I was able to learn from them through being able to experiment with different shoeing solutions, without having to deal with a nervous owner.”
Following through with farrier work gave him a career he loved, but also saved his life, he says.
“I gave up my student deferment during the height of the Vietnam War to take my chances with the new lottery,” he says. “My lottery number was 228. As the Army began running through the numbers, I decided it would be better to join the Marines. I got the paper work started but did not get done shoeing early enough to turn it in. That following Monday, that round of drafts ended at 195, so I didn’t need to join anyway.”
BECOMING THE “MUSTAD MAN”
After graduation, Steve shod horses full time, competed in farrier competitions along the East coast and opened a farrier supply shop in 1975. In early November of 1976 Doug Butler asked him to attend a meeting with executives from the Mustad Horse Nail Company, from Sweden. Mustad was little known to American farriers at the time, even though the company dominated the markets almost everywhere else. However, Mustad was a well-known brand to American fishermen, being the largest manufacturer and distributor of fishhooks in the U.S. Their distribution center for this was in Auburn, NY, 30 miles north of Ithaca, Steve says. It was an obvious choice to seek advice close by at Cornell. The fishhook people in Auburn knew nothing about horses, horseshoes, or the nails that they were supposed to be selling.
“I decided the Mustad nail had potential, if some changes could be made,” he says.
Over the next few years, Steve became an ambassador for Mustad, introducing their nails and gathering input on how to improve the product. During this time, he realized Mustad could develop a nail style that was unavailable, but would be useful especially for thinner walled Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses.
Mustad was manufacturing a 4 1⁄2 City Head with a slimmer shank, but the smaller head was too loose in the standard shoes. Most average sized shoes made in the United States in the late 70s were punched for a size 5 City Head. A nail that fit standard punching, but had a slimmer shank would be helpful.
“I proposed a new nail with a 5 head and a 4 1⁄2 shank,” he says. “The factory responded and sent me prototypes, which were exactly what I wanted. We named it the “Combo” Nail.”
When the combo nail hit the market, it was the first major design change of the era. It was the forerunner of all the future slim blade and lite nails.
“This nail was well accepted and really changed the picture for us,” he says.
When he became a consultant to the Mustad Horse Nail Company, he used Cornell’s polo horses to test new nails, the hoof growth supplement, glue on horseshoes, and many other products so he had first-hand experience with the products. His knowledge and innovative thinking made him invaluable to Mustad. In addition to his personality and decades of experience.
“He can talk for hours regaling you with stories about horseshoeing,” Chris says.
As the “Mustad Man,” Steve has traveled the world encouraging farriers to use Mustad’s products and sharing his expert advice on shoeing and trimming horses with all types of conformation challenges.
“I’ve been stopped by border patrol in Canada, had to race through airport terminals with more than 100 pounds of Horseshoes strapped to my carry-on and driven a brand-new pick-up truck from New York to Albuquerque, New Mexico with plenty of travel money to an AFA Convention that was given away through a sweepstakes,” he says.
In 2016 he was inducted into the International Farriers Hall of Fame and he had his first opportunity to visit the Mustad factory in Sweden.
All the while, he was helping Mustad establish itself with American farriers, the journey was preparing him for the next phase of his life - selling his business and accepting a position with Cornell University to lead their prestigious farrier school.
“It became obvious to me that all this traveling around, doing clinics, and working with the greatest farriers in the world, was my preparation for this new task,” he says. “I could have never accomplished this without my involvement with Mustad.”
A LIFELONG LEGACY
A brown peg-board wall organizer hangs in a prominent place in Steve’s small classroom where students can watch hoofcare videos or listen to a lecture. Each shoe in the display was custom made by a former student. The students choose which style and size shoe they want to forge - the only requirement is that it is completed before the program ends and that it hangs on the wall with others.
Spring 2019 student Ashley Shaw says that it’s the small, everyday lessons Steve teaches paired with his sense of humor is what prepares the apprentices for what is going to happen out on the road when he’s not there to guide them.
“Steve holds us accountable,” says Kayla Christopherson, a spring 2019 student. “He’ll say something logical like keep your nippers straight. You’ll think you are holding them straight until a few weeks later a light bulb goes off and you think if only I’d kept my nippers straight.”
Most importantly, Steve leads by example and he’s honest with students about their workmanship. He’s always pushing them to improve their craft.
“He’s shown us that it’s all about attention to detail,” says Brendan Bowie, a spring 2019 farrier student. “At the beginning of class, he told me that “I wouldn’t let you finish my house, but would let you finish my barn.” He’s helped me realize that finishing the feet so that they have a finished carpenter look rather than stubby nails sticking out is important.”
When Steve first started teaching, he believed it was to help the horses. If he could teach aspiring farriers how to properly trim and shoe a horse and show them how preventative care could thwart some of the worst hoof conditions, even surgery, then the horses would be better for it.
Through teaching, he’s accomplished much more than his goal of making horses comfortable. He’s changed people’s lives.
“Students call to tell me they’ve put a down payment on their house because of the career I’ve taught them and that was something they never thought they’d be able to do,” he says.