RYAN Harris-Hayes can replicate the clippity-clop of a horse perfectly. If you’re not watchful, the soft rhythmic thuds of a “three-beat” canter can have you turn to look for an oncoming horse before realising it’s just Ryan, tapping on the kitchen bench to explain a different gait to the equine-uninitiated.
Ryan is a farrier and a blacksmith with a passion for his work extending well beyond any semblance of a regular job. The 30-year-old Kawerau man, comparatively young in his niche industry, is highly regarded, already considered to be one of New Zealand’s best, and is gaining increasing international attention.
From the rural property he shares with partner Hinemoa and their three children, evidence of Ryan’s all-consuming occupation is everywhere. Construction of a long-awaited workshop is under way, but currently, the garage holding the heart of his livelihood, his forge and many specially crafted tools, is struggling to do its job, the excess spilling out.
The property is busy. Half a dozen of the family’s own horses are nearby in a paddock and the family’s three beloved dogs patrol around the house. There are vehicles, trailers.
A large horse float includes living quarters to ferry the family and horses to summer rodeo events. Hinemoa competes in barrel racing, Ryan, in roping, and the children are all horse sports competitors.
Yet while a lot is going on at the family property, it’s clear that Ryan Harris-Hayes is very focused – focused on being the best farrier he can be and focused on producing his own range of high-quality farrier tools, that, like his farriery work itself, are becoming internationally recognised.
Ryan took up farriering a decade ago, the age-old equine occupation specialising in hoof care and shoeing, often combined with the occupation he added soon after, blacksmithing, a trade that enables him to craft his own horseshoes, his own tools, and other items as well.
For Ryan, work as a farrier is not just an occupation, it’s a way of life.
“I’ve always loved horses,” he says. “It goes back to when I was a kid. My aunty and uncle had a horse and I always wanted to go there and ride it and other relatives had horses, too.” As he grew older, there were many adventures to come; “pig hunting on horseback with my uncle,” that further cemented his love of the animals.
Ryan left school to become a shearer, and later, a shepherd. “I was getting more involved with riding though,” he says. “Riding horses for other people, often the bucky ones.” When a farrier arrived at a farm where Ryan was working, sparking less than enjoyable childhood memories of helping relatives to shoe their horses, Ryan says he was dead keen to see how it would be done. The day would prove to be defining, and life changing.
He says shoeing horses hadn’t been a popular job for young family members. “If my uncle said ‘okay, I need some help to shoe the horses tomorrow,’ a fair few people would disappear.” It was hard work he says. “The old Kiwi way. rope up one of the legs, get the horse down, and work like hell. It was hard work and stressful for us and the horses. It was the only way I had ever seen it done.”
As Ryan watched the professional farrier go about the work in an altogether different way, shoeing horses at a speed many times faster than he’d ever seen, he says he was mesmerised. “That farrier looked like a magician to me. He had all the right tools, he was relaxed, the horse was relaxed, and I’d never seen anything like it. I was hooked right away. Right then and there I thought, ‘that is what I want to do’.”
A decade on now, Ryan has followed through on that decision, and more. Completing his apprenticeship in Taranaki and becoming a certified farrier practitioner and member of the New Zealand Farriers Association, his quest for excellence, his commitment and dedication since, has seen him rise through the ranks and earn both national and international acclaim in each of his chosen professions.
Ryan has a passion for knowledge and understanding of horse anatomy. “I want to be really good at what I do, I want to excel, and to do this well, you need to have a lot of knowledge.” He speaks of the direct relationship between farriering and anatomy.
Aside from making standard horseshoes, Ryan makes corrective horseshoes to address problems that have arisen in hooves as a result of specific issues, injuries, or genetic abnormalities in a horse’s leg.
“Everything comes down to the hoof. In the wild, if a horse develops a major problem with a hoof, ultimately, it dies.” He says wracking his brain about a specific foot problem extends well out of work hours. “It occupies a lot of my time, the thinking, being out at the forge making special shoes, the studying.”
Currently undertaking an American course of study paper to gain further in-depth knowledge of horse anatomy, he says he will follow that with study papers from Australia and Britain. “When I approach an unsound horse, I want all the knowledge I can to fix it.”
And there is more.
In his quest for excellence, Ryan competes in national-wide farrier competitions, several of which are staged each year by the New Zealand Farriers Association, attracting overseas entries.
“I love competing. I’m driven to be really good at what I do and competing is a really good way to improve your skillset.”
Ryan began making his mark in competitions early in his career. As an apprentice, he won an individual section in the South Pacific-Trans-Tasman competition, and as part of a three-man team, won the event overall.
“It was a major coup,” he says, with the team overall having considerably less experience than others. He competed in the individual section of the same event in Australia, held soon after, missing out on first place by a quarter of a point and in June of this year, won a major national forging competition, beating New Zealand’s top competitors.
Later this year he will compete in the New Zealand Farriers Association Nationals and is planning to compete in the world’s biggest farrier competition in Australia next year. His recognition as a strong competitor and master tool maker precedes him.
Held as part of the Royal Brisbane Show (EKKA), competition organisers have already asked Ryan if he would kindly donate one of his sought-after, hand-crafted tools to be auctioned for charity.
It’s a practice that has become his habit at national events, raising several hundreds of dollars on each item for New Zealand charities, and in particular, for the NZ Child Cancer Foundation.
Ryan began making his own tools several years ago, the popularity eventually leading to his making them to sell. These days his tools have become internationally renowned with a waitlist of several months now existing for his forged farrier nail hammers, alone.
“They’re going all over the place,” he says, including to Simon Curtis, a hailed British farrier who has written a thesis and several books on hoof care and who travels the world running clinics for veterinarians and farriers. On a recent trip to New Zealand, Simon travelled to Kawerau to meet Ryan.
He’s been invited to host forging seminars in Australia and to tutor farrier courses in New Zealand, but everything, he says, needs to fit around his daily work, the core of everything he does, tending to the hooves of horses.
“Being a farrier is hard work. It’s very physical, you need to be fit and really committed.
But it’s really rewarding too. Going back to see a horse that had problems when I put shoes on it six weeks ago, and seeing the benefits and improvement to that horse, is just awesome.”
So committed is Ryan that early this year, he sacrificed something he’d been enjoying for many years – cold beers at the end of a working day. The beers, the number of which had steadily increased, he says, are no longer part of his day.
“I decided if I wanted to give my best, and to compete properly, I needed to give up. I’d been placing for a long while and often just missing out on first place. I wanted to do better than that. I needed to give the beers away, for fitness, for my career, and for my family.”
He says the benefits of his decision came quickly. “I noticed it right away. I felt fitter, more focused.”
In the middle of this year, Ryan won a major national forging competition he’d long been chasing.
By Lorraine Wilson