At 82, This Pennsylvanian Is Still Teaching Ancient Art of Shoeing Horses

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Sweat dripped from Sonny Pistilli’s nose and evaporated on the red-hot horseshoe he’d taken out of a burning forge. He’d been pounding steel with a mallet for two hours, his hands like anvils from a half-century of that same clanging rhythm.

“People think I’m mad at them when I shake their hands,” Pistilli joked on a recent March morning of his viselike grip.

While those heavy hands can smash a golf ball — he once shot a 69 — Pistilli would rather be awash in flying sparks and curling black smoke in his garage like some Roman god of fire. At 82, he still works as a farrier, someone who trims and shoes horse hooves, and since it’s never felt like a job, he doesn’t think about retiring. He once put a shoe on Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and is a member of the Brotherhood of Working Farriers Association’s Farriers Hall of Fame.

“It’s hard work, yes, but not a job. It’s love,” he said.

Pistilli also teaches the trade, charging $12,000 for a six-month apprenticeship, tools included. He said he generally takes on one or two students at a time and estimates he’s taught 700 people over the years, including his son, Danny, who is also a professional farrier.

“In six months, you can go around earning $500 a day,” he said.

Pistilli’s current student, Alex Poliskiewicz, of nearby Bangor, Northampton County, had his own forge and anvil in the garage, mirroring the master’s moves with mallet strokes of his own. Elsewhere in the garage, a frozen horse leg dangled from a stand for Poliskiewicz to practice shoeing. Pistilli buys them from a New Jersey man who rounds up dead horses. They cost $10 for the knee down.

“No one knows horseshoes like Sonny,” Poliskiewicz said.

There may be as many as 28,0000 farriers working full and part time in the United States, according to industry magazines. David Hallock, a Michigan farrier and education chairman for the American Farrier Association, said the job has a high attrition rate.

“It’s often a short-term career, because you physically get beat up and sometimes people who get into it aren’t great at managing the business,” he said.

While the trade is largely unregulated, Hallock said, a bad farrier doesn’t last long.

“You can really hurt a horse if you’re doing it wrong,” he said.

Hallock said there are machine-made horseshoes on the market today, often from the Netherlands, England, and China, but it still takes a farrier to put them on.

“And you have to love horses for that,” he said.

Pistilli grew up in Bernardsville, New Jersey, where his mother and father owned a popular Italian restaurant that was open for nearly 50 years. His father, Albert, lost a leg in World War II. His mother, Josephine, was known as “Mama Pistilli” to customers and famous for her chicken cacciatore. Sonny said the allure of the kitchen never caught on with him. It felt like work.

He preferred horses and hot metal.

“The restaurant business owns you,” he said.

Being a farrier combines two different skill sets, one more ancient than the other. First, Pistilli is an accomplished blacksmith, and the anvil he uses to pound out shoes at his “Far Hills Forge” near Bethlehem in Northampton County is secured onto a wide log. He also makes knives, for hunters or chefs. When asked what has changed about blacksmithing since the dawn of man, Pistilli was hard-pressed.

“We use propane to heat the forge now instead of coal,” he said. “Other than that, it’s mostly the same.”

Trimming a horse’s hoof and nailing in a horseshoe is no mere manicure. Most of the tools Pistilli uses, the oddly hooked knife that carves away crud and the 14-inch nail file known as a rasp, are often homemade and resemble items you’d find in a woodworker’s shop. He said he apprenticed under an Irish farrier who lived in New Jersey. Sonny charges around $350 to trim and shoe a horse.

Horses can weigh anywhere from a few hundred pounds to one ton. Their personalities are similar to people, Pistilli said, so it’s nice to have a docile one when you’re crouched down behind its rear legs. He said he’s never been kicked by a horse but was trampled once and wound up in the hospital with a concussion. Danny joked that his dad probably has a few dents, but Sonny said he lives pain-free.

“A horse can put you out of business in one second,” Sonny said. “Some are more difficult and I don’t fool around with those.”

Later in the day, at Windy Hill Farm in nearby Stockertown, Danny joined his father and Poliskiewicz to trim some hooves. Their first horse, Grace, was a stout foxhunter and stood zenlike as the men worked around her undercarriage. Sonny, who wore custom embroidered chaps, mostly watched from the side, offering bits of advice like ”round out the hoof.” Danny, 41, sweated as bits of shaved hoof flew around in the wind.

“I’ve got 60 years of experience watching over me,” he said.

The key to happy horse feet is balance, Sonny said, and he just knows it when he sees it. Royal, the second horse they trimmed at the stable, had massive hooves and less patience. Sonny put a few finishing touches on the big horse, gathering its massive leg under his arm, the same way he’s always done.

“Nothing’s really changed,” he said in the stable. “I mean, there’s a few new tools out there. But old tools are good too.”

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