GOLDSBY — Horseshoes have shaped Mark Milster’s life.
On a recent morning, Milster of Goldsby reached to a shop shelf and with thick, grubby hands pulled from it a 3/8-by- 3/4-inch steel bar.
Over the next few minutes, the 48-year-old farrier used tongs to plunge the bar into the chunks of coke in the brick forge that heats “right close to 3,000 degrees.”
The third-generation farrier quickly withdrew the glowing bar and moved to an anvil. With Popeye forearms and swinging a self-made hammer, Milster forged the rod into a horseshoe shape.
The metal on metal clank continued and carried right out the shop door as Milster struck the pointed-end pritchel to create six nail holes.
Repeating the process, it didn’t take long before he had a finished pair of shoes for a horse’s front hooves.
Similarly, horseshoeing has shaped the life of this recent inductee into the International Horseshoeing Hall of Fame, located in the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs in Louisville.
But instead of hammers and other trade tools, it’s people, places and faith that have forged Milster‘s life.
The credentials and titles are as impressive as the finished pair of shoes. Milster won the Calgary Stampede World Championship Blacksmiths’ Competition in 2001. Two other times he finished second — a half-point behind the champion both years.
He won the National Forging and Shoeing Competition twice and has collected numerous other titles.
Milster’s talent has taken him to England, Wales, Scotland, Japan, Brazil and Canada for competitions or clinics. He’s also traveled to all but less than a half-dozen states in the contiguous United States. And although Milster continues to compete and conduct clinics, his occupation is serving as a farrier, mainly for show horses.
But it’s easier to look all that information up than to ask Milster about it.
Why? For the answer to that he turns to one of the many individuals who influenced him, the late Edward Martin, a Scottish farrier.
“He said, ‘The three hardest things to do was climb a fence that’s leaning toward you, kiss a girl that’s leaning away from you and talk about yourself,’” Milster said.
They talked, Milster listened
Like a horseshoe, Milster’s career path had a bend of sorts in it.
True, his grandfather Williams Friday was a blacksmith. Milster never knew him because while alone and shoeing a Clydesdale, it is thought that the horse’s hock caught him in the ribs, broke some ribs and punctured a lung.
His grandfather was found dead near the road, possibly having gone to try to flag someone down for help.
It’s also true that his father, William Mister, who took on the last name of a stepfather, was also a blacksmith.
So from his early teens, Mark Milster was working with his father whenever needed. The bend in his life came when Milster went to East Central University, playing football and studying criminal justice.
He’d been around horseshoeing all his life, but at the time he resented it and wanted to find something else. Friends were off having fun and Milster was working weekdays and weekends.
One day, while shoeing horses in Ada, Milster ran across a professor, Norman Hess. Milster took a break and they sat down on hay bales to talk. Milster thought he’d made a mistake in going to college. Instead, he should have followed his father’s urging to shoe horses and go to England to learn more about shoeing.
Hess told the young man, “You wouldn’t have been any good at it.”
“I asked, ‘Why’s that?’” Milster said. “He said, ‘Because you weren’t ready.’
“And he was right, because at the time I hated it.”
Looking back, Milster believes that had he bypassed college, “I probably would have went about it the rest of my life with a little bit of chip on my shoulder because I felt like I was made to do it.”
The time came when Milster decided that he was ready to be a farrier. That bend in life had ended.
Milster’s decision led him to Oklahoman Sherrill Spears, who had shod a lot of racehorses. Spears took Milster to a horseshoeing competition and also the American Farriers Convention.
It was at the latter that Milster watched a tryout for the American Farriers Team and realized “I thought I knew everything and I go there and there’s this whole new world that I didn’t even know about.”
Milster wanted to be a part of the world of contests, so he called farrier Jim Keith, who lived in Tucumcari, N.M. Eventually they connected on a time that would work for Keith.
Milster paid $500 for five days of Keith’s tutelage. He kept returning, but never had to pay again.
“Jim Keith is probably the biggest influence in my life,” Milster said. “I would shoe horses all week for years, drive to Tucumcari on Friday night, work with him Saturday until Sunday about 4 o’clock, drive home, shoe horses all week and drive back the next weekend.
“I said, ‘I’d like to make the American Farriers Team’ and he said, ‘It will take you four years and you’ll be good enough,’” Milster said. “And that’s what it took.”
Even after the titles started to accumulate, Milster continued to listen to others, including Terry Stever, who now lives at Sulphur.
Stever said a farrier uses almost all of the senses. Milster can hardly hold a horseshoe without running his thumbs and index fingers over it.
Smell could come into play if there’s something wrong with the horse’s foot. For example, an infection. Milster can tell if something is not right on a shoe by listening as a horse walks on concrete. And, “We want the work to be pleasing to the eye as well.”
“He’s right, to shoe horses you just about use every sense,” Milster said. “About the only thing you don’t use is taste.”
On top of absorbing the words and wisdom of many farriers, Milster believes God has forged his success.
“I worked hard and stuff,” he said, “but I can’t do it by myself.”
Now, they come to Milster
Chad Holmes, 29, of Aberdeen, N.C., is preparing for his American Farriers Association certification. He came to Oklahoma to study under Milster for a week.
“His shoes are real clean,” Holmes said, “there’s a real nice flow and shape to the shoes, and that’s something that we all are working on.”
And yet, Milster contends he is still learning.
“Of course now you can buy just about any kind of shoe,” Milster said, “but I still think you need to know how to make them.
“I wanted to be skilled enough that I could do whatever was asked. If a horse needed it, no matter what it was, I wanted to be able to make it. When you look at a horseshoe, it doesn’t matter if it looks like a piece of jewelry if it can’t safely go on the horse.”
The titles are great and he’s thankful for them.
However, Milster said, “I’ll go shoe a horse later today and all the accolades don’t mean anything if that horse isn’t happy.”