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When the shoe fits
Christa Fairbrother has the skill of a surgeon, the strength of a wrestler and the vision of an artist. She also practices psychology, on both humans and animals.
Fairbrother is a farrier.
The petite, young Langley woman shoes horses for a living, and is the only woman farrier on Whidbey. Though more common in the West than in the East, female farriers, like some of Fairbrother's better-bred clients, are still a rare breed.
"Women farriers are still uncommon," Fairbrother said.
She works around her four-legged customers with ease, showing no fear of horses that outweigh her by 1,000 pounds as she lifts their legs to pull off old shoes before filing and trimming hooves and nailing the new shoes in place.
Good with a hammer, she is even better with a knife. She works with a sharp blade around soft horse foot tissue, sculpting hooves for a perfect fit.
"The horse does not feel any pain, if you are a good farrier," Fairbrother said.
If a person is going to stay in business long in her profession, Fairbrother said, being good is not optional. Hitting the soft tissue of a horse's foot with a nail can injure or kill a horse if a foot becomes infected.
"I take my job very seriously because I can cause permanent damage and even kill an animal if I don't do my job right," she said.
Fairbrother is well known to the equine community on Whidbey Island. She makes regular barn calls to reshoe clients' horses in her vintage 1955 Ford pickup, which has its bed enclosed as a mobile blacksmith shop, complete with forge, anvil, the tools of the farrier trade, including a huge selection of manufactured horseshoes.
For many years, she traveled to the San Jaun Islands but has cut her practice in half to pursue an interest in art. She says she doesn't see herself going back to full-time work.
Becoming a farrier was a natural decision for Fairbrother.
"I like working with horses," she said. "I've always ridden them and have one of my own, although sometimes, after working all day on other people's horses, I'm too tired to ride my own when I get home."
In the profession for nine years, Fairbrother started her career by studying her trade in Bishop, Calif.
Among the skills she learned during her student days was hoof trimming. Good farriers can trim all four feet to the exact angles that all match -- just with naked eye measurements.
In addition to doing her bit as an equine manicurist, Fairbrother uses her forge to shape shoes to individual horses. The forge heats shoes and allows Fairbrother to fit it an individual hoof.
"Every horse is different," she said.
Missing a fit by a fraction of an inch could cause lameness.