Silver spurs

Busy craftsman and farrier wasn’t exactly born yesterday

Fritz Hooper has a look at Chip the mustang. Chip obliges.

Fritz Hooper has a look at Chip the mustang. Chip obliges.

Fritz Hooper makes his work sound as if it’s slow or unremarkable. Neither is true.

“Oh, I’m not doin’ much these days,” says the 80-year-old saddle maker and horse shoer, moments after greeting a young mustang and preparing to trim his hooves.

“Easy there, partner,” he repeats in a mellow voice whenever Chip, his client, gets a bit twitchy. “Easy now.”

Hooper bends down to pat a hind leg.

“You’ve got to dance with them a little bit,” he says. “You don’t want to secure ’em real firm, because they’ll just fight you. You’ve got to give them a little leeway.”

Chip stands still. A minute later, Hooper points to a front hoof he’s cradling and working at with a pair of nippers, which look like pliers crossed with the biggest cuticle trimmers you’ve ever seen.

The frog, a fleshy, V-shaped spot on the underside of the hoof, “is the foot pedal to the gas,” Hooper explains. “Above the frog is what they call a plantar cushion, and every time [a horse] puts the foot down, the plantar cushion squeezes and rotates the blood. So your horse has to have frog pressure. The foot is a very unique thing. The whole leg is a very unique thing.”

Hooper can go on like this for as long as you’d like, getting into the anatomy of the equine as it evolved from a three-toed ancestral creature to the show pony or working horse of today.

“I can’t even count how many times he’s come out for students of mine who’ve just bought a horse,” says Chip’s owner, Washoe Valley riding instructor Suzanne McMann. “He’ll show you, ’This is what [the hoof or leg] is doing. This is how it works.’” And on summer days when McMann has a whole gaggle of young equestrians around, “He’ll come out and do a whole class.”

He even keeps wired-together leg bones in his truck, in case anyone’s curious.

Farriers’ vehicles are mobile workshops, really, sporting big anvils and beds crammed with tools. But a hoof stand—fairly standard apparatus that allows shoers to rest their backs—isn’t part of Hooper’s arsenal.

“They came along after I started shoeing, and I just didn’t want to change,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m too old to change.” (You should also know that his license-plate cover, a parting gift from one of his exes, is emblazoned with the words “happiness is being single.”)

Before he gives Chip a final pat on the neck, Hooper checks that each foot is balanced, trimmed to accommodate the horse’s unique anatomy and able to compensate for any awkwardness in his build. It’s even more complicated than it sounds.

“The first time Fritz attempted to retire on me was probably 20 years ago,” says McMann, who looks a little blinky and emotional as she tells the story. “He had a rough year and got hurt a couple of times with people who didn’t teach their horses how to behave, and he was going to quit.”

So McMann called a new farrier, one who left all five of her horses lame. Hooper came back and cleaned up the mess.

“Not only is this a difficult job, but I wouldn’t want to attempt any of it,” McMann continues, nodding at her friend as he works. “It’s a dangerous job.”

Whenever someone praises him in the third person like this, Hooper goes right back to whatever he was trying to say beforehand. Maybe it’s a polite version of the way Chip stomps his foot from time to time.

Take tango lessons

In a past life, Hooper was an air-traffic controller for the Marine Corps, then the Federal Aviation Administration. He enrolled in farrier school to supplement his income back 1974, then attended saddle-making school a few years later.

Right out of the gate with the farrier business, though, he suffered a broken jaw.

“It was my first year of shoeing, and I knew everything already,” he says with a little laugh, demonstrating how the horse managed to kick his face in the manner a cow would—reaching forward to clip the bejesus out of him with a back foot.

“It wasn’t a real good horse to begin with, and I should have known better,” Hooper says. “I was wired up for six weeks, seven weeks. … A horse is an animal. Let’s face it, you know? And they react. If you go by a horse and then a bird goes by, he reacts to that bird and takes it out on you.”

As to how he stays safe, well, he has his ways. He talks to horses. He puts their feet down gently. He pays attention when they seem to pull back in discomfort. And he proceeds with caution until he knows each one.

“Take tango lessons,” he jokes. “I don’t know. You just pay attention.”

So how is an octogenarian still tangoing with 1,200-pound animals?

“He’s always doing something,” McMann interjects when Hooper blows off questions about his age. “Always. If he’s not shoeing, he’s working on a saddle or he’s helping someone. He’s not someone who ever sits down.”

Because farriers bend over so much to do their work, Hooper jokes that locals usually just recognize him by the sight of his backside. He’s at least as well known for his custom saddles, however, and is now in the process of moving his workshop—a command center piled with leather, rawhide frames, tack and stands—from one space to another in Washoe Valley. The old place was home to at least one circa-1980s centerfold photo, big bangs and all, but the girl doesn’t seem to have followed him here.

While he’s giving a quick tour and muttering again that he’s not up to much, a woman arrives in a BMW and drops off gear for repair—fringed chaps and a saddle she refers to as “cheap, obviously.” (It certainly doesn’t appear to be cheap; it’s a high-end Western brand. But Hooper didn’t make this one, so maybe that’s what she means.) He tells her he’ll fix it.

Many of his own heavy-duty creations are unpadded for the rider but built well enough to accommodate his or her frame like a handmade chair, with butter-soft leather that lasts forever and smells divine.

Longtime customer Terri Russell has three Hooper saddles, and received her first as a Christmas gift nearly 20 years ago. They’ve been easily interchangeable among various horses, she says, and can withstand a lifetime of use. Serious riders who don’t know any better might feel compelled to go online or out of state to find the right saddle, Russell adds. They shouldn’t.

“You can go right to Washoe Valley and get whatever you need,” she says. “Fritz actually does everything … and if he can’t do it, he’ll tell you. People who are in the horse [world] need to understand that they have a real gem in their midst.”