Photograph: Katharine Davies

Photograph: Katharine Davies

TONY SUTCLIFFE

Jo Denbury, Features Writer  

What is the definition of a life well lived? Is it a tapestry of tales that one recounts in old age? Or a journey rich in experience that one can pass on to the next generation? Could it be a life of altruism or creativity? Or the satisfaction that one has dedicated oneself to acquiring a skill so completely that it has become instinct and a part of your being?

Whichever way you look at farrier Tony Sutcliffe’s life, it has not been far short of extraordinary. I am not going to tell the tale of the time he and a few mates climbed onto the roof of the Horse Guards’ mess and the Home Office was called – on that subject, you will have to ask him yourself. But horses always seem to be at the beating heart of Tony’s antics. Such as on the memorable occasion there was a bomb alert at the Grand National meet and he was stranded at Aintree Racecourse for four days when everyone else had left. Or the day Toby Balding’s horse Cool Ground won the Gold Cup in the aluminium shoes Tony himself had fitted.

We meet at his house in Leigh on an unremarkable grey morning. We are both glad that the days are getting longer and the dark nights shorter, as everyone feels in danger of developing mud fever. The hunting season
is coming to an end and, before the summer-time horseback pursuits, this time of year is traditionally a slack time for farriers. Tony intends to enjoy next week with his feet up. “It’s Gold Cup week,” he laughs, “and everyone knows I won’t be working in the afternoons.”

Life with horses began for Tony when he was a child. He did a bit of riding but “nothing much.” He ticked the box that said ‘riding’ – “one of those choices you made at school” – and thought no more about it. But then, after finishing his education, he and some friends drove down to London for the day from their home in Lancashire. They ended up outside Hyde Park, just in time to see the Household Cavalry trot past on early-morning exercise. Something must have clicked, because a year later he had signed up. “Funny how things like that happen,” he says of life’s odd coincidences, then smiles. “I didn’t particularly like horses, but I get on with them better than humans.”

The barracks in Hyde Park houses 200 or more horses and it was here that Tony took up the apprenticeship to become a farrier. “We all rode but, as farriers, we also shod every horse every four weeks. We had four fires going and were constantly shoeing the animals.” Such work is very hard, very physical and dangerous on occasion – it’s never worth taking a risk. “If a horse is tricky, it is best to get a vet and have it lightly sedated,” says Tony.

The skill, however, is in the detail. A farrier has to be able to look at a horse’s hoof and make a shoe from memory. By the time the foot is dressed, the shape of both the front and hind feet should be memorised, because the farrier will have to make a near-perfect shoe by the time of the first fitting. Only a slight alteration should be required to make an exact fit, which is essential to the wellbeing of the horse. “I spend most of my time looking at horses’ feet,” explains Tony. “I will look at its gait and be able to tell the kind of shoe it will need.”

You would think that such farriers need the strength of Samson and the patience of Job to deal with the daily demands of horses. However, Tony disagrees. “It’s no good fighting a horse –shoeing has got to be a good experience for them. They’re very intelligent animals, you’ve got to make a fuss of them. But if they are going to be difficult, then you just get someone to stand at their head.” It was this relaxed but respectful approach to the horses during his time in service that meant Tony was given the honour of riding Lord Mountbatten’s mount, Octave – or ‘Dolly,’ as she was affectionately known – when she was off duty and at the barracks.

In 1983, after 11 years in service, Tony left the Cavalry and moved to Dorset. His reputation as a farrier led him to work with racehorses at Toby Balding’s yard at Whitcombe Manor, near Dorchester. This task was rather different. Racehorses regularly have their shoes changed and use aluminium ones for races. It was a heady time for the yard. “I used to shoe Cool Ground – who went on
to win the Gold Cup in 1992 – and we had jockeys like Adrian Maguire and AP McCoy,” he muses.

After 17 years, Tony decided to branch out on his own and opened a farrier’s yard and forge at Rose Cottage in Hilfield. While running the yard and training his own apprentices, Tony was honoured to be chosen
by Sidmouth Donkey Sanctuary to train a farrier for the shoeing of Princess Anne's own donkeys. Nowadays, things have changed. For the most part, horses no longer go to the farriers, but rather the farrier travels to them. Tony enjoys working for himself as a mobile farrier, with clients across west Dorset reaching from Bridport to Sturminster Newton to Mudford.

“I am now enjoying shoeing more than ever,” he enthuses. Perhaps this is because he is forever adding to his wealth of knowledge on the subject. Having recently completed a BSc degree in Farrier Science at Myerscough College in Lancashire, Tony is looking forward to further studies. “There is so much to learn,” he says, “but shoeing will always be natural for me.”

Watching him work, this much is patently clear – it is truly humbling to see the level of instinct and skill that is required to shoe a horse. They say a good farrier will never truly master the craft – but for a man with the experience and passion of Tony Sutcliffe, he must be close.