To beat the heat, sometimes you have to embrace the fire
Faced with potential burnout from shoeing horses, Jennifer Horn taught herself artistic blacksmithing.
While Jennifer Horn was studying to become a farrier—the technical term for someone who trims and shoes horse’s hooves—instructors warned her that her career might be short-lived. Nearly 30 years later, she’s still going strong, thanks to her accidental acquisition of self-taught artistic blacksmithing.
The cautionary words weren’t personal: Many farriers retire or move on to other jobs after about 20 years due to injuries, fatigue, and burnout from constantly working in a stooped position beneath 1,000-pound, sometimes fractious animals. Back, shoulder, and elbow injuries are occupational hazards.
“I’d always thought about a backup plan. I’d considered real estate and journalism, but when I stumbled into blacksmithing, it was the perfect fit,” Horn says. “I can work through the winter when the horse side of the business is slow and the blacksmithing is less strenuous on my body.”
“Almost” doesn’t count when you’re making horseshoes
Farriers aren’t required to attend trade school, and there isn’t a mandate for certification or licensing. However, apprenticeships and formal education help keep both the individual and the horses safe. Training programs last from three months to a year or more. After gaining additional experience in the field, they can choose to earn the distinction of becoming certified through the American Farrier’s Association.
AFA certification involves multiple tests, the evaluation of various skills, and the creation of certain types of horseshoes that fit precise specifications. As farriers advance, they are expected to build increasingly complex shoe styles. Burnout and fatigue can creep in.
“I was working in the shop every day building horseshoes to the specifications I was going to be tested on,” Horn says. She became the first woman in Michigan to earn the highest level: certified journeyman. She estimates having spent at least an hour practicing each day. That might not seem like much, but it was on top of a full day’s work at horse barns.
“I was mentally exhausted, but I was afraid that if I stopped, I’d lose my endurance and stamina. You have to keep swinging the hammer to maintain precise control,” she says.
A turning point
During that time, about 17 years ago, Horn read an article with instructions for making a steak turner. She thought if she shifted her focus onto anything other than horseshoes, she could maintain her strength, give her mind a rest, and still prepare for the exam.
She thought back to her experience at the now-closed Wolverine Farrier School in 1990, where she’d learned how to draw out steel to form gate latches and hay hooks. So, she heated a piece of metal in a coal-fired forge burning somewhere between 800 and 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. When the metal glowed fluorescent orange, she placed it on an anvil and hammered on the end, making the steel longer and thinner with each blow. A few hours later, the steak turner was finished, and she thought about what to make next. She made a fork, then a spatula.
Since then, she’s taught herself the principles of blacksmithing: drawing out—or thinning—the steel, punching and drifting, bending, twisting, hot-cutting, fire welding, bumping up (the process of making metal thicker), and others. Horn knew many of these techniques from her farrier business, but crafting that first steak turner sparked an interest in creatively blending them together.
“It was addictive,” she says. “I started looking at everything around me and wondering how I could duplicate it out of steel.”
Finding inspiration everywhere
And when she says everything, she means it. Most people only notice the pattern of the carpet in a hotel hallway if it’s dingy, dizzying, or threadbare. Horn, however, sees every detail—every twist of a floral vine, every shape within a geometric design. “Just about anything offers inspiration if you let it,” she says.
The “BlissHorn” flower has become Horn’s signature accent element and appears in much of her work. Fellow blacksmith Derrick Bliss introduced her to the design and taught her to make it. As she practiced, she modified its shape and texture.
“I love the look of the flower and gave it the name ‘Bliss,’ but after seeing my modification, we decided it should be called the ‘BlissHorn’ flower,” she says.
When it comes to blacksmithing, Horn prefers creating functional art to knickknacks or decorations. She’s forged handrails, gates, table legs, table lamps, fire tools, vessels of all kinds, stems for wine glasses, and more.
Horn’s largest project to date is a bouquet of 10-foot-tall “Jurassic Flowers” that spreads 5 feet in diameter. She and her colleague Bill Palmer crafted them for the city of Lapeer, Michigan, which also asked them to build a 60-foot fence in a pocket park that replaced a burnt-out building.
Sometimes, a client knows exactly what they want. Other times, they give Horn free rein. When faced with the latter scenario, she likes to spend time in the customer’s house to study the style of their décor and their lifestyle. Then, she sketches a design to work from.
“Unveiling a piece for a customer is the most stressful part of the process,” she says. “Communicating what is unseen is a little tricky. I always have a little anxiety over how the client will accept my work when I deliver it. I guess it’s human nature to worry about being rejected, but I’ve been lucky that hasn’t happened yet.”
“My interest is in projects that don’t linger,” she said. “I prefer projects that I can finish in a few hours or a few days. I like to complete something and then move on.”
Forging a future
Infusing creativity into her technical skills has allowed her to keep working well beyond the two decades predicted by her teachers. During the summer, she may see as many as 15 to 18 horses a day. But in the winter, when horses’ hooves grow slower or the weather prevents working outside, she may work as few as eight days a month. That’s when she focuses on her art, all of which is handcrafted inside her workshop, Daisy Hill Forge.
The aptly named workshop sits atop a small hill on her 25-acre property in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, surrounded by daisies, her favorite flower. She even has a cat named Daisy, a great mouser who earns her keep by controlling the rodent population.
Horn’s work area was originally two garages, separated by a common wall with a small workshop constructed on the back. She removed the original garage doors and replaced them with a glass wall to provide natural light and divided the interior into a forge room, a layout room, and an office, giving her ample space to manage all aspects of her business.
Horn’s 18-year-old self never imagined a life working in the fire could balance both her technical and creative desires. Today, she’s internationally known for both aspects of her work and has won awards in the U.S. and U.K. She regularly speaks at both farrier and blacksmith events, sharing the skills she’s honed over three decades. And all these years later, she still carries a memento from school in her pocket: a miniature horseshoe, not much larger than a quarter.
“It was a class project. Every time I stuck my hand in my pocket and felt it there, it was a reminder of what I’d wanted to accomplish—running my own business,” she says. “I’ve been very, very blessed.”