No one would blame Steve Norman if he retired tomorrow.
He is 67. He has been a blacksmith for 49 years. Kate, his wife of 35 years, would welcome the opportunity to spend more time with him. So would their three daughters — Sarah, Samantha and Meredith – and his three grandchildren.
Norman has nothing left to prove. He shod three Kentucky Derby winners – Alysheba (1987), Go for Gin (1994) and War Emblem (2002). He works for two powerhouse breeding operations in Versailles, Ky., WinStar Farm and Coolmore's Ashford Stud. He regularly keeps Triple Crown champions American Pharoah and Justify in new shoes at Ashford.
Bill Casner, who steered Norman's services to WinStar, is hardly alone in the enormously high regard he has for the talent of his long-time friend. “He has evolved into, if not the best blacksmith in America, certainly in the top five,” Casner said.
With time marching and with so much success behind him, it is only natural that Norman is constantly asked about retirement, just as he was during an interview for this article.
“I retired when I started with the horse life. I don't accept it as a job ever,” he said. “It's a way of life.”
Norman has been drawn to horses since he was a child growing up in Imperial, Neb. He rode a Shetland pony a mile and a half each way to school when he was in kindergarten and the first and second grade instead of joining classmates on the school bus.
He followed the lead of his father, Harlan, by becoming a jockey and guided home his first winner at 16. He grew to be 5-11, though, and it was soon impossible for him to make weight. There was an opportunity to become a draftsman, but he quickly dismissed that.
“I told myself 'There is no way I can sit in an office and do that,'“ he recalled.
Once Norman decided on becoming a blacksmith, he sought an opportunity to learn from one of the best. Jack Reynolds would make occasional trips to Nebraska to tend to the finest horses trained by Jack Van Berg. Norman also worked for Van Berg, among others, and asked to watch Reynolds' every move. He will always be indebted to him for the lessons he learned.
“You can make something so complicated. He showed me the simplest way to get a balanced foot,” Norman said. “I still use his method on a daily basis of just looking at a horse the way he tried to look at one and trying to make that horse as comfortable as possible.”
Norman watches intently to see how a horse is walking as it is brought to him. He is assessing how well the horse is moving and also its demeanor, how it will need to be handled during a shoeing process that requires approximately 20 minutes.
Then he examines each foot before removing the shoes. Reynolds taught him that examining the previous shoes is critical.
“When you pull the shoe off, you are going to see wear, how that horse wore that shoe, whether he wore it more on the outside of the toe or maybe more on the inside of the toe,” Norman said. “The shoes will kind of tell you the story of how he's been walking or running for the last 30 days.”
At this stage of his career, Norman is so advanced that he determines a course of action within five minutes. He credits lessons taught by his father with helping him to avoid a major injury.
“My dad taught me to know what that horse is all about before you get under him,” he said. “Because if you don't, they're going to move and they're going to hurt you.”
Even though he has avoided broken bones and worse that can be part of his trade, Norman acknowledged that he copes with constant knee issues. He credits his longevity to his routine of visiting a chiropractor every Monday and a massage therapist every Tuesday.
He does whatever it takes to continue.
“I guess I can't get enough of it,” he said. “I'm going to blame that on my dad because I saw my dad get up early every day and work and it was always around the horse.”
Casner has known Norman since they were teenagers. He continues to marvel at his friend's fascination with horses.
“It's a continuing passion for him. He has always been consumed with being the best he can be as a farrier. He continues to go to symposiums and conferences. He continues to network with other blacksmiths,” Casner said. “He will be the first to admit he does not have all the answers, but he is on that quest.”
Casner also praised Norman for his upbeat attitude, for being someone who lives fully day and night. Norman plays mandolin as a member of two bluegrass bands, Shade of Grass and The Nutty Undertones.
“It's just an outlet,” he said. “Complete relaxation.”
As for the retirement question, Kate believes her husband should continue to help as many horses as possible.
“It brings me so much joy to watch him in his element. Retirement age is different for each individual,” she said. “Why put the tools down when you love what you do?”
So the band plays on.
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