Interview with Farrier Kelby Von Hemel

When you hear the last name Von Hemel, horse racing is always the first thing to come to mind.  Last Sunday we had the privilege of spending the day with the farrier of the Von Hemel family, Kelby Von Hemel.  Kelby is an apprentice farrier currently working at Oaklawn Park.  He is the grandson of legendary trainer Don Von Hemel, as well as the son of trainer Kelly Von Hemel, and the nephew of Breeders Cup winning trainer Donnie K Von Hemel.

After graduating high school, Kelby went to college for a year and half, but missed the game too much and decided to attend horseshoeing school in Dardenelle, Arkansas.  After the 12 week program, Kelby was able to get back into the mix of the sport he loves: horse racing.  He then started traveling from track to track with his dad, Kelly.

At the age of 20, he has been working as a farrier for almost a year now, but has been around horses all his life.  Many people don’t have an understating of how important a farrier can be.  “When a horse is having issues, you start with the feet and work your way up trying to figure out what is wrong,” Kelby says.  The Thoroughbred Racing Dudes are proud to bring you our interview with Kelby, as well as some video of the proper way to shoe a horse.  We hope you enjoy this as much as we did!

DUDES:  Tell us about a regular day for a farrier.

VON HEMEL:  To start out the day you go around and check with everyone and see what you have to shoe.  As you go around the barns, you set up times with your clients and when you will be there to shoe their horse or horses.  Although on some of the easy days it does just involve driving around and talking with the other farriers and learning track gossip.

DUDES:  What all does being a farrier entail?  Do you have to be certified by any organizations?

VON HEMEL:  To be a farrier you must know how the anatomy of a horse and how tiny changes in the foot can affect the whole leg. While it’s not required to be certified to be a farrier, there are benefits if you are certified by the AFA (American Farrier Association).

DUDES:  In a recent episode of the HBO series, Luck, a horses shoe falls off during a race and clips another horse, injuring it.  How accurate is that?  Do you have any personal experiences where you have seen this?

VON HEMEL:  It is definitely not out of the question that it could happen. I haven’t ever seen it happen but I have had jockeys tell me that they have seen them go flying by.

DUDES:  Over the past 25 years, how much has technology changed the farrier business?

VON HEMEL:  Technology has changed so much in even the last 15 years that there is so much more than just nailing on a regular shoe. One that is becoming more common is gluing on polyflex shoes which has helped many horses.  A few more advancements that I have worked with are using wooden clogs or plastic clogs and the Equine Digit Support System which can be used on a lot of serious problems like Laminitis, Founder and Navicular Disease.

DUDES:  Explain the difference between glue on and traditional shoes. What do you recommend?

VON HEMEL:  When you glue shoes on it’s mostly because the horse has a very thin hoof wall or in some cases the horse has torn off a shoe that was nailed on and they have pulled enough hoof wall that you can’t nail a shoe back on. The Polyflex shoe is considered an extension of the foot so when you glue that on it is supposed to feel more natural to the horse.

DUDES:  We’ve read that quicking a foot is a problem that is going to happen to anyone that shoes enough horses.  Have you ever had this happen?  Can you tell us more about what this entails? Do trainers get upset?

VON HEMEL:  I haven’t worked long enough yet to have it happen but I have always been told that it will happen. When something like that happens it can cause many problems if it isn’t taken care of right away. If the nail that caused the quicking is left in the foot it can cause the horse to be lame in that foot or possibly cause an abscess. There are certain trainers that will get upset and possibly fire you from working in their stable, but then there are other trainers that will understand and just ask you to fix it and act like it never happened.

DUDES:  Have you ever seen a good horse turned bad or a bad horse turned good solely because of the shoes he/she is wearing?

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VON HEMEL:  I can’t give you a specific example but I have heard stories that gluing on Polyflex shoes has helped horses tremendously.  Another way I look at it is that people are using them and becoming more popular so they must be doing some good.

DUDES:  Does Big Brown hold the distinction of having the most famous foot injury in the history of horse racing?

VON HEMEL:  I shouldn’t say that it is the most famous in the history since I am only 20 but I’ll say it was more publicized because he was going for the Triple Crown.  I would have to say that people cared more about Barbaro once he got Laminitis than Big Brown on the sole fact that Richard Dutrow Jr. is much disliked.

DUDES:  Do you bet?  How often do you bet against a family trained horse?

VON HEMEL:  Yes, I do bet but at the most it might be one day every week or on the occasion that I get touted on something.  Betting against a family horse for me is like betting against myself because I do feel like I am involved with all of my family in the business.

DUDES:  Does it make you nervous working with a horse before a big race?

VON HEMEL:  I can’t say I do mostly because everybody makes mistakes even though some are bigger than others.  I will say I do get excited for every race that my family is in whether it is for $5,000 claimers or when Caleb was running in the Breeders Cup.

DUDES:  How often does a horse need work with shoes or hooves?

VON HEMEL:  A horse’s hooves grow at different rates during the winter and summer.  During the winter most people like to wait five or sometimes six weeks.  In the summer their feet grow quite a bit faster so once every four weeks, and for some horses, five weeks is plenty of time.

DUDES:  Do you travel to other tracks or is Oaklawn your only track?

VON HEMEL:  Yes, I do travel and I have just spent my first full year on the Oaklawn, Prairie Meadows, and Remington Park circuit and I love all three of the tracks.

DUDES:  What is the most important thing you can tell us about being a farrier?

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VON HEMEL:  I wish I could come up with just one answer, but I believe one of the most important things is trimming the foot right and balancing the hoof. I also believe that learning the anatomy of the horse is very important.

DUDES:  We’ve heard that it is much tougher to work with a horses front feet than their back.  Is this true?  If so, why is that?

VON HEMEL:  I can’t say it is true or false because everyone has their own opinion.  I prefer working on the front feet mostly because you are holding the foot between your legs whereas a back foot is just resting on your leg.

DUDES:  Where were you when Caleb’s Posse won the Breeders Cup Mile?

VON HEMEL:  I was at Remington Park with my dad and Brian Assman (Alex Birzer and David Mello’s agent). We were sitting in my Uncle Donnie’s box which was cool since we were watching his horse win a Breeders Cup race.

DUDES:  What is like growing up in a family full of racing?  Does it put any added pressure on you?

VON HEMEL:   I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.  Not only do I have racing on my dad’s side, but I have racing on my mother’s side as well.  It’s nice growing up behind such great horsemen and I just hope that I can carry on that same tradition.  I can’t say that everyone else is pressuring me to be great but I feel like it’s my responsibility to be the best I can and do what it takes to be one of the best no matter what I am doing .

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