A farrier among us
July 7, 2014
Like many guys his age, Laramie Opstedahl's grasp of family history doesn't go that far back, and also like most guys his age, he's very apologetic about that fact.
"I don't know, you should probably interview somebody else in my family 'cause I'm gonna get the dates wrong. I know my Grandpa Elmer Humphrey, he was an old rancher, cowboy guy, he did things around just like everybody else."
Laramie Opstedahl was the youngest of five children born to Ronnie and Linda Opstedahl. He grew up on the Opstedahl Ranch south of Union Center, where they ran a 25 head Holstein Grade B dairy operation, a commercial cow herd, and a flock of sheep.
It doesn't take too long talking to Laramie to realize that his dad was his mentor and his inspiration, even if they didn't always agree. "Dad was the kind of guy that, if it needed done, he was gonna do it himself. It was like 'Well we can buy one and have it all ready to go, and it costs this much, or we can build one ourselves. Yeah, let's do that.'" Ronnie had sheared sheep with a crew in the '70s, so when he got his own sheep he sheared them himself and then taught his kids how. Laramie's brother Loren began a sheep-shearing business which he still runs today, and has become a top competitor at national and international sheep shearing events. "Yeah, Loren's been to New Zealand, Norway, Wales, and he just got back from Ireland. But I thought this article was about me!"
"Back then," Laramie says, remembering the eighties and the dairy herd, "dairying was kind of the main thing around here. It seemed like almost everybody had a few milk cows." The Opstedahls milked four at a time and sold the milk to Marloff's Dakota Farms Cheese. "Then when Marloff's closed down there was an outfit from Timber Lake that bought milk for a while, but we were about out of it by then." The transition from dairying was gradual, as Ronnie bred his milk cows to Charolais bulls and sold the calves as terminal cross. "I think we sold the last of the milk cows in '93," says Laramie. "I know Dad was glad to see them go, he was tickled."
It was about this time that young Laramie joined his brothers shearing crew, homeschooling through high school so he could spend more time shearing. "Back then I was lucky if I got 30 sheep done in a day. I weighed maybe 90 pounds soaking wet, and 30 sheep was a big day for me."
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Laramie spent ten years on the sheep shearing crew, but says he got burnt out. "Another thing, back when I started, there were lots of sheep around. There were sheep around Union Center, Stoneville, everywhere. You didn't have to drive too far to work, and you could be home at night. Then it got to be where there weren't even that many sheep around Newell, and you had to go to Montana, Wyoming or east river to get to the sheep. I kinda didn't like that."
After some thought, Laramie decided to become a farrier, and after some research, he decided to attend the Texas Horseshoeing School in Scurry, Texas, south of Dallas. "I wanted to do something outdoors with my hands, and shoeing just seemed to be the thing. I always liked horses and the cowboy way of life." Before he decided to become a farrier, he had shod two horses. "That first one, I guess I just wanted to see if I could do it. Dad helped me. I don't think it took me two days, but it took all of one. Knowing what I know now, yeah I made a few mistakes. I didn't take near enough foot off of him."
The clinic at Texas Horseshoeing School lasted two weeks. "The first day, John Bergen, the instructor, said 'Horseshoeing is simple. You put a flat shoe on a flat foot.'" There were four other students in Laramie's class including a man who had recently retired and decided to pursue horseshoeing as a second career. The students were paired up, and the first week would shoe a horse a day as a team. "One guy would do the front feet in the morning, say, and the other guy would do the hind feet in the afternoon. John had a program where people around could bring their horses to the school and get them shod for twenty bucks." As a result they shod all kinds of horses, including horses that pulled carriages in downtown Dallas.
Laramie now lives on a little place near Owanka and shoes horses around western South Dakota. He and his brother Loren spend most of the summer helping their dad put up hay south of Union Center, so sometime in the near future, Laramie would like to have his horseshoeing clients bring their horses to him, but for now he drives to the horses. "I'll be honest, I've got a pretty good client base," he says. "I can make a run through Rapid City, Hermosa and New Underwood, maybe do another run through Wall and Quinn, and another through Sturgis and Belle Fourche. You'd be surprised how many mini donkeys and mini ponies there are around here. I just got back from a place that had baby mini donkeys. You wanna talk about cute, they were like a puppy, a kitty and a bunny all wrapped up in one, they were that cute. I just trim the mini donkeys though, no one's ever asked me to shoe one."
While the method of shoeing really hasn't changed at all, there are a lot more shoeing products now. "There's iron, aluminum and rubberized plastic shoes, and all kinds of nails. I can show you the catalog. If a client specifically requests a type of shoe, I put it on."
Laramie mostly cold-shoes, putting the shoe on without heating it. "I can hot-shoe and I've got a forge and everything, but I don't want to haul all that around most of the time. And some horses don't like it when you slap that hot shoe on. It doesn't hurt their foot or anything, just that sizzling noise, some horses don't take that very well."
Laramie trims the horse's foot, shapes a shoe, tacks it on and then rasps the foot down to the shoe before seating it. " A lot of guys rasp before they put the shoe on, and that works too, I don't want to create controversy in the horseshoeing community. This is just the way I was taught to do it." There aren't any real regional differences to shoeing a horse either. "It's just hammering iron onto a horse's foot. It's unnatural really, and it hasn't changed much."
Of course, Laramie can pick up the feet of his own horses, but he only has one shod horse himself. "I just shoe him on the front. Seriously, when I get home from shoeing all day, the last thing I want to do is shoe my own horses. So they have to have good feet to live here."
"I truly believe that God made horses to be ridden by man. (Noted horse trainer) Buck Brannaman, I really like him, he said you think about it we take a horse and strap a dead animal on it and then another animal climbs on that one and we ride it around, that's really something to think about."
"My dad was really the one that got me liking horses a lot. We might have a bunch of hay down that we needed to bale but we'd get to messing with a colt and the hay would get rained on. Well I might be exaggerating, that probably didn't happen very often, but we were always breaking horses. And Dad liked one that would buck, he really enjoyed one that would hog in the morning. Me, I really don't."
"I'm not the best shoer in the world, I just keep trying and striving to be better. And I'm not trying to be the toughest by doing the most horses in a day or some outlaw. I'll lose the toughest horseshoer contest every time. I'm just trying to make a living, and maybe save enough to run a few more cows someday."
In other words, he's just a rancher cowboy guy doing things around. Just like his grandpa and everybody else.