Toby Nelson: Horseman’s Farrier

Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns
Toby Nelson, farrier
Toby Nelson has been shoeing horses for 55 years. He may not be taking on 18 a day anymore, but he said he's not going to have to join a gym to get his exercise anytime soon. Courtesy photo.
Toby Nelson

For want of a nail the shoe was lost;

For want of a shoe the horse was lost;

For want of a horse the battle was lost;

For failure of battle the kingdom was lost;

All for the want of a horseshoe nail


Toby Nelson is strongly attuned to horseshoe nails.

When he first got involved with teaching a school for farriers in Sturgis, South Dakota, in the early 1960s, Nelson says, “The building was long, maybe 60 feet or so. We had tie stalls for at least nine horses, with plenty of room to work around each one. I could be in one end of that building and hear some guy start to drive a nail down near the other end, and tell if it was backward.”

Nelson is finely attuned to horseshoe nails because he’s finely attuned to horses.

Nelson’s early years were spent in the country near Mobridge, South Dakota. He says his great-aunt Helena came over from Norway in 1875, to join her husband who had come to America in 1874. “All she knew was that he was somewhere in the middle of South Dakota,” Nelson says. “After she reached America and got off the ship, she started West. Then winter came, so she found a job waiting tables in Chicago and laid over there until spring. But she found him.”

Nelson’s mother Agnes was the daughter of Paul and Ingeborg Anna (Eklo) Karlsen from Norway who settled near Mobridge in 1879. After bearing five children, she was widowed when Nelson was just a few months old. The eldest son Palmer, 15 at the time, had to step into the role of family leader, protector and provider.

According to another brother, Tilman John Nelson, who was 10 when their father died, Palmer did a very good job of it. Tilman told his kids that after the first year under Palmer’s management the Nelsons were able to buy both a brand new tractor and a new car.

While on the place at Mobridge, Nelson says, “We had everything we needed to eat. We raised chickens, and had eggs, and we milked enough cows. The only thing that had to be bought on that place was flour, salt and pepper – and we ate like kings.”

Nelson recalls a double wagon box that had been set in their basement, filled with potatoes after the summer harvest. It dwindled through the winter but when new potatoes came in the spring he says, “the pigs got a feast from what was left” –the family had never run out.

“A big part of our food was caught out of the river,” Nelson says. “Channel cats, blue cats–we not only fished to eat but sold a lot of the fish we caught.” The catching was with nets and trot lines, and in the summertime they used boats to set lines and nets.

That Missouri River even gave them a way to make money in winter. “The river froze over with several feet of ice in the winter,” Nelson said. “Our dad had put up ice to sell to the neighbors.” Many years later Toby helped in the same job, but with his characteristic twinkle he says that putting up ice was a tough job — “because it was so hard to find anybody to work the lower end of the saw!”

When they lived near Mobridge, Nelson says the kids all rode horseback to a country school. He completed his first three years of high school in Mobridge before the family moved to North Dakota, to what Nelson refers to as “Palmer’s ranch on the Little Missouri,” 27 miles from Grassy Butte.

At its peak, Grassy Butte was a community of a few hundred, but became more of a ghost town after the Dust Bowl era when many Homesteaders starved out and left. The Grassy Butte Post Office, built in 1914, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Nelson describes his youth there as “pretty much footloose, and totally aimless.”

One time he decided to help his older brother, Alvin, shoe a black horse he owned, called Spade. “I was working on him in this little old shed and pretty soon I found myself headfirst on the other side of the deep freeze,” Nelson said. “About that time Alvin had some words to say about me going to a horse shoeing school Bud Good had in Sturgis.”

Thus either Alvin or the black horse may have been the catalyst for Nelson’s career as a farrier.

Nelson’s first day at the school was Jan. 2, 1962. After finishing the school, Nelson began helping teach it, and he’ll tell you today, “I never did get away, yet.”

He recalls all sorts of good and bad times shoeing horses, and working with the school, where they used the old US Cavalry Manual for farriers as a textbook.

“In that experience, that whole process was very educational,” he says. “We taught three 12-week classes a year — January, April and September. We usually had from seven to eighteen students, and they came from all over.” Nelson says they had a brochure made up about the course, and might’ve advertised in Western Horseman magazine, but most of their business was inspired by word of mouth.

Nelson’s deep connection to the horse and his expertise as a farrier soon attracted the attention of Dr. John Ismay at Sturgis Vet Clinic. Many lameness issues can be related to and corrected by hoof care, so before long Nelson was providing adjunct and follow up therapy to some of Dr. Ismay’s patients.

Nelson rendered therapeutic farrier service through Sturgis Vet Clinic from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s and says, “I did a tremendous amount of work out there, on that cement floor, and it really took its toll on my body.”

Nelson struggled with the short-term relationship he had with his patients at the clinic. Many were from out of the area, so after his initial treatment was done, he never saw some of them again. “I would start working with a horse that had problems and maybe get to shoe it once or twice and then it would be gone and I’d never see it again nor know how it was doing. I prefer to stay with my regular clients.”

Nelson shod racehorses a little, but soon realized he would have to make a choice – either go into shoeing racehorses exclusively, or focus on therapy to help the horse. “I thought maybe that little 2-year-old girl that loves her horse so much is the one I want to help, instead of the rich man whose horses are expendable,” Nelson said.

That’s the course he’s stuck with, and he doesn’t have any plans to alter his course.

“I’ve been shoeing since 1962. I keep thinking about that and I’m already tired – so why retire,” he quips.

In his 55 years of experience Nelson has seen a lot of innovations come through the industry, and a lot of them go as well. Nelson’s worked with a lot of composites and discovered that they aren’t durable enough for the purpose, with the exception of aluminum.

“My experience is that the most can be done for a horse barefoot or with traditional materials,” Nelson said.

Though his focus has always been on quality, rather than quantity, the sheer numbers made some days memorable. “I’m sure there’s been days I did more, but I remember one time when my wife was helping me, I shod six at Vale, then I remember us having lunch with that fellow. Then I brought her home, and went another place and shod 12 before I was done.”

As for the physical toll it’s taken on him, “I’ve realized I must be really stupid,” he jests. “You see people start shoeing, and in about three months they quit — saying, ‘This is too hard.’ I’m now into the 55th year of shoeing. It has kind of caught up with me lately. Five years ago, my back was so bad that my leg went numb. For a 2-month period of time I was only able to keep three horses going. While I was looking for answers about what was wrong and what to do, I saw people in beds and wheel chairs. I don’t want that for a life.”

Those thoughts prompted Nelson to keep working, and he has now worked through the severe problems. He also uses chiropractic therapy successfully, and says his chiropractor has recently gotten a new table that’s really working for him.

“Beyond that, one of the reasons I guess I’ve been able to stick it out so long is the horses,” Nelson says. “I communicate well with them, and have made a lot of buddies among my clients; especially those old geriatric ones. Horses are amazing, how they think and communicate.”

Though thousands of horses have been through his life, some left a lasting impression. “One of the wildest examples of the understanding you can forge with them was a horse that had just roped too many steers. His knees were very sore, but the guy wanted me to shoe him, so his wife could just ride him around the place. I tried several times to get him to let me work on him, but he just couldn’t stand it.

“So I went and got a block of wood, just about the right height, and I put it under his hoof to get it up where I could work on it — where he was just resting his leg there and didn’t have to bend the knee. He stood easily for me to do the job. The next time I went there I reached down for a stick and he came right over to me and lifted his hoof up just where he wanted me to put the stump under it.”

Recently, in October 2017, Nelson says, “I got up and fixed breakfast at 4:30 a.m. Then I drove to Bison and trimmed five head.” After doing that, he was back in Sturgis by 1 p.m. “It felt good, kind of like the old times,” he said. “I’ve had one good day this week. One thing about it, I don’t have to buy a membership in some gym to exercise.”