Blaine high school senior Jen Mallahan may be a few months shy of her diploma, but she has something else to make her proud: a business license.
Jen is a professional farrier, and began her career in shoeing horses this month. For her high school senior Project, Mallahan decided to turn her love of horses into a learning experience and eventual career.
In February, Mallahan completed a two-month intensive farrier training program at Mission Farrier School in Snohomish where she learned the trade on a horse ranch.
After finishing her high school graduation requirements early, Jen plunged into the intensive curriculum at farrier school, which involved everything from equine anatomy in a classroom setting to hands-on metalworking.
As far as senior projects go, it was a bit nontraditional. But Mallahan has never been one for tradition when it comes to her high school career.
As a sophomore, she perplexed administrators when she suggested they use goats to clear some land for a soccer field. Despite initial opposition, the self described “very determined” Mallahan stuck to her guns, and goats were soon munching away at brush that would have otherwise been cleared by machinery.
With the average student in their 40s, Mission Farrier School was quite a departure from Blaine high school. And the setting couldn’t be more different: Jen learned the farrier trade from her rancher-teachers, where students lived communally in a bunkhouse when not spending long days in class. It was a far cry from high school socially, too.
“There were no conflicts, no drama … it was a lot different from high school,” said Jen, who came back to Blaine high school for band, where she plays trumpet.
She excelled at farrier school, earning the only 100 percent final score in her class. The school specializes in the Natural Balance approach to horseshoeing, which is based on a more comfortable hoof shape and shoe position for the horse. Shoe placement is on the weight-bearing sole of the hoof rather than the perimeter, which is the traditional place for attaching shoes.
“It’s the difference between running in ski boots and running in tennis shoes,” Jen said. “A lot of people bring in horses that are hobbling and limping. Slap shoes on them in a place where they appreciate it and it’s like a miracle, almost.”
She closely observes the walk of each horse she shoes to look for potential problems, and takes care to shoe precisely.
“Every time we shoe or trim a horse, we’re performing minor surgery. We want to make sure we’re doing something for the horse, not just to the horse,” Jen said.
Last Saturday, Jen set out to put new back shoes on Rio, her eight-year old even-tempered black-and-white horse with bright blue eyes. Jen and her boyfriend, Blaine high senior Max Yakovonis, are surrounded by an arsenal of equipment.
In addition to enough custom tools to make most tradespeople look like quaint amateurs, Jen travels from job to job with a forge, the propane tank to fuel it and an anvil on a custom-welded shoeing stand.
After a careful inspection of Rio’s back left hoof, she cleans and trims it to the proper shape, giving it a long, focused look before heading toward her tools.
“I shape my shoes by a process called Eagle Eye,” said Jen. “I keep the shape of the hoof in my mind as I prepare the shoe.”
With the image of the hoof seared into her mind, Jen take a new shoe and ignites the forge, holding the shoe with specialized tongs, watching intently as it changes color from silvery gray to glowing orange.
She sets the shoe down for a moment to tuck her long hair under her Mission Farrier School cap, then sets to work shaping the shoe to the mental image she’s holding.
After holding it to Rio’s hoof, she takes the pliable metal back to the anvil and gives it a final shaping, striking a few more dull-sounding blows with a hammer. She plunges the shoe into a bucket of water, with a loud hiss announcing that it’s ready for nailing.
With her perfectly-shaped horseshoe, Jen returns to Rio with a different set of tools. She goes over the finer points of attaching the shoe with a muffled voice – she’s holding the nails in her teeth as she works. Somehow, she can do both the physically demanding job and recite encyclopedic knowledge on shoeing at the same time, taking multitasking to new heights. With the shoe firmly anchored she applies the procedure to the back right hoof, going through the process again until, with new back shoes, she shows off her horse’s new and improved walk.
Jen and Max reward the patient horse with a large red apple before taking him back to the pasture. She’s had Rio for eight years, adopting him under adverse conditions.
At first, he could barely be ridden, and her instructors said it would be at least a year before she could compete on Rio. But six months later, they were barrel racing.
Mallahan said she’s happy that her passion for horses led to her trade as a farrier, and is working hard to repay her family for attending the program, and plans to keep her business in Whatcom County after graduation.
As many of her classmates brace themselves for an uncertain future and are still deciding on their post-graduation plans, Jen said she is happy to have set her career path and own her own business.