In the other San Diego, the morning sun blazes by 8 a.m., dispersing the last fingers of gloomy haze and searing the sandy dirt roads leading to ranches and horse properties.
Ricky Price’s white pickup truck bounces down one of those roads in the scattered shadows of trees, stopping at a horse ranch in Ramona. Roosters crow. The air is quiet but for some whinnies and snorts.
Price hops out of the truck to greet a leather-faced man wearing blue jeans, suspenders and a white cowboy hat.
Price is a come-to-you horseshoer whose clientele tops 200 — people, not counting their multiple horses. Horses typically need new shoes every couple of months. Price has been shoeing for some families for three generations.
Price eschews his profession’s formal title: “‘Farrier’ is just a $20 word for horseshoer,” he says.
Indeed, he’s unfazed by gimmicks and touchy-feely buzzwords about horse care. He’s seen a lot of hype come and go in 34 years in the business, and has been nailing shoes to horse hooves all the while.
Born in a one-stop-sign town in Arkansas, Price’s high school classmates at a reunion couldn’t stop asking: What are you doing in California?
“Shoeing horses,” he’d reply, to dropped jaws and scoffs.
But he’s found rich soil to grow his business here. California has the second largest horse population in the country, counting about 700,000 a few years ago. And San Diego County has the largest concentration of horses in the state. Estimates from state researchers and anecdotes from local equine minds peg the county’s horse numbers between 300,000 and 400,000.
Multiplied by four, that’s a lot of shoes. The county’s horse culture stretches from the Lakeside Rodeo to the Del Mar racetrack, from trails in Bonita and San Ysidro to breeding and boarding in Vista and Ramona. It’s a robust industry — pronounced “inDUSTry” in Price’s Southern twang — with feed and tack shops, horse chiropractors and masseuses, shoers, trainers, boarding stables, hay bale deliverers and psychics.
Price loves every minute of it, as opposed to some of his neighbors who work “in town” and dread the end of the weekend. The corners of Price’s white handlebar mustache turn up meekly every time he talks about his fortune to spend every day like this.
“Knock on wood,” he says, rapping the crown of his head with his fist. “I’ve never woke up saying I don’t want to go to work.”
On a recent morning, Price opens the back of his truck, his mobile workshop, to shoe his first horse of the day, a brown mare.
His assistant, Gary Murtough, pries off the horse’s old shoes with a chisel, scraping out dirt and clumps of grass from the horse’s hoof. Meanwhile, Price gets ready to shape the new shoes.
He adjusts an anvil attached to the truck and hammers a horseshoe with a mallet until it begins to match the size and shape of each removed shoe.
With all of the old shoes off, Price approaches the horse to trim her hooves. He clucks his tongue and pats the horse to coax her to lift her back leg. With the hoof balanced between his knees, Price uses large metal pliers to trim about half an inch from the horse’s hoof.
He files the hoof to a straight base. Then he hammers eight nails per shoe at an outward angle through the part of the hoof that is like a thick, long version of a human toenail — that is, unfeeling.
One wrong move and you put a nail right into the tender part of a horse’s foot.
“Listen to that nail,” Price says. “If the sound is hollow and you’re not seeing it come out, you’re in trouble.”
That shivers-and-goosebumps-inducing image explains part of why horseshoes supposedly bring good luck, says Murtough, a collector of unfathomable horse factoids.
As the tale goes, the devil needed his hooves shod, so he went to see a blacksmith, who immediately recognized him as the devil. Instead of hammering the nails away from the tender part of the foot — as Price was just explaining — the blacksmith hammered the nails inward, meaning that every step the devil took was agonizing. Now the sight of a horseshoe is so abhorrent to the devil, he stays away from any he sees.
This morning of rustic banter, rife with folklore and history, makes a city slicker blink a couple of times. Price’s work seems at first like a time-traveling expedition to a century ago.
But that’s an understatement. Horseshoeing, Price’s daily grind, has roots in ancient Greece and Rome. All that wild horses have to do is fend for their own survival: find food, run from predators. The rest of the time, they often don’t move much. Domesticated horses are asked to do a lot more, from jumping barrels in the rodeo to pulling a carriage down a paved road.
Since the first days of trying to harness a horse’s speed and power to transport and haul, horses’ hooves have become broken and worn, and humans have worked to figure out how to avoid that outcome. Egyptians used leather sandals. Native Americans used leather boots.
That’s why Price says the argument for leaving horses’ feet bare — “it’s how wild mustangs run!” — doesn’t hold up.
On a quiet day, Price shoes 10 horses, at $100 a head, all within 40 miles of his Ramona ranch. “I’m not crossing Interstate 15,” he says.
He demurs shyly on how much the job nets him a year, but it’s a “good living.” There are enough horses for everyone to shoe, he says — no need to smear the others or get territorial.
Except for one time, in a case of mistaken identity.
Another Ricky Price moved to town in the ’80s. He was a construction worker, out of work. People came across his number and started calling him to shoe their horses. The imposter went out, bought some horseshoeing tools and began taking the clients.
“So I went up to his house and said, ‘Me and you need to talk,’” Price says. “You can’t do this. It’s my name you’re screwing up.”
The man apologized and admitted he’d been so desperate for work, he thought the job would be easy enough.
The other Ricky Price soon left town.
The job isn’t without dangers. Some horses are like “a grizzly bear with a horse coat on,” Price says. And when you’re facing down a beast outweighing you by 1,000 pounds, the work can get tense. Another horseshoer died in Valley Center last year after a horse ran him over. Price has driven nails into his arm and has caught a hoof on his wedding ring.
And though horse culture has successfully fought to remain strong here in San Diego, where you can ride a horse 12 months out of the year, the world looks different. It’s getting harder, Price says. People are moving away, or leaving acreages to grandchildren who’ve never swung into a saddle.
But for now, Price works five days a week, caring for his own 17 horses and 15 cattle before and after his horse-shoeing appointments. He often walks out the door at 6:30 in the morning, comes back inside around 9 p.m., eats dinner and goes to bed. Weeks pass quickly, and happily.
“Me and my wife, we ride every night,” he says. “You just get on your horse and talk about what happened during the day.”