Every year, thousands of Stampede visitors take in the World Championship Blacksmiths’ Competition, where competitors demonstrate their skill and creativity forging steel into horseshoes in the time-honoured tradition of blacksmithing.
These days, it’s not only men who become farriers, women have shown a keen interest in the profession. “Right now, at the school in Langley, there are four guys in farrier training and eight girls!” says Iain Ritchie, a farrier out of B.C.’s Fraser Valley who’s been competing in the World Championship Blacksmiths’ Competition for the last nine years. “It used to be farriers were all men, but that’s changing.”
Still, the World Championship Blacksmiths’ Competition – a rather audacious misnomer given to what was, at the time, “a pretty modest little challenge among a few local guys pulling into the show ring and making a few horseshoes,” says Erik Swanby, chairman of the Calgary Stampede Blacksmith Committee – began as an exclusively male contest, full of all the brawn and bravado of the cowboy culture.
This year, some 56 contestants from all over the world, will vie for $10,000 in prize money, a silver belt buckle, a big bronze trophy and bragging rights, in a competition that’s earned its legitimate due as an internationally-recognized worldwide championship contest for blacksmithing.
“You can go anywhere in the world now and meet up with farriers who know the World Championship Blacksmiths’ Competition is held annually at the Calgary Stampede,” says Erik. “There are other farrier and blacksmith competitions in the world, but we’re the highest paying, and ours is the most prestigious.”
The traditional art of blacksmithing encompassed more than just shoeing horses. Local blacksmiths used to provide such basic essentials as forks, door hinges and ploughshares. As factory manufacturing took over the production of tableware, home hardware and farming wares, blacksmithing kept its niche as an artistic expression of custom creativity and practicality. And it’s these aspects that have been celebrated for the last 30 years at the blacksmiths’ competition.
Although most commercial blacksmithing now employs propane forges, the World Championship Blacksmiths’ Competition uses traditional coke-fired forges, (see sidebar) demanding of its competitors the ability to work with old-school heat.
“We want to retain some of our western heritage: we’re not just putting on a competition, we’re putting on a show for the public. Fifteen years ago, we still used the very old-school coal-fired forge,” says Erik.
Blacksmithing by its very nature has a sweaty, earthy quality, and this will always appeal to a certain kind of character who appreciates the natural over the contrived, the organic over the sterile.
“When I started blacksmithing 22 years ago, it was just a job,” says Iain. “But every year that I work in this industry, I enjoy it more. I’ve become better at it and I’m more than happy practicing my craft, travelling, competing with a great bunch of people and having a ton of laughs. I like the people – kooky, crazy people,” he adds. “Farriers seem cut from the same cloth.”
For Iain, the camaraderie of the horse community is as appealing as the work itself. He now competes at some eight or more blacksmithing and farrier competitions annually, carting “as many tools as you can fit into the 50 pound bag they’ll let you take on the plane,” from contest to contest.
The World Championship Blacksmiths’ Competition consists of a series of forging, horseshoeing and team events, where competitors earn points in an attempt to garner a spot as one of the top 10 finalists. Those 10 finalists square off on Sunday, July 10, 2011 under the Big Top.
“In the past, we’ve opened up the contest to first come, first served, and we’ve had as many as 120 contestants from 22 countries,” says Erik. “We just found that logistically it wasn’t feasible to get through even a skeleton competition with that many participants. Now we’ve capped the number competing at 60, and with the worldwide prominence of the event, we’ve really been choosey about the calibre of contenders.
“We’re also trying to promote the team concept, because there seems to be a trend of working together more,” adds Erik. “Farriers are finding that, working alone, they might be able to shoe five horses in a day, but working in pairs, they can probably shoe 12 horses.”
A real crowd pleaser at the Stampede’s World Championship Blacksmiths’ Competition is the Draft Horse Shoeing Class, giving teams of four, two hours to make and shoe a draft horse.
“And they have to work hard and fast to get that done,” chuckles Erik.
For more information about the World Championship Blacksmiths’ Competition, visit www.calgarystampede.com/ag, click on Events/Schedule and scroll down to the event. .