QCS Managng Editor
Jim Keith started shoeing horses when he was 15 because he rode them. He didn’t know there were people who would shoe a horse for you.
Then he became one of those people he did not know existed when he was 15. In fact, one of the best.
Keith, a Tucumcari resident, is a world-renowned master and teacher of farrier arts, beyond horseshoes into sculpture, and a successful manufacturer of blacksmithing tools, selling his wares around the world.
Even now at 71, Keith brings home world championship trophies. His most recent triumph occurred at the Calgary Stampede last July as he led a team that included his uncle, Melvin Keith of Logan, and a young farrier named Chris Madrid of Stanley, near Moriarty, to win world honors against more than 100 competitors.
Before they arrived in Calgary, Alberta, Keith constructed a sculpture consisting of a life-size forearm wielding a blacksmith’s hammer. In Calgary, the team had three hours to construct another piece. This turned out to be a fully detailed, life-size pair of hands holding a flower. Both pieces won top honors.
The arm-and-hammer sculpture became a trophy after winning one, Keith said. The Mustad Co., which makes farrier tools and blanks that can be crafted into useful implements, bought the sculpture and bestowed it upon the winner of its own “master of masters” farrier competition. Keith said.
Keith’s name was added in 1993 to the Farrier Hall of Fame, located at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. Keith has won top international honors there, as well.
As the keynote speaker at the Rattler Reunion’s Grand Banquet on Aug. 3, Keith described recent trips to Japan and Brazil where he taught refined farrier techniques at colleges and, in Brazil, at a world-renowned race track in Sao Paulo.
Keith said most of his skills are self-taught, and he learned them in his spare time while doing other jobs. He was in the Army from 1964 to 1966. When he returned, he worked as a lineman for the city of Tucumcari, working 40 hours a week there, but shoeing horses on the side for up to 30 hours a week. He then worked as an electrician for the city, and said he wired the present City Hall and public library.
Eventually he “hit a ceiling” in his city career and decided to try horseshoeing as a full time career.
He worked full-time shoeing horses at the Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron for 15 years, then shod horses at the Bell Ranch. Then he traveled a lot, he said, because in order to be a successful farrier, one must travel with the business.
His career took another turn in 1982, when he was invited to teach in the new Foundations in Metalworking program at the Tucumcari Area Vocational School in Tucumcari, which has become Mesalands Community College. He started teaching and settled in Tucumcari.
In the next year, he opened Jim Keith Tools in a building on Railroad Avenue where he continues plying his craft. His store has attracted customers from all over the world. Jim Keith Tools made and sold the tools blacksmiths use, including tongs, creasers and hoof knives, for 20 years. He sold the business this year.
As a teacher, Keith said, he was proud of his 85-percent retention rate. That was the percentage of his students who were farriers five years after they graduated from the program. In the 1990s, he left Mesalands, and the Mustad corporation started sending him to professional farriers to undergo advanced training with Keith, he said.
Keith is as proud of the five world champion farriers who have trained under him as he is of his own numerous titles. He won world-champion honors at the Kentucky Horse Park, an epicenter of thoroughbred horse breeding, training and shoeing, in 1991. In 2006 and this year, Keith took or shared top honors at the Calgary Stampede.
He has also demonstrated farrier arts on the Washington, D.C.’s National Mall at New Mexico Folk Festivals sponsored by the Smithsonian.
The secret of his success, he said, is getting around and learning from others by watching them work.
One of his protégés, Craig Trnka once told Keith, “The deadliest disease for farriers is isolation.” Keith said he has adopted that advice as his own.
Craig Madrid, who worked with Keith to win in Calgary this summer, calls Keith “ a genius” as both artist and coach.
“He’s got an eye for correcting your technique just by watching you work,” Madrid said.
In a singe 20-minute session, Madrid said, Keith showed him a trick to the final refinement on a pair of tongs. Madrid said he practiced that technique and won his own world title as a result.
Madrid said Keith is also a genius as an artist. He draws as well as he can sculpture with farrier tools, Madrid said.
Behind it all, Madrid said, is a humble person.
To see that, he said, “All you have to do is have breakfast or dinner with him.”