North Texas Daily

Forging a state of mind

Forging a state of mind

Andy McConnell watches the coals for fashioning horseshoes to make sure they heat to the right temperature. Hannah Ridings | Contributing Photographer

Forging a state of mind
August 05
15:07 2016

By Matt Payne 

Once you hit Weatherford en route to West Texas on Interstate 30, veering off onto a bumpy rock road that twists into an offbeat, grassy 80 acres will land you at a modest, former dairy farm.

It’s a vast stretch that has been owned by the same family for two generations. Sun-kissed hills of coarse pasture gallop up and down for miles with countryside estates dotting their tops. Big pick-up trucks and white picket fences make for a throwback to archetypal Southern scenery of yesterday.

The sweltering, steamy heat of a midsummer day summoning streams of sweat down the visage of anybody outside for at least five minutes is something you just learn to accept – to endure it is a prideful thing to the select ranchers and cowtown folk who rise at the crack of dawn for an honest day of manual labor, everyday.

Andy McConnell and his dog Tango hard at work in the office. Hannah Ridings | Contributing Photographer

Andy McConnell and his dog Tango hard at work in the office. Hannah Ridings | Contributing Photographer

Inside the old dairy farm, billowing, milky clouds of smoke and hissing coal fire dial up the heat as Andy McConnell, a farrier, and his trusty Border Collie mix, Tango, fashion a horseshoe with a hammer that throngs upon one single length of carbon fiber. He grits his teeth through the garish green haze, betraying a proud grin as he recalls some reckless, drunken tomfoolery whenever he free-spiritedly jury rigged a cannon in his forge (and fired it) with his old mentor.

“One thing you have to understand about me is that I’m not one to be limited by better judgment,” McConnell said.

Find McConnell out at this old dairy farm, Cam Forge Farrier Service, fashioning horseshoes and rancher tools on one in the collection of his kilns he strikes ablaze in 100-degree-plus weather. Or at another rancher’s plot of land tending to a house call to meet their horses and shoe them, with one of his portable forges he sets up directly under the sun. A farrier is a craftsman who trims and shoes horses’ hooves, and with each strike of his heavy hammer, McConnell has fashioned his own way of life.

McConnell is exhilarated by his craft, constantly joshing his clients and understudies with humor as he works. Upon graduating high school, he’d attend Texas State University and was involved in their horseshoeing school, where he’d begin to grow his knowledge on how horseshoes affect the minutia of a steed’s gait and trot, and how to interact with these sentient animals that’ll unhesitatingly buck you square in the chest with the wrong approach. As an extracurricular activity and escape from classes, the craft became second nature to McConnell.

What didn’t come so seamlessly was higher academia itself. After deliberation, McConnell dropped out of university and decided to travel to Australia.

He remembers the overwhelming rigmarole before one particular term: talks of tests and libraries and classes and accolades and a commitment he simply couldn’t envision himself undertaking.

“I looked at my dad, we had a moment and I eventually reached the point when I told I couldn’t do it,” McConnell said. “It was liberating.”

So, for nine months, McConnell trekked across Australia to completely immerse himself into the reputable farrier culture it hosts. He’d nomadically meet dozens of his kind, attending competitions for the craft that would continually stagger his knowledge by way of real-life practice.

McConnell learned techniques exclusive to a seasoned farrier overseas. He would bring them back to the states with a drive to establish his own forge service and a new state of mind. In fact, though he travelled to modern-day Australia, he compares it to the now bygone ‘50s American way of life.

“I traveled across the country and I couldn’t tell you how many people took me in,” he said. “People still ate together at the dinner table – it was a different style.”

At one competition he attended whenever he returned to the states, fate would have it that he’d meet the son of his future mentor, Jim Poor. After a few dinners and beers together, the two would converge passion with McConnell becoming his apprentice. His time with Poor is what he considers his true turning point. Going so far as naming his oldest son after Poor.

“I learned the fine line between being both a horseman and a business man,” McConnell said, emphasizing the fact that he’s always been a horseman first.

A display shows the types of horse shoes Andy McConnell can make in his shop. Hannah Ridings | Contributing Photographer

A display shows the types of horse shoes Andy McConnell can make in his shop. Hannah Ridings | Contributing Photographer

And beyond running a business, McConnell’s work as a farrier has saved him from stretch of depression.

One day whenever McConnell was returning to his shop after a day of work, he was backing his truck into his driveway only to run over and kill his old dog, harkening a dark time in his life marred with alcoholism and lack of motivation.

During this time, McConnell clung to what he loved doing, and sought more knowledge by sitting in classes at the University of Texas at Arlington, a stark contrast to his former relationship with higher academia. He remembered running into one professor he was interested in studying among his physics class. McConnell asked him routine questions that included necessary books and homework. Whenever said professor asked about his lack of enrollment, he gingerly admitted that he simply was interested in learning about something that piqued his interest.

In a way, McConnell realized his humanity and imperfection, ultimately coming to terms with losing his original dog. So he continued to take time out of his own work schedule to drive to Arlington among sleepy, unenthusiastic students while he was chipper to collect every morsel of knowledge he could. Half Priced Books became a sanctuary for him, propelling him to learn specific design software that has aided him in designing the tools he creates and sells.

He reached a point when he fell in love with his border collie, Tango, who is his right-hand partner for his brand of intense labor, through both the smog of the kiln and the smog in his life.

“I became a thief for knowledge,” McConnell said. “Constantly bettering myself and learning new things is therapeutic for me.”

Like most crafts, there’s more to merely knowing how to perform a specific task, and McConnell sharpened his awareness of this after this time, but also under the hooves of a formerly abused horse named Zena.

Zena, whose home is a ranch just east of Denton, has a history of being beaten and neglected. Her owner, Lyn Carnley, has had bad luck with bringing on farriers before McConnell who’ve unceremoniously whipped her hind-legs to try and tame her, only to be met with ruthless whinnying.

These abusive farriers have all worn aprons, which has become a trigger for Zena. Anybody donning one filled with tools and metal becomes the object of her distress and derision.

Andy, the farrier who made a name for himself as a North Texas farrier and blacksmith. Hannah Ridings | Contributing Photographer

Andy, the farrier who made a name for himself as a North Texas farrier and blacksmith. Hannah Ridings | Contributing Photographer

“Once I saw him strike her, I told him to haul his ass home,” Carnley said to McConnell at an appointment. “People still treat these animals like tools.”

Unaware of this, McConnell approached the horse with his routine apron strapped to his chest. Zena immediately clacked forward in a raucous havoc. It was only after several minutes of analysis that McConnell undid his apron and heaved it back into the bed of his pick-up truck to calmly approach Zena, slowly caressing her, knowing that violence toward any sensitive creature is condemnation.

“I have to be very careful of who I let work with her,” Carnley said. “It takes a certain level of trust, and [McConnell] exhibited that.”

There are a lot of trinkets and tools and tall bottles of several brews in that rustic dairy farm that’s home to Cam Forge Farrier Service, but now, there’s a man whose enveloped himself in knowledge and passion; a craft airplane that dangles from the ceiling as if it were bathing in the fluorescent light; a desktop background at his office plastered with the words “THINK BIG.”

“I took time to help myself,” McConnell said. “I had to save myself.”

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1 Comment

  1. Dusty
    Dusty December 04, 21:42

    Andy McConnell is a genuine person who has a heart of gold! He has incredible talent and skill and is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the pleasure getting to learn from!

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