TIARET: Clutching a glowing red horseshoe between blacksmith’s tongs, Meddah Larbi delights in his passion caring for horses’ hooves, as one of Algeria’s last farriers.
At his workshop at the Chaou-Chaoua national stud farm in Tiaret, 340 kilometers (210 miles) southwest of Algiers, Larbi hammered the hot horseshoe on an anvil.
He has spent years crafting shoes of all shapes and sizes, after first visiting the workshop with his horse as a 16-year-old.
“At the sight of an old man wielding a horseshoe over the coal forge, taking it from the flames, I fell in love. I knew that was what I wanted to do,” Larbi said.
He left school to become the apprentice of the farrier at Chaou-Chaoua and after four years took over the job when his mentor retired.
For the next decade, the former champion showjumper continued to ride competitively, combining his passion with a useful craft.
“In Algeria, riding horses is more of a hobby than a trade,” he said. “I had to have a profession to live by, to have social security.”
His tools of the trade hang from the workshop walls, some pieces dating from its establishment in 1877 by French colonialists.
“For me, the best symphony is the sound of the hammer on the hot iron. It’s as if I’ve turned the radio on, it fills me with happiness,” said 39-year-old Larbi.
Some of the tools he still uses have barely changed since the Middle Ages, while the work of a farrier dates back more than 1,000 years.
In recent times, more and more people are turning to machine-made horseshoes, which are lighter.
Even those factory-made shoes still have to be adapted, however, and fitted to each horse’s hoof.
Despite the technological developments, Larbi remains determined to continue crafting his own horseshoes.
Working eight-hour days in Tiaret, he passes his free time with private clients across Algeria.
The process of removing an old horseshoe, cleaning and caring for the hoof before adding the new shoe can take up to four hours per horse.
The work is tough and farriers need to be fit, Larbi said, with long days spent bending down holding onto a horse’s leg.
As well as patience and precision, he must have a deep knowledge of equine anatomy as in emergencies farriers can be called upon to serve as vets.
They can come across abscesses or laminitis — a disease affecting the hoof — which need immediate attention.
While Larbi remains enthusiastic about his work, he has been unable to find an apprentice to whom he can pass his skills on.
Most young Algerians find the work “hard and thankless, and they don’t want to learn,” he said.
There is no formal training center for farriers in Algeria, and Larbi said two apprentices he took under his wing quit after six months.
In the past 20 years, the number of Algerian farriers has fallen from around 15 to no more than six, apart from those working for the Republican Guard.
But there is no shortage of work, with one private breeder having to hire a foreign farrier to work full time.
“When my schedule is full, I can have up to 200 horses each month” with most of them being private clients, said Larbi.
Although he receives a minimum wage as a civil servant for the national stud farm, his lucrative private work can see him earn more than a million dinars ($8,400) a year, twice the average salary in Algeria.
Yet with few people willing to learn the craft, Larbi worries about its future.
A farrier’s expertise is also vital to the health of a horse, he said, highlighting an old saying: “No foot, no horse.”