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Robbie Miller (right) at a presentation ceremony for farriers, held at the Honourable Artillery Company at the headquarters of the Worshipful Company of Farriers.

Off The Record with Charl Pretorius

Most of his work is done behind the scenes, but Robbie Miller is to farriers in the South Africa racing industry what Siya Kolisi is to the Springbok rugby team – the best in his position, an inspired leader and a master of his craft, respected by his peers around the world.

Earlier this month Robbie turned 57 years of age. On Saturday, his farrier team, Miller Forge and Horseshoeing, provided his birthday present by shoeing all nine winners at the prestigious L’Ormarins King’s Plate meeting. Robbie himself shod the LKP winner, Charles Dickens, and two others. He reckons this rare feat could be a record of some kind, in modern racing history. There is nothing on file anywhere, and his leading upcountry colleagues Andy Rivas (Gauteng) and Robbie Dawson (KZN) have so far missed the same achievement by one winner, at various race meetings.

Farriery is a noble profession, and its traditions are close to Robbie’s heart. He is an Associate of London’s Worshipful Company of Farriers, a company that dates back to 1356, and can proudly write the Level 5 occupational qualification ‘AWCF’ next to his name. There are only 350 Associates in the world and just two in South Africa, the other being Johnny Murdoch.

Robbie and his five qualified employees (including his sons, Calven and Clinton) shoe horses for a number of trainers, with multiple champion Justin Snaith, Candice Bass-Robinson and Vaughan Marshall among his regular clients. Miller and co are also on full duty for champion breeders, Drakenstein Stud, after a long spell with Avontuur Estate, and active on the sports horse circuit.

Some regard farriery as something of much lesser importance than, for example, veterinary services or training itself, but Robbie stresses that qualified farriers are experts on lower equine limbs and that their professional assistance in a stable yard is essential to the well-being of horses and the success of the stable.

The primary role of the farrier is to ensure balance, support and overall health of a horse’s soundness by trimming, shaping and shoeing its feet. “There are racing fans who think we put the shoes on, chop-chop, and go on to the next horse. But it goes way beyond that. We work alongside trainers and veterinarians to prevent injuries and hoof-related issues and to address existing hoof problems which can lead to lameness, abscesses, cracks, and diseases. Hoof care schedules and treatment plans are part of the overall service,” Robbie explains.

Drakenstein has a meticulous foal-care programme and Robbie tells: “The team at Drakenstein is so successful because they attend to detail. Our part of their inclusive foal strategy is to look after the young horses’ feet from the moment they start walking around the paddocks. Everything we do is logged, there is a recorded history for every horse, for control and reference.”

Robbie’s association with the cream of breeders and a number of world-class trainers has allowed him to work with any number of track stars. His personal roll of honour reads like the who’s who of thoroughbred performers and includes names like Gimmethegreenlight, Master Of My Fate, Val De Ra, Via Africa, Dancer’s Daughter, Legislate, Do It Again, Smart Call, Rainbow Bridge, Golden Ducat, One World, Legal Eagle, Kasimir, Rio Querari, Oh Susanna, Snowdance, Beach Beauty and more recently Trip To Fortune, Power King and the mentioned Charles Dickens.

“All trainers will tell you that every individual horse has a different nature and temperament and that’s the way farriers experience them, too. They all have different habits and mannerisms in or around their stables and we have to adapt to those. Some thoroughbreds are easy, some are busy and difficult, especially the colts. Charles Dickens has been an uncomplicated customer. He has good feet and is easy to shoe. Horses get attached to their grooms and sometimes also to us. This is natural, because we see them every three or four weeks. Some have peculiarities. Dancer’s Daughter, for instance, would not allow you to stand up straight next to her. When in her company, I had to remain bent over. When I stood up, she refused to cooperate.

“Clouds Unfold would not let you touch her before she was comfortable in a spot of her own choosing. When she saw me coming, she’d move, step by step, to a ‘happy place’, somewhere in her stable before she would signal that she was ready for shoeing. It had to be done on her terms!”

As for special attachments, Robbie enjoyed a special bond with a ‘little guy’ he refers to as ‘Doug’. “Doug is a very small colt that suffered hoof problems when he was in training. He is by an unfashionable sire out of a poorly performed mare and after battling with him for a while, his owners pulled the plug. But I’d grown very fond of him, this little chap, so I offered to take him and they agreed. I took Doug to our smallholding in Joostenbergvlakte and eventually his hooves healed. My fiancé Trish worked with him, she is as passionate as I am and very good at finding homes for horses. Doug was given to one of my very good friends and he is now learning Polo-Crosse, doing very well!”

Robbie obtained most of his skills in the SA Defence Force’s mounted unit to which he was assigned to in 1987, and credits Sergeant Grant Store and his uncle, the late jockey-turned-trainer Arthur Miller, as being his mentors. “Sergeant Store was an old school soldier and horseman, he gave those who didn’t listen a good backhand to the ear!”

In later years, following trips to the Kentucky Horseshoeing School and the World Championships in Canada, he refined his skills with the help of established master farriers including the renowned Chris Gregory, founder of the Heartland Horseshoeing School in Lamar, Missouri, and author of the widely acknowledged Gregory’s Textbook of Farriery – a close friend today.

Robbie, like Gregory, was inducted into the International Horseshoeing Hall Of Fame – the first farrier on the African continent to be bestowed this honour, in 2022. Locally, he is the Vice President of SAAPF, the Southern African Association of Professional Farriers and a Chief Examiner for the FITS examinations. He tells: “In 2009 Chris Gregory wrote an exam for Brazil, and so I asked him to bring it to South Africa. That’s how the Farrier International Testing System (FITS) came to be, and it is now written in eight countries.”

Robbie has also been in discussions with government through CEEPSA. “We have been working to get a law passed that will make it compulsory for farriers to write the exams and register with the SAAPF as qualified workers in their trade. You won’t let an unqualified doctor examine your heart or a lay dentist examine your teeth, would you?”

Robbie’s ambition and pursuit of excellent standards comes from his humble and trying beginnings. He grew up at the Mary Cook Children’s home from age 5 and then went to the Salvation Army Boys Home at 11. He is keen to pass on a message to youngsters who find themselves in similar predicaments and says: “Find something to be passionate about, focus on it and don’t ever give up!”

Passion lies at the root of Robbie’s own remarkable progress to the top of his profession and he says: “My friends always laugh at me for going on ‘shoeing’ holidays to the US and Australia, but I am driven by my passion for horses and my dedication to my craft and ensuring that the standards of farriery stay high. Believe me, if there were no qualified farriers, racing would suffer immensely, even come to a standstill. As custodians of our profession, we are responsible for teaching the next generation of farriers!”

What makes a truly good farrier? “There are obvious factors like physical strength, a calm demeanour and a degree of finesse, accuracy and good communication skills but most of all horsemanship, which is something a horse can sense.”

The most important rule for a farrier? “As per my mentor, Grant Store, there is a single vital rule: ‘Don’t Screw It Up!’ When a horse comes to you in good, sound condition, it must leave you in good, sound condition with no over-trimming or suffering the main effect of over-trimming – nails driven incorrectly.”

With a ‘good, strong, back’ and all his faculties, Robbie hopes to shoe for many more years, and he has his sights on the very rare Fellowship of Worshipful Company of Farriers (FWCF), to which end he is writing a thesis on ‘Mediolateral Balance’, which deals with balance in the context of trimming and shoeing and factors related to the function of the equine hoof and distal limb.

He concludes: “There is a demand for skilled farriers and there always will be. I want to play my part in ensuring that farriers are adequately trained, that the latest scientific information is researched and made available and that we have good farriers coming through the ranks.”

Miller Forging and Horseshoeing have taken on 18-year-old Sihle Mqamelo and will be paying for and accommodating his apprenticeship. “Sihle is the son of Alfred Mqamelo who works for trainer André Nel. He is keen on becoming a farrier and we are happy to give him assistance and a grounding.”

A man of good words and deeds. That’s Robbie Miller.