Monday, 16 August 2010 10:08

Classic U.J. An Interview with the One-And-Only Joe Kriz

Written by  Stacie Lynch
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You may not know him personally, but 92-year-old Joe Kriz Sr. should still be familiar to you, as his family has graced almost every inside front cover of The Draft Horse Journal for the last 39 years, starting with the May issue of 1970.       Joe was born April 12, 1917, to Joseph, a Czechoslovakian immigrant from the city of Prague chasing the “American Dream," and Anna (Swatt), a Shamokin, Pennsylvania, native. When Joe's nephews, Timmy and Glenn–both sons of his brother Johnny, were old enough to start calling him Uncle Joe, the moniker was promptly shortened to "U.J."

U.J.’s father immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s, as a young man. After learning the family trade, he first worked as a shoer of mules in Pennsylvania's mining country. Then, after a brief career shoeing race horses, Joseph settled down on the banks of the Naugatuck River in Seymour, Connecticut, around 1920 where he and Anna raised three boys (Fred, Joe and Johnny) and three girls (Evelyn, Gertrude and Mildred). U.J.’s father shod horses until his death on March 19, 1965, just eight days shy of his 79th birthday.       Of the three brothers, only Fred spurned horseshoeing as a profession. Instead, he became a successful self-taught engineer. Their father had Fred pounding horseshoes before and after school, day in and day out, and, according to U.J., they felt this "burned him out" to the vocation. U.J. is the last surviving sibling of the six children.

U.J. and Johnny were seventh generation farriers. They were an inseparable pair. I liken them to a good team of horses. They knew what the other was going to do before he did it. You very seldom saw one without the other, nor will you hear someone refer to U.J. without Johnny’s name being mentioned and vice versa. It was devastating to many when Johnny passed away in 1996 at the age of 72, a victim of pancreatic cancer.       As of this year, U.J. will have been married to his wife, Bobbie, for 61 years. Bobbie’s cousin ran a rodeo in Milford, Connecticut, where U.J. participated. It was there that they first met. Bobbie stayed busy raising their only child, Joe Jr., and staying on top of the bookkeeping and invoicing for U.J.’s shoeing business.

U.J. at work in his shoeing shop.
Johnny and Joe, best known to DHJ readers as "The Kriz Bros."
U.J. piloting the Kriz outfit in the the Danbury State Fair's daily street parade.

At the close of the second World War, draft horses had all but vanished from New England. It was the Kriz family that kept bringing draft horses to the Northeast during the '50s and '60s when their use and popularity was dwindling. U.J.’s father was responsible for shipping horses by train carloads from the Midwest. Following their father's lead, U.J. and Johnny were among the first to bring horses by the semi-load out of horse sales in Waverly, Iowa; St. Joe, Missouri; and Columbus, Ohio. They became among the most active dealers in horses in the Northeast. U.J. recounted buying many horses from Bill Dean and Arnold Hexom at the Waverly Sale. They truly kept the draft horse industry alive in this part of the country.       I remember a story my father, Frank Castella, tells when such a semi-load would arrive back in Connecticut. My dad was nicknamed, the “Test Pilot.” He said the phone would ring and it would be either U.J. or Johnny calling, to let him know that a trailer load of new horses had arrived at the farm. He was to ride or drive each one to see if they were broke. The ones that were not broke would send him flying–hence his nickname.

U.J. continued to shoe until he was 87 years old, permanently sidelined due to a wintertime auto accident that broke his leg in 2004. How many farriers do you know that have shod horses on three continents (in U.J.'s case, Europe, North America and Asia) and can boast a 74-year horseshoeing career? U.J. has dedicated his entire life to the care of horses and their feet. When did you get started in your chosen profession?

U.J.: I began shoeing alongside my father in 1930 when I was 13 years old in Seymour, Connecticut. I would often hold the lantern for him and sweep up the blacksmith shop. When I first started, my father would have me work on the quiet, old delivery horses. I would pull shoes for him and clinch the feet once he had nailed on the shoes. My father was very strict and was very finicky about how a horse traveled. He could stand in the door of the shop and listen to the hoofbeats of a horse coming through the bridge and tell you what horse it was just by the sound. It was important to him to trim the foot properly. If he saw that I hadn’t trimmed the foot to his liking, for example if the horse was pigeon-toed, he would promptly correct me. He wanted a horse to stand straight. What have you seen change in the horseshoeing industry?

The biggest change I have seen in the industry is horses these days are shod more for show and pleasure because they are not working in the fields and/or on the streets with delivery wagons. Also, horses used to be brought to the blacksmith shop, whereas nowadays most farriers travel to the client. Rarely do they bring the horses to the farrier.       When I started shoeing, drugs and stocks did not exist for a misbehaving horse. We used ropes to sideline, tail hitch or figure-eight a horse. Using a rope caused the horse to fight himself until he was tired enough to stand to be shod. A lot of times we would wait for a farmer to bring the horses in from cultivating or plowing in the fields to shoe them when they were tired. Oftentimes we would shoe them in the field under a shade tree.

Flies were also a problem back then and we didn’t have fly spray so we would spray the horse with kerosene. We would also have the farmer use a fly whisk, made from a dead horse's tail, to keep the flies at bay while we shod the horse.

When I was younger we had three coal-burning forges in the shoeing shop. Two men manned the forges while two men shod horses. Horses would show up at the shoeing shop unscheduled throughout the day. In that time almost all of the horses were shod because they were used in the fields and on the streets with delivery wagons. Many times we would shoe well into the dark and someone would have to hold a lantern in order for us to shoe by.

In the early 1950s, Johnny and I had our shoeing shop on wheels complete with a small forge, anvil and all that was necessary to shoe a horse. This way we could go to where the horses were. We had little competition at the time. My father would stay behind in the shop to do some forging and tool sharpening.       Shoeing today is easy. In those early days before the advent of the commercial shoe, each shoe had to be completely forged by hand. All of our shoes were hand-forged from 22-inch long straight steel bar stock. We made the shoes ahead of time and often had a stockpile of them ready to be used. We also kept a stockpile of shoes and nails on hand in case there were to be a strike and we wouldn’t be able to get the necessary supplies to continue shoeing. Today shoes are pre-made and can be put on the foot with little manipulation. Once shoes were being manufactured, we began using Anvil Brand and Will Lent to supply us our shoes. We have always used Capewell brand nails.

Oftentimes we would have circus horseshoers work for us during the winter. But, once the birds started singing in the spring, they would return to the road with the circus.       In the 1960s, our charge to shoe a horse ranged from $10 to $25. Sounds like a real bargain as compared to today’s prices.

Can you share with us a little about WWII? After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Johnny and I volunteered for active duty in the armed forces. Because of our knowledge of horses and our farrier skills we were assigned to the famed Seventh Cavalry Replacement Training Center based in Ft. Riley, Kansas. Johnny and I became farrier instructors. Following basic training, Johnny and I were shipped to the Far East, eventually arriving in Camp Drake near Osaka, Japan, where we shod the staff horses and pack mules for the U.S. Occupation Forces.

Johnny and I held the post’s record time for two men nailing on four shoes at just under five minutes. Johnny once won a contest while in the Army by shoeing a horse in seven-and-a-half minutes.       One of the stories that I remember most from WWII was when we were assigned to a mule outfit heading for the China-Burma area. Our mule boats were torpedoed on the way. When the boats began to sink the mules ended up swimming in the open ocean. We had to shoot them in order to save them the suffering from drowning to death. We ended up as combat troops in the Philippines after this incident.

What has been your greatest/most treasured highlight of your shoeing career?       One of my most treasured highlights of my shoeing career was shoeing Emperor Hirahito’s personal mount, a white Arabian stallion named Hatsu Shimo (“First Frost”). When the Japanese surrendered, he gave the horse to America as a good-will gesture, so that one of our generals might ride him. It was rumored that many a farrier was beheaded when they had failed to keep Hatsu Shimo sound. The horse had been brought to the base from the Imperial Palace. He had been foundered and my brother, Johnny, and I shod him and were able to keep him sound. Our custom-made shoes did the trick and earned us an Army commendation from General Bradford, MacArthur's chief-of-staff.

The Japanese Racing Association ceremoniously gave Hatsu Shimo to motion-picture stunt man and rodeo promoter Lieutenant Dick Ryan. He was shipped to the United States in January of 1946 and eventually ended up in California where he did rodeo performances. Tell us about your rodeo days.

I was a saddle bronc rider. Johnny and I would hitchhike from rodeo to rodeo on the weekends. At the time I was still in the service and many families welcomed servicemen into their homes. No matter how badly we were injured rodeoing, when we returned to the shoeing shop my father would say, “Never mind, keep shoeing.” Who has been the most influential to you and why?

My little brother, Johnny, was the most influential to me. He was always there for me. We did everything together. In 1959, we bought 30 acres of property in Bethany, Connecticut, and built our farm together. We even built our houses next to one another. Of course we built the horse barn before we built our houses. Johnny tended to be the driving force behind our shoeing operation. What words of wisdom would you give to a new or aspiring farrier?

You have got to love what you do. If you do not love being a farrier, then you better find another profession. I have always stressed that the shoe has to be fitted to the hoof, not the hoof to the shoe. I can also add that in order to be a good farrier you must first be a good horseman. What breed of horse do you prefer and why?

Belgians are my breed of choice. My father always had Belgians and Percherons around the farm. I always preferred Belgians to all other breeds. Who are some of your most memorable clients?

One of my most memorable clients was John and Marge Riker’s 150-acre Westenhook Farm in Southbury, Connecticut, which was regarded as one of the nation’s premier Quarter Horse breeding facilities in the 1970s. It was because of them that I became one of the first flying farriers. I would travel to Florida every six weeks during the winter months to shoe their horses while they competed on the Florida circuit. Often times they would have lavish parties that I greatly enjoyed. My family also tended to the feet of the Budweiser Clydesdales, Dunromin Arabians, the horses of the Ringling Brother’s Barnum and Bailey Circus, the Yale Polo horses, the polo horses and riding horses of the University of Connecticut, the horses at the Ethel Walker and Kent Schools for riding, the world famous Mike Nichols Arabians, Disneyland’s Percheron Hitch and three of the world’s largest horses, Big John, Goliath and Mighty Sampson. Big John was 19.2 hh and weighed in at 2,640 pounds. It took 32 inches of steel to make one shoe to fit him.

Among the other famous horse owners we have worked for are James Cagney, Arthur Godfrey, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Victor Borge and Marilyn Monroe. How was it to work alongside of family?

I enjoyed working alongside of family. It may not be for everyone but it worked for us and we had a lucrative business because of it. My family has shod for the famed Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales for over 50 years. My nephew, Timmy, still shoes for the New Hampshire and St. Louis hitches. After serving in the Army, and not wanting to go to college, my son Joe Jr. decided that he would shoe with myself and Johnny. Joe Jr. continues to be a farrier today and is known to be called upon when a horse requires special attention for corrective shoeing. He shoes mainly hunters, jumpers and eventing horses. My great nephew, 17-year-old, Cody (Timmy’s son), has also shown an interest in shoeing horses. Cody has been spending some time shoeing with Timmy and will hopefully keep the tradition going and become the ninth generation in the family to become a full-time farrier. During the 1980s we had seven crew-cab shoeing trucks on the road, with 10 farriers, six days a week, for 12 to 14 hours per day and on Sunday we would shoe those horses that customers would trailer to our shoeing shop at the farm. We had approximately 500 clients and shod more than 1,600 horses during the year. Share with us a funny story you experienced while shoeing.

Many years ago Johnny and I were shoeing a horse and he had a fly-back attack in the cross ties. He ended up wedged in the barn bathroom where he kicked and kicked until he had broken the water pipes. There was water spraying everywhere. Over the years that you have worked as a farrier, how have the horses themselves evolved?

I believe that today we have better bred horses. In general, the horses are all around better. Tell us about your crooked middle finger.

I had broken my finger shoeing. The doctor put a splint on it but every time I tried to grab a nail, it was in my way. It slowed me down enough that I took it off and continued to shoe without it. After time, my finger healed crooked.       As a side note: Johnny also had a crooked pointer finger, for just the same reason. Timmy, U.J.’s nephew, recalls getting what he deemed the “Crooked Finger Mini Lectures” where Johnny would shake his crooked pointer finger at him while exclaiming “TIM, NEVER, EVER, EVER…!!!”

Tell us about the world-renowned family horseshoe pile. My father’s first shoeing shop stood in the shadow of the old covered bridge near the high school. When a new road came into town, the covered bridge was removed and so was the original shoeing shop. The shoeing shop was then moved to further upstream on the riverbank, past the main bridge until the fateful morning of August 19, 1955, when the river rose and claimed it in the historic flood, washing away an irreplaceable collection of my father’s antique sleigh bells, ox yokes, and similar artifacts as well as all traces of a half-century of blacksmithing. The shoeing shop was then moved inland a half mile from the river to a cinder block shop on Route 67 in Seymour, Connecticut, and the shoe pile began to take shape. We were once offered $5,000 for the whole pile by a man from a museum in Texas. He wanted to ship the whole thing to Texas for an exhibit. We declined the offer and moved the shoe pile to the new farm from the shop in Seymour and it has continued to grow ever since.

Tell us about your involvement with the Danbury State Fair in Danbury, Connecticut? The Danbury State Fair was known to be the most unique fair in America, because it had so many spectacular attractions. One year the fair had an attendance of 70,000 in one day. During the fair, from 1960 until 1981, together with my brother Johnny we would put on display 47 head of horses. The horses were all used in the daily grand street parade. We would hook several multiple hitches, a couple of six-horse hitches, a four-horse hitch and even a nine-horse hitch. We would sell horses under the pretense that we would need to borrow them back for use at the fair. Just prior to the fair, we would do a lot of horse wrangling to get all of the horses that were needed for the display.

It was at the Danbury Fair that my father shod the Budweiser Clydesdales for the first time and we’ve been shoeing for them ever since. We have shod them in 48 states and in Canada, too. What is your opinion on the way showing draft horses has changed over the years?

I believe today, showing is more about the foot action that the horses have, more so than the ability of the teamster and the teamwork of the horses. Today’s emphasis is more on animation and style than it is about longevity in the farm fields. How do you feel about the extreme shoeing/flaring of today’s hitch-type horse for the show ring?

I have referred to it sometimes as “idiotic” shoeing. A lot of horses are over-shod and I do not particularly agree with the extreme pitching of a horse’s hocks. Not everyone over-shoes their horses but there are some that do. There is also a lot of “fake” in the shoeing today–Meaning that there is a lot of hoof putty and pads used to create a hoof. What can the customers do to make a farrier visit easier or less stressful for ourselves, the horse and for the farrier?

Handle your horses' feet when they are young. The more they are handled, the better they will be. If you were never involved with horses, what direction do you think your life would have gone and why?

I believe I would have been a veterinarian. When horses in town were injured, they would bring them to the shoeing shop and there was a veterinarian close by. The shoeing shop became a makeshift veterinarian’s hospital. I always enjoyed watching the veterinarian doctor up the horses. If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?

I wouldn’t do anything differently. Well, maybe I would chase more women. What do you miss most about going out shoeing every day?

I greatly miss my customers. U.J., Johnny and the whole Kriz family have taught many a man and a single woman (U.J. says she is a good shoer too) to shoe horses. My husband, Brian Lynch, is among those that apprenticed with the Kriz family, in his case for 14 years from the time he was twelve years old. Brian would go shoeing with U.J. a few days each week. He recounted a story to me recently about U.J. that I felt was worth sharing. When U.J. was in his 80s he decided it was time to purchase a new shoeing truck. Set to purchase the new truck, he went to the dealership with enough cash in his pocket to buy it outright. A little confused, the truck dealer asked him what he needed a new truck for. U.J. explained that he was a horseshoer and that he needed it to put a shoeing body on it to go shoe horses with and that he was going to pay for it in cash. The dealer thought this to be an odd request for an 80+ year old man, so he then asked for U.J.'s name and for his wife’s phone number. The dealer proceeded to call Bobbie at home and explain to her that there was an elderly man there wanting to buy a truck for cash to go horseshoeing. The dealer thought that U.J. was suffering from dementia and refused to sell him the truck. U.J. came home and exclaimed, “Do you believe that they wouldn’t sell me a truck! What is this world coming to?” In the end, U.J. did purchase a new truck.

Brian can only add that he has been honored and privileged to have been able to learn from and work with U.J. and the rest of the Kriz family. One of U.J. and Johnny’s favorite quotes for their employees was, “If you do not want to work hard, your shoeing apron will fit someone else tomorrow.”       In 1999, U.J. and Johnny were inducted to the International Horseshoeing Hall of Fame; a reward for many years of hard work. They are the only two farriers from Connecticut to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. U.J. has made significant contributions to the farrier industry and has left lasting impressions on many in not only the draft horse world but the horse world in general.

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