From aerospace engineer to horse healer
SecondAct contributor David Ferrell is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and the author of the comic baseball novel “Screwball”. This article originally appeared on SecondAct.com. Top photo courtesy of Gail Snyder.
As an aerospace engineer, Gail Snyder labored on the frontiers of science, devising experiments for the Space Shuttle and later designing flight-simulation software for the X-31 high-maneuverability fighter jet. She spent her final years in the corporate world at Boeing Aircraft, in Southern California, doing flight simulations for satellites.
Two bad breaks, however, knocked her life into a wholly different orbit. One was the loss of her job; Boeing retrenched in 2002, laying off close to 5,000 workers. At about the same time, Snyder’s young horse, Clover, went lame.
The double whammy plunged Snyder into a difficult few years of scraping by with consulting work and doing internet research on hoof care. She emerged with a new career, in a new home state, with a vastly more fulfilling lifestyle.
Now 57, she heads a fledgling company, Hoof Squad Inc., in the tiny town of Sedalia, Colo., where she drives hundreds of miles each month in the rolling ranchland south of Denver to tend to horses suffering with aching feet and poor health. It’s often back-straining work–and it pays only a fraction of the six-figure salary she made as an engineer–but she is fitter and happier than ever.
“If you have the ability to heal animals and you have a love for animals, it’s tireless,” Snyder says. “There are so many horses out there that need me. I get these emotional calls from owners. They call me on the phone, crying. I show up and they’ve got coffee and a Danish waiting for me. People have bought me earrings and bottles of wine. There’s this happy, fuzzy feeling all around.”
Snyder’s studies of the hoof–not only online but also at seminars taught by some of the nation’s leading equine experts–have made her an enthusiastic devotee of natural trimming, a type of care that involves removing the metal horseshoes that are typically nailed onto the hoof. Horse lovers who advocate the natural approach say metal shoes and nails can damage the hoof and keep it from reaching the proper size to support the animal.
A growing number of veterinarians have come to endorse natural trimming, especially for horses with certain debilitating hoof diseases, says Dr. Lisa Lancaster, a Denver-based veterinarian and author of the book, “The Sound Hoof”.
“Many horses they previously thought could not go without shoes actually can–and, in fact, can do better that way,” Lancaster says. “It is actually considered mainstream now among many vets and farriers to remove shoes from these horses and rehabilitate them barefoot.”
The best models for how hooves should be, says Snyder, are the wild mustangs of the western plains, which never wear shoes.
“They don’t have anyone touch their feet and their feet are perfectly balanced,” she says. “None of them are lame. None of them are overweight. They don’t have any of the issues that domestic horses have.”
The catch is, a wild mustang travels up to 20 miles a day, wearing down the keratin of the hoof–the same tough, fibrous, continually growing material that makes up a human fingernail. Since domestic horses normally don’t run enough to keep their hooves sufficiently worn, Snyder trims hooves manually, using knives and abrasive tools such as rasps and power grinders. The job requires training and practice to make sure the hoof is properly shaped to give the horse balance.
“I haven’t been kicked,” says Snyder, who charges $100 per horse for an hour-long initial trimming. However, difficult horses fuss or refuse to stand still. And the summer heat can be almost unbearable.
As the lone trimmer in the three-year-old company, Snyder sees up to 30 horses a week, but her secondary mission is to train horse owners who have an interest in doing the work themselves.
“She cares about the horse first,” says Maria Matlaga, a resident of the rural town of Parker, Colo., who first hired Snyder two years ago. “She knows the hoof like I’ve never seen anybody know the hoof.”
Matlaga’s quarterhorse, Flash, had developed insulin resistance, a condition comparable to human diabetes. The horse’s hooves were in poor condition. Snyder fixed them up and put Flash on a diet of low-sugar grass hay, vitamin and probiotic supplements, and ground flax. The transformation, Matlaga says, has been almost miraculous. “He’s a different horse,” she says. “Boy, is it like night and day.”
Nancy Niemi trained under Snyder so she could care for the 13 horses she keeps on her property near Colorado Springs. “I didn’t have the self-confidence to think I could do it,” Niemi says. “Gail completely turned that around.
“It’s amazing,” she adds. “I haven’t had a vet out here for a year and a half for anything.”
Snyder, who was raised near Detroit and attended the University of Michigan, still has her first horse, the 14-year-old Clover, and has added another for distance riding–a 10-year-old named Scooter. For recreation, Snyder likes to join friends on organized horseback trips across wild parts of Colorado and other places in the west. She has ridden and camped on week-long excursions through Navajo land in Utah and across California’s Death Valley.
The lure of a six-figure job in the high-stress tech sector has faded behind her. “I’d rather live in a barn with my horses,” Snyder says, “than go back to the corporate world.”