By Katherine O. Rizzo

The Maryland Horse Council annually recognizes a professional who has had an outstanding and influential career in the Maryland horse industry. The recognition of the individual is designed to inspire young people to combine their love of horses with their chosen careers.

The Horseman or Horsewoman of the year is usually someone in the industry whose work is known but not widely celebrated in the media. This year, the honoree is Joseph Vanzego, a man who brought so much more to his clients than just his farrier services. From Buffalo Soldier to blacksmith, Joseph Vanzego touched the lives of many in Maryland and beyond. As a skilled blacksmith and caring horseman, Vanzego shod horses at private farms, public stables, and racetracks in Washington D.C, Maryland and Northern Virginia for 60 years.

This award is not only to recognize Vanzego’s great skills as a farrier, but also to highlight how one man can make such a difference in so many lives. His article pays tribute to Vanzego, who died September 24, 2007.

Born in 1922 in Seat Pleasant, Vanzego left his family’s home in 1940 to join the Army, learning the basics of military life in a then segregated Army. When the U.S entered World War II in December of 1941, Vanzego went to Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas, to become a member of the famed Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry Regiment. It was at Fort Riley that Vanzego learned the blacksmith trade.

A few months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the 10th Cavalry was deployed to Fort Lockett, California. Their primary role was to patrol the extremely rugged terrain of the California-Mexican border east of San Diego, providing security for the trains, communication systems, and dams. There they also made sure that no invasion into the U.S through Mexico would occur, something that many military strategists feared.

In 1941, while stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia, Vanzego met his future wife Bertha. They were married in 1943 and when the war ended in 1945, the couple moved to Washington D.C, where Vanzego began building his farrier business and his family, a family that would grow to 15 children, 40 grandchildren, 64 great-grandchildren, and 4 great-great-grandchildren.

One of his earliest clients was Rock Creek Park Riding Stables in D.C, which is where many years later Debby Poole first met Vanzego. “It was the late sixties, and I was about twelve,” said Poole. “Many times I would stand by and listen to him talk to those nearby explaining his trade. Often the rumble of his low chuckle could be heard down the stall aisles.” At a time when the Civil Rights movement was in a transition period, Poole attended a mostly white Bethesda school, making Vanzego one of the few African-Americans she knew.

When the D.C riots broke out in April 1968 after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Vanzego helped Poole understand the racial problems that were facing the country. “This was when I really learned about this wonderful man as I listened to the depth of his wisdom,” said Poole. Mrs. Vanzego said “life just went on like normal” during this time of national turmoil and Vanzego continued to shoe horses throughout the Washington, Maryland, and Virginia areas. “He really loved those horses,” she said “and formed special bonds with them.”

As a few years passed and the country began to calm down, Poole’s family bought a farm in Burtonsville and asked Vanzego to be their farrier. By this point, Vanzego was a well-established blacksmith, shoeing horses for several farms including Potomac Horse Center, Greystone Farm, and a few area racing barns. Poole switched schools and felt “very unaccepted” in an environment where the race topic was further confused by the way the interracial school children treated each other and her. Poole describes Vanzego as a “Godsend in a troubled time, he understood so well what I was feeling, he gave me hints, and the courage to finish out the school year.” His own children were facing similar problems at their own school and Poole said, “he calmed me in his quiet way, just as he calmed the horses.”

Vanzego felt that every person, no matter what their skin color, had a purpose in life and he often helped those within his family find theirs. He helped his brother get back on his feet after a troubled time by making him an assistant. He also taught his own son, Stanley, the blacksmith trade. Vanzego once said, “Black people have the same time – 24 hours in a day – as white folks, and they can choose to sit on a stoop and do nothing with it, or they can make something of themselves.” Stanley eventually took on the trade himself. Poole said that Stanley was “trustworthy and kind” and that Vanzego was very proud of him. Unfortunately, cancer claimed Stanley’s life in 1987.

Vanzego also often brought his grandchildren to the farms, teaching them about the tools he used and other aspects of his trade. He would tell clients, like Cheri Galas, that the kids “needed to learn that you need to work to eat.” Galas used Vanzego as an example to her middle school students as to “what a human being should be.” She said, “He was just always so kind, responsible, dependable, and a moral man.”

As a farrier, Vanzego had a knack of dealing with “problem horses.” He never lost his temper with horses and would quietly talk them through the shoeing process. Galas remarked that he would gain the horses’ trust and be able to keep them quiet and calm simply because “he was calm inside.” Even when horses like her Big Mac would lean on him, Vanzego would just smile and say, “Oh here comes Mac!”

Poole tells the story of one three-year-old mare who had not been shod before. The mare was brought to Poole’s farm to be bred and the owner wanted her feet done as well. “She kicked and fought, and as he has all these years, Mr. Vanzego remained calm.” He would “pick up her feet, and did that again and again, until finally all of her feet were done.” Vanzego would rather start the shoeing education of the horses at a young age and often would run his hands up and down a foal’s legs while its dam was being trimmed.

Punctuality was one of Vanzego’s biggest assets. He was often early for appointments and would even go out to the fields to bring the horses in himself. He cared very much for every one of his clients and would check up on them if he was in the area. If a client was traveling to a show, he would stop by and make sure their horses’ shoes were snug before they left. He also seemed to have the magic touch in terms of keeping shoes on his horses. He never did hot shoeing and according to Poole, “his shoes just never came off! He would put those babies on and twelve weeks later they would still be there.”

Near the end of his life, Vanzego cut down his number of clients. But when he could no longer make it out to them, many horse owners came to him! They trailered their horses to his house, near RFK Stadium, and he would shoe them right in his backyard. Vanzego continued his trade until 2005 when he was 83 years old. Vanzego died on September 24, 2007 at the Forestville Health and Rehabilitation Center leaving behind a legacy worth reporting on, a family to be proud of, and many four legged friends that miss him greatly.

A special thanks goes out to Laurel Scott and Richard Rizzo for their help with research and interviews.

Equiery Readers Share Their Joe Vanzego Memories

I remember Joe with great patience (about 6 years ago) as he tried to shoe my young TB off the track – Gourmandise. Gourmandise was and still is a real firecracker. Joe talked to him and pulled up a chair and just looked at him for a while. He took his time until the little horse calmed down for his shoes. These are great moments. I have to admit as he got older Joe fell over a few times in my barn but he always got up with a laugh.
 – Laura Edens (Gaithersburg)

In 2001, purchased first horse for daughter – ex-race horse that had a old hoof injury, however, was taught to jump and he loved to jump. That winter, ice got up in his old hoof crack injury and split it open again. Our present ferrier said call the vet, the vet said basically he needed to be put down – he needed two hoof operations, his hoof had rotated, he had to be stalled for 6 months (and with his firery attitude it would not be beneficial) and after that he would always walk with a limp and be in pain. When we tried to stall Big Boy, he went bonkers and he had two stalls in one with two doors we had to open the doors back up. The vet also suggested maybe the ferrier could look at it again. We had a second vet come out and wanted to see the x-rays and then he took them to a vet that he dealt with. In the meantime, I had e-mailed a ferrier turn Vet in VA and he said to send x-rays. Several weeks passed and I sent off the x-rays and waited for an answer which also took many weeks until I received a e-mail that he had spoken with the vet and both agreed that he needed to be put down. My daughter and I talked and we made the decision to do this, however, my friend said that my father had an older vet down in Virginia and let me send him the x-rays. I say OK. It took weeks and weeks to get the x-rays back – when one day as my daughter and I was still soaking his hoof said she said I think his hoof has healed, I said let me see, yes, it had healed and he had stopped limping a few weeks before when he walked. His other hooves need to be trimmed and we call the second ferrier, he said we need to have the vet come out and give him a pain killer in both his legs. We called the first ferrier and he said, I will ask for the vet to come out also, however, I told you that he needed to be put down and I am not going to waste your money. At one of the horse flea markets, my daughter found someone that had started selling a hoof hardner, call Kerotex. I took the paper work home and read it about 6 times before I called and ordered a bottle and started using on Big Boy. My friend and I looked at Big Boy one day, he was walking and trotting and I said he doen’t look like he is in pain. I told my friend to hold him and I am going to left the injured hoof – OK with that and then hold the opposite leg up very carefully Big Boy stood still didn’t make and sudden movements like he was in pain. Between my friend and my sister-in-laws brother (both years ago had trimmed hooves), we decided to trimed his hooves ourselves. However, both men had back injuries and could not finish the hooves – so sister-in laws brother said my father had a old friend that came out to do our horses. So we call Mr Joe Vanzego. When Mr Vanzego came out, I explained that two vets and two ferriers had told me to put him down. He looked at Big Boy’s hoof and said I can help him, you don’t need to put him down. We were all taken aback (the vet was waiting for us to call to put him down). After about three visits from Mr Vanzego and the Kerotex everyday, Mr Vanzego put two front shoes on Big Boy. By now, Big Boy was galloping full speed up and down the two hills. My friend said that the second time Mr Vanzego came to trim Big Boy he didn’t want to left a hind leg so Mr Vanzego dug a ditch under the hood and trimmed it that way. After several months Mr Vanzego said you will be able to ride him. We could not believe it. Because we were to put Big Boy down, we had let his shots run past due. I had not talked with the vet in months and months, my friend said just call them and say you need shots nothing else. I was not present when the vet came out, my friend and daughter was there and told me that another vet from the same office came out and said that she remembered this horse’s x-rays they had discussed Big Boys injuries and had seen the pictures with his meat growing between the crack in his hoof that had the vet removed and it grow back). Big Boy was running around like his hoof had not be injured. She said what did you do. My friend said that we got a 79 year old ferrier and my daughter told her about the Kerotex that Mr Vanzego told us to keep using. The vet said he was in good health and he injury healed just fine. If it had not been for Mr Vanzego we would have put Big Boy down. Mr Vanzego was the nicest person and Big Boy was something else and Mr Vanzego never raised a voice at him and was always patient. – Clarisa Butler (Brandywine)

I had the great opportunity to meet Mr. Vanzego back in 2000, not long after I moved to Maryland from North Carolina. At the time I had just begun working with a client that owned a 3 year old App colt that had not had proper handling. The colt needed his hooves trimmed pretty badly. I suggested to my client that he should contact a farrier to come out and trim the colt, but it would have to be one with patience and the ability to handle a young frisky colt. He set up an appointment with Mr. Vanzego. In the days leading up to the scheduled date, my client told me that Mr. Vanzego was a Buffalo Soldier in the 10th Cavalry and was a long time highly respected farrier and horseman in the area. This peaked my interest making me very excited to have a chance to meet a real Buffalo Soldier and a man with such a reputation. The day came and Mr. Vanzego arrived well before the scheduled time of the appointment. We were introduced and talked about the colt and what needed to be done. At the time, the colt was in the round pen awaiting Mr. Vanzego. We all went over to the round pen. The colt was pretty fresh, running, kicking, and bucking feeling really good. Mr. Vanzego entered the round pen and rubbed on the colt, haltered him, and began the job at hand. This would be the colt’s first trimming, and as expected he didn’t take to it very well. The colt was just a 3 year old, however, he was already 15 hands and about 900 to 950 pounds, not small at all. I asked Mr. Vanzego if he’d mind if I did some round pen and ground work with the colt to help him get in a better frame of mind and more willing to be worked with. He said, “Sure, I don’t mind”. After I worked with the colt, Mr. Vanzego came into the round pen and started back trimming him again. The colt had settled down a lot, but was still a little antsy. Mr. Vanzego continued trimming, softly rubbing, and talking to the colt. He never got upset or responded harshly with him at all, as most would do. He showed so much patience. Soon the job was done, and all went well. Mr. Vanzego stayed around a little while longer answering my questions about his life as a Buffalo Soldier and as a farrier for so many years. The pleasure was all mine to have spent those few hours with him. I’ll cherish that memory forever. Before he departed he said to my client, “Keep this young man working with your colt, he knows what he’s doing”. I hold that compliment close to my heart, coming from such a Horseman as Mr. Vanzego. I was sadden to hear that he had passed back in September, and sorry that I never had the chance to talk horses with him again. It is great that Mr. Joseph Vanzego has been named as the “2007 Maryland Horseman of the Year”. As a personal dedication to Mr. Vanzego and all the other Black Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry, Jockeys, Grooms, Cowboys, Horseman, Trainers, Handlers and Care Takers that paved the way for Black Horsemen as myself with creating such a rich history of Great Black Horsemen of many disciplines that have sadly been untold, I honor them all by dedicating to them this entire year of my horsemanship in working with horses and teaching people to better understand and communicate with horses. Thanks for the opportunity to submit my Joseph Vanzego Memory. – Corey Jackson