On a not-so-sunny early April morning, I met up with blacksmith Ernie Lowell at one of his shoeing appointments at a Standardbred horse farm on Louden Road in Saco. I expected to talk to Ernie about his craft, what it’s like to shoe horses for a living, why he does it, and whether he’d ever been kicked by an ungrateful recipient of a new shoe.

But what I found at the Watson farm that morning was something much more noteworthy and endearing. I got a glimpse into the life of a family hard at work at a tough livelihood. A father, a son and a daughter-in-law whose daily work requires them to depend on each other and help each other at a job that never ends. And I witnessed

a friendship between Ernie and the Watson family based on respect and a genuine concern for each other’s welfare, successes and sorrows.

“How’d it go over there on Saturday, you qualify?” Ernie calls to Kenny Watson as he prepares to bring Ernie his first customer of the day, a gentle mare named Copter’s Star Image.

“Yep, we did OK,” replies Kenny, referring to the qualifying race held at Scarborough Downs, a competition in which every horse must enter in order to determine the race he or she will fit into at a racetrack based on speed, gait, and past performance.

Kenny leads the 7-year-old standardbred, nicknamed Star, from one of the dozen stalls housed in the main part of the 100-year-old barn, which smells sweetly of hay, sawdust, and the rich aroma of manure. Over Star’s stall hangs a handmade sign that reads “Spoiled.”

Star looks a little bedraggled, wrapped in her blue cotton blanket speckled with the wood shavings used to cushion her stall floor. Kenny cross-ties her in the doorway of the barn’s long cement hallway and heads back into the dimness of the stall row. Ernie, a big bear of a man with cloud gray hair and kind blue eyes, sets up his tools kept in a small wheeled cart: pewter-colored horseshoes, long tapered shoeing nails, a rasp, a variety of hammers, and several implements that look like giant pliers for pulling teeth.

“Went up to Cumberland yesterday to shoe that horse of your brother’s. He had to be at Plainridge today,” Ernie says as he ties on a pair of worn leather chaps over his well-worn blue jeans. Star stands patiently, looking a little sleepy and completely unconcerned with the activity around her.

Kenny’s brother is Wally Watson, a trainer and driver of Standardbreds who recently moved from the Saco farm to one of his own.

Shannon Watson, Kenny’s wife, comes from the rear of the barn, maneuvering a wheelbarrow full of manure and wood shavings from one of the stalls.

“Kenny and Wally were a good training team,” she says. “They’ve been in the (horse racing) business all their lives. Now that Wally’s in Cumberland, we’re sort of starting over without him. Business is picking up quite a bit though.”

The business she refers to is training, boarding and keeping up with the care of 18 horses, four of which belong to the Watson’s.

“We own two pacers and two trotters. We’re training three for other people, have five “turnouts.” Those are horses who are having a break from racing, let’s a horse be a horse. We have one 35-year-old boarder.”

And then there’s Wally G, the 24-year-old horse that belonged to Kenny’s mother, Peggy.

Just then Raymond Watson, Kenny’s father, walks into the barn from a side entrance attached to the farmhouse. He carries a carton full of eggs for Ernie that he collected from his hens that morning. The 82-year-old is a colorful site in his red cap and red fleece jacket. Ernie stops his work cleaning out the underside of Star’s hoof to introduce me.

“We’ll keep Wally G untill he dies. It was her wish,” says Raymond Watson, whose nickname is “Big.”

And it’s then that I begin to sense the hole in this family that may now be only beginning to heal.

“We were married 36 years, that was after we’d worked together for 10,” Big tells me. “I had a good wife. She did everything around the farm and was a good worker.”

I asked when they married. Big couldn’t recall. “It was May 6 of some year. She died Aug. 26, 2005.”

“Peggy was Big’s second wife,” Ernie tells me as he prepares Star’s hoof for her new shoe. “I’ve been shoeing Big’s horses since the 1970s. Sometimes I get here at five in the morning. There was Peggy, helping me get the horses ready. There was no harder working woman,” Ernie says, bending over Star’s hoof, which is bent at the knee and held firmly between Ernie’s legs. Using one of the giant tooth pullers, which turns out to be a hoof cutter, he trims the edges of her hoof by sniping off about a half-inch all around the bottom edge. He then takes the rasp, a 12-inch steel serrated file, and evens out the trim. “And direct, too,” he laughs. “If you didn’t want to know an answer, then you didn’t ask Peggy.”

Shannon watches the shoeing routine for a moment, stroking Star’s dark whiskered muzzle. “When Kenny’s mom died,” she says,” we had no food in the house. I went to Shaw’s, and I ran into Ernie in the parking lot. He gave me a big hug and went into the store with me and bought everything we needed,” her voice fades a little and strains, her eyes fight back tears.

Ernie visits the Watson farm every four weeks to change the shoes of seven of their horses during the racing season, and about every seven weeks in the off season.

“We depend on Ernie,” Kenny says as he comes by with another wheelbarrow of stall offerings. “Horses need their feet under them.

There’s a saying, “no feet, no horse,” and it’s true. Ernie’s got to know the horse, how he races, how he throws his foot, his gait. He’s got to know where you’re racing and the kind of track you’ll be racing on, hard, soft, or in-between.

We had a horse, Striking Spock, who had a rotated coffin bone that was trying to come out the bottom of his hoof. Ernie invented a special pad to keep the bone in place in the hoof and the horse was able to race well afterward.”

“He has a lot of patience with the horses,” Shannon says, “But you got to be a little crazy to get underneath them.”

Last year, that ungrateful new shoe recipient and Ernie met. He received a kick to the knee and was out of work for four months. “We chewed up our savings to get by,” he says. “My wife Sharon took care of me, but I’m Scottish, I had to keep working.”

Shoeing horses with a broken knee might sound challenging. But with a broken back?

In 1998, Ernie had back surgery after living with a severe spinal injury. “I shoed for two years with my back broke off my tail bone. I was three months in bed, seven months in a body cast. People would call and ask my wife if I was ok. She’d say, ‘Well, he’s never been OK, but he’s doing fine.’ I didn’t know if I’d be able to shoe again, so I got my auctioneer’s license while recuperating. After I was up and around, I started Homestead Auctions, and conducted charity events for kids with cancer and for Make-A-Wish Foundation.”

“Mike Timmons, who runs the Cumberland Fair, donated the cattle arena for an auction on the only Saturday night of the fair. People from the race track and farms donated most of the auction items. Shannon here made horse blankets and embroidered hats and bags. We raised about $4,000 for the Barbara Bush Children’s Cancer wing at Maine Medical Center.”

“People don’t see the inside of this industry. Horse folks are good-hearted people, not just in Maine, but all across the country.”

I asked Shannon about her embroidery work, and learned that she embroidered the red cap and coat that Big is wearing, as well as the logo on the denim shirt Ernie has on that morning.

“It’s a sickness,” Kenny teases. “Show her your room.”

Shannon leads me to a small el off the main barn, a neat-as-a-pin, white-washed room with walls lined with red nylon halters and brown leather racing bridles, the halters decorated with embroidery or on the brow or nose bands. The Watson’s racing colors are red and brown. She picks up one bridle with a flamingo medallion on the brow band.

“This one was for Two for One Special. He had a habit of standing with his back leg cocked. I made him a matching blanket.” She opens a trunk and proudly pulls out a black cotton blanket with a pink flamingo print. Another halter sports a medallion of a John Deere tractor on its brow band. It was a gift for Kenny’s horse, Kilkerran Triton, to go with Kenny’s love for his John Deere tractor.

“My mom, who works with horses at Rockingham (a New Hampshire racetrack), taught me to sew,” she says, “I bought an industrial embroidery machine of hers so I can make all our horse blankets and horse bags. I just made 30 sweatshirts for (driver and trainer) Drew Campbell. It’s a good supplement for the farm.”

“On a farm, you just have to make do. Every year it seems we’ve had to come up with something. We sold off some lumber one year. The cost of living keeps going up, the cost of energy, grain, a bushel of corn. Three weeks ago it was $3 a bushel. Now it’s over $4. We’ve got 45 acres here, and Kenny and I hay about 40 of it, sell about half and store the rest for our horses. We lease another 65 acres in Dayton and hay that. We used to do more but now there are less fields to cut due to development.”

Kenny joins us in Shannon’s tack room, and is obviously proud of his wife’s handiwork. He and Shannon, who both look to be in their late twenties, met at Scarborough Downs and married seven years ago.

“I was working with my mom at the paddock kitchen,” Shannon says, “Kenny used to come in and buy her homemade whoopie pies. She said to me, ‘I think the whoopie pie guy likes you.’ “

It’s clear that Kenny and Shannon make a good team and depend on each other to make their farm business work now that Big Watson, who raised and drove harness horses for 50 years, is semi-retired. “He still collects the eggs every morning and looks after his cow,” says Kenny.

“Our days start at 5 a.m. and end when we choose, there’s always something to do. I laugh when I hear people talk about their Monday through Friday, 9-to-5 jobs. On a farm, there are no weekends, no holidays,” says Shannon. “Kenny and I work together 24/7. People ask how can we do it, but I can’t imagine not working with him.”

“Kenny’s good with training the babies, the young horses and the problem ones – horses that haven’t had much attention before they begin training at age 2. If a colt’s been left in a pasture, they don’t know how to respect people, and vice versa.”

“We just got a new filly, Fast Lucy, from her owner who’s just too busy with his other horses to train her,” Kenny says. “It took me two days to get her loaded on the trailer, she just wouldn’t budge. I used a method my mom taught me. I looped a rope around her head just behind her ears and I held the other end and stood inside the trailer. When she pulled back, she’d feel the pressure. Eventually she walked up the ramp, just like that, like it was her own idea.”

The Watsons say they can’t imagine any other life than working with horses and on the farm. “I guess it’s in our genes, both our parents were trainers and drivers,” laughs Shannon. And they anticipate better times coming for harness racing and the Standardbreds.

“Now that the slots are here, the Stakes are booming,” says Kenny, referring to the Maine Sire Stakes program, which began 35 years ago to encourage the breeding and training of Standardbreds. All 2- and 3-year-old horses in the Maine-bred program are qualified to race in the stakes races, which last year consisted of $1.5 million in purse money for eight divisions, up from $813,000 in 2005, due to the dedicated revenues from the Bangor slot machine operation.

“Brood mare sales and baby sales are up. People who haven’t been in the program before are now getting in, and those who used to own horses are buying again because the purse money will continue to increase,” Kenny says.

“Our two new horses in training, Black Beauty’s Image and Fast Lucy, are good Stakes prospects, maybe future stars,” Shannon adds. “The trotters need more competitive training. We’re training seven right now. We treat them like athletes: slowly increasing their jogging time, working them to do another half mile or mile every week until we get them to a time of 2:30 or 2:40 for the mile, and increasing from there to a qualifying time. Then they’re ready to race at the track. It’s amazing to watch a baby you’ve trained race for the first time. I just stand at the fence and bawl.”

We rejoin Ernie in the main barn, who is now at work on brood mare Firery Hit, taking off her winter shoes, which have cleat-like notches on them for walking on ice and fitting her with “full swedges.” These are racing shoes that help control the flight pattern of the hoof by means of a crease in the metal around the outside of the shoe. This design allows the hoof to remain in contact with the racetrack surface for as long as possible, and helps the hoof remain straight as it comes forward in a stride.

Firery Hit is not as patient as Star, and kicks out as Ernie attempts to pick up her rear hoof. Shannon coos to the horse to calm her and Ernie pats her flank, runs his hand down the length of her rear leg and gently coaxes her to allow Ernie to lift her foot. This time the horse cooperates and Ernie straddles the hoof between his legs.

As he pries off the winter shoe, I ask Ernie about his views on harness racing and what it means to his business.

“I’m the son of a gentleman blacksmith, who was also a farmer in Gorham. He shoed his own horses and those of his friends. My daughter was on the (blacksmithing) truck with me at age 10, hammering shoes. Her son Tucker is 9 and chewing on the bit to come shoeing with me. My other grandson, Casey, is 19 and on the Dean’s List at the University of Maine at Machias. He going to be a vet and his first stop will be this farm. He’s been on the truck with me since he was 10 and he’ll be working with me shoeing this summer. I’ll never forget one stop awhile ago at Dana Childs Jr.’s farm. Casey was helping me with one his horses and Dana says to me, “This is scary. Casey’s the third generation of Lowells to shoe my horses.”

With the shoe now removed, Ernie allows the mare’s leg to return to the floor. Ernie straightens and moves to his tool box for the replacement shoe, nails and hammer.

“That’s what this industry’s about,” he continues, “Family, working with family, passing along knowledge and traits to the next generation, keeping a farm in the family for the generation that follows. Maine needs harness racing. Name me another industry like it.”

“People don’t realize how this industry has struggled and the impact that the slots in Bangor have had on Maine’s agriculture. Family farms, like this one and like the ones I service all over the state, wouldn’t survive if the slots bill hadn’t passed. Now the money is coming and has created a ripple effect. It’s revitalized our whole industry with new investment in racing and horses. Blacksmiths, vets, farmers – everybody will feel the benefit.

“Our roots are in this industry. We began by racing our carriage horses and we’re still racing horses today. Maine’s lost its textile industry, its chicken industry, its hogs, the dairy farms are dying, but now harness racing has a chance to survive, and I think we’re going to do it.”

It’s time for me to leave Ernie and the Watsons to their work, which they’ve kindly postponed to speak with me and show me around the farm. I don’t feel it was an imposition, however, as the pride they have in their family business is eminently apparent.

“We’ve seen the changes and we just need to keep going forward.

We’re going to be here for as long as we financially and physically can,” Shannon tells me.

As I turn to go, Big reappears from the rear of the barn, carrying another carton of a dozen fresh eggs, which he hands me. He opens the top and I see one of the eggs is bigger than the palm of my hand. “That’s a double yolk,” he says, “You’ll enjoy that for your breakfast.”

Filing Star’s hoofErnie Lowell, Shannon Watson, Raymond Big Watsontrimming a hoofShannon’s tack roomShannon wraps a horses leg to protect from injury


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.