Posted by Real-Time News.

Sonny Pistilli, about to turn 78, teaches an apprenticeship program and cares for horses out of his Lower Saucon home.

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Salvatore “Sonny” Pistilli’s road to becoming a world-class farrier began with disappointment.

He never looked back, and as he turns 78 later this month, he still loves the job that is equal parts blacksmith, veterinary tech and horse psychologist.

This spring, the New Jersey native and Lower Saucon Township resident was inducted as just the 49th member of the LaFayette, Georgia-based Brotherhood of Working Farriers Association’s Farriers Hall of Fame.

“It makes me feel pretty good,” he said last week inside his garage-turned-smithy, where he teaches apprentices his art. “It actually makes me feel like I worked and accomplished something. 

“I love what I do so it’s never really been a job for me. It’s just been something that I love to do. It’s never really been, you wake up in the morning and you’ve got to go to work. I never had that feeling.”

But back to those roots to his career: Pistilli grew up in Bernardsville, in Somerset County, his parents the owners of a busy restaurant. He got his first horse at age 19, in 1959, and within a decade was placing high showing his quarter horses.

Ireland native Seamus Brady helped shoe his horses, and Pistilli called on him to come by toward the end of the 1968 season, ahead of a show. 

“He said to me, ‘Sure,'” Pistilli recalled. “Well, he didn’t get there. And when I went to the horse show, there was a shoe that was loose and when I put him in the trailer that morning, apparently he must have gotten it caught in something because the shoe was off when I got to the horse show.

“In those days you had to have four shoes on the horse to go into the horse show, into the ring. And the judge said to me, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t check your horse, your horse is excused.'”

Even a fourth-place showing that day would have earned Pistilli enough points on the season to win a saddle worth about $3,500. 

“And I lost that year by two points. That’s all I had to do was have my horse in that show that day,” he said. “So I didn’t get nothing. And I wound up losing.”

He called Brady. 

“‘You’ve got to take me with you,'” he told him. “And he says, ‘Why?’ And I says, ‘I’ve got to learn to do this. I’ve really got to learn to do this, so if I get a loose shoe I can fix it.'”

The blacksmith

On one wall inside Pistilli’s garage hang horseshoes handmade by his apprentices. He’s been teaching people to become farriers since around 1984, beginning at his Far Hills Forge School in New Jersey. On the floor nearby rests a chest freezer, for the horse cadaver feet.

“And I know a lot of schools don’t even do that, but I’d rather have a cadaver foot for a guy that’s first starting to drive nails,” Pistilli said.

His anvils are ringed with the tools of the trade, many handmade by Pistilli. He hand-built the cabinets to outfit a trailer, parked outside, as a mobile blacksmith shop. He goes where the horses are, including these days to New York and Freehold, N.J.

Propane-fueled forges, smaller than a microwave, burn up to 1,200 degrees to convert the steel concave stock he imports from Europe in straight beams. The molten metal is hammered into the custom shoes that are the lifeblood of his work.

“What my field is, I really go out and do a lot of lame horses, horses that are not functional anymore,” Pistilli said. “I get a hold of the vet, I find out what’s bothering them.”

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He’ll rely a bit on modern technology, like an infrared camera to reveal hot spots of inflammation. The solutions often come from pre-1900s books that Pistilli consults.

“Those books, horses were a way of life like cars are today,” he said. “I mean, the cars today are so sophisticated that you can’t work on them. You’ve got to bring them to an expert. Well back in those days they brought them to experts — so they could get to the grocery store, so they could get to the market to sell their horses or sell their beef or whatever they were doing.

“So those guys really had to be able to get their horses, to get out of the barn and go where they’re going to go. And those people really had to know about horses.”

Pistilli points out the defects in a horse’s cadaver legs, cut into a cross section, that hang under glass in a wooden frame in his shop. He’ll tell you the kind of shoe it needs to keep going and to keep the condition from worsening. 

“You’ve got to know your stuff,” he said. “You’ve got to balance that foot so he’s landing proper. I just, I have been doing it a long time and I’ve got a very good reputation in my business.”

The teacher

Pistilli closed his school in Far Hills, where he lived for 27 years, and moved in November 2006 to Lower Saucon Township, where he lives with his wife, Elli. 

He takes on one apprentice at a time, and they work with him and his son Danny, a working farrier himself for 12 years now. Pistilli has three more children in Florida.

When he’s with a student, he can be making a shoe of his own, carefully measuring out the dimensions on his anvil for nail holes using a speed square. But his attention is always on his student, even when entertaining a visitor to his shop.

“Many years ago,” he began Thursday morning, “the blacksmiths when they made chain or if they made anything they — drop your left hand now, Ralph. You got, you got it.”

With him was Ralph Argondizzo, a schoolteacher from Jefferson Township, New Jersey, hoping to make a second career out of becoming a farrier. He found Pistilli just by searching on the Internet for a good place to learn.

“All leads point to Sonny,” Argondizzo said. “I didn’t want to learn how to nail a shoe on, I wanted to know how to correct someone else that made a mistake on a horse, how to help a horse. And it starts from the feet up. That’s what led me here to Sonny.”

Pistilli will take on an apprentice for anywhere from three months to a year. 

“The only thing I find that really is hard is under the horse,” he said. 

That’s where the psychology comes in: A horse senses fear, nervousness instantly. A farrier has to recognize that and learn to become comfortable with a 1,200-pound animal that has its own way of thinking. 

“If you do it the right way, nothing bothers them,” Pistilli said. “If you hurt them you’ll know immediately you did something you shouldn’t have done.”

It’s not about sitting in a classroom with Pistilli. 

“They got to meet the customers. They got to meet the horses in the flesh,” Pistilli said Thursday in the blacksmith shop. “And — now when you do that Ralph, you got to. Are you punching this out? What you got to do now is you got to knock that through. What you got to do is hit that as hard as you can. You got it, it’s through.”

The hall of famer

Pistilli traveled to Georgia in April for the Farriers Hall of Fame induction ceremony, what he calls “a big shindig.” A poster celebrating the achievement hangs front and center in his garage, just above a plaque he was awarded recognizing his work as a certified master farrier, master educator and tester.

He doesn’t own horses anymore himself, not since 2000.

“I was tied to them from the time I was 17 or 18 years old,” Pistilli said. “I had to have a little life. It’s like having a family, another part of a family. They’ve got to be fed twice a day, they’ve got to be cleaned, they’ve got to be washed. I took very good care of my horses. I love them. They’re a beautiful animal.”

Today, Pistilli is an avid golfer on the side, and shot a 73 this spring. He can’t tell you how many horses he’s shod in 49 years: “I’d like to have a dime for every one I’ve done over the years, a dime right now. A lot.”

He still wields a hammer with authority, his hands quickly becoming blackened each time he fires up the forge.

“I’m going to keep doing this because I love doing it and I love helping people,” he said.

Kurt Bresswein may be reached at kbresswein@lehighvalleylive.com. Follow him on Twitter @KurtBresswein. Find lehighvalleylive.com on Facebook.