Travis Burns sees several patients during a typical day at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, but he doesn’t bring a stethoscope or a lab coat to work.
As a farrier, Burns combines the centuries-old tools of a blacksmith — including a forge, hot metal, and hammers — with a 21st century knowledge of equine anatomy to provide hoof care. In trimming and balancing horses’ hooves and making and fitting their shoes by hand, Burns is part artist and part scientist.
“A successful farrier not only knows how to appropriately fit and shoe a horse but also has a science-based understanding of equine anatomy and physiology,” said Burns, lecturer and chief of farrier services at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.
A member of the hospital’s equine podiatry unit, he provides farrier care for patients at the hospital, for Virginia Tech’s equestrian programs, and for select performance horses. “About half of the cases we see are referrals from veterinarians and farriers in need of therapeutic care, such as a horse in need of a specialized shoe to treat an orthopedic condition,” Burns said.
Lisa Moye of Blacksburg, Va., brings her 12-year-old competitive trail riding horse, Chief, to Burns for regular trimming and shoeing. Chief has soft hooves and specific requirements for trimming and shoe application.
“Travis not only does a good job doing what he does, but he also has the knowledge and skills to treat special cases,” Moye said. “He makes each shoe to fit each hoof.”
Burns' clients range from horse hobbyists in the region to a competitor in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. He even served as an official farrier at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky. He said his work at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital allows him to see a variety of cases, from healthy horses to those needing therapeutic intervention.
“No two horses are the same,” he said in a 2013 interview with Roanoke Business magazine. “Ultimately, when you think about it, no two feet are the same. It’s constant thought; it’s constant variation.”
A native of Waynesville, N.C., Burns discovered his calling at a young age. As a child, he watched his father and uncle shoe dozens of horses at a family-owned riding stable in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He knew that he wanted to be a farrier by the time he was a teenager.
Burns earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science from North Carolina State University and completed training at the North Carolina School of Horseshoeing before accepting a position at Forging Ahead, an elite multi-farrier practice in Northern Virginia. He held positions as an intern and an associate farrier at Forging Ahead, where, in addition to working with high-level performance horses, he provided farrier services at the veterinary college’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Va. In 2010, he joined the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
Burns is one of only a small number of in-house farriers at a veterinary school in the United States. He and Dr. Scott Pleasant, associate professor of equine field service and equine extension in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, teach an equine podiatry course.
“This is an elective course for third-year veterinary students in the equine or mixed animal tracks and one of the only courses of its kind in the United States,” Burns said. “Students learn about laminitis and disease pathologies of the hoof, they trim and shoe a live horse, and they have a forging lab to hand-make horse shoes. The course teaches students not only the equine anatomy of the lower limb, but also techniques like gluing on shoes, repairing damaged wall, and patching cracks of the hoof.”
Burns has a growing list of accomplishments. In 2012, he became one of only 16 farriers in the United States to become an associate in the Worshipful Company of Farriers, a 400-year-old trade association based in London. To earn this recognition, he passed a three-day exam that tested his knowledge of anatomy, his forging and shoemaking skills, and his ability to assess radiographic images with a veterinary surgeon. He’s also one of only a small number of Certified Journeyman farriers to receive by examination the “therapeutic” endorsement from the American Farriers Association.
Travis Burns explains the process of making and fitting a horseshoe.
Dr. Scott Pleasant, pictured above, and Travis Burns established a podiatry unit in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
The unit provides referral care to horses in particular need of specialist foot and hoof care. The college’s Equine Field Service also works in close collaboration with the new unit to provide care for horses within its coverage area.
The college’s podiatry farrier intern in 2013, Heather Beauchemin of Westland, Mich., pictured above, is the second individual to hold this position and works closely with Travis Burns in the new equine podiatry unit. The internship targets driven farriers who want to take the next step early in their career.
“The farrier intern gets to learn about anatomy from veterinary students, and the students get to learn about being a farrier from the intern,” Burns said. “This certainly helps to improve the farrier-veterinarian relationship.”
The Veterinary Teaching Hospital also takes a full range of horse services on the road through the Equine Field Service. The “horse ambulance” treats patients within a 35-mile radius of Blacksburg, Va., and provides routine, preventative, and emergency care. Fourth-year veterinary students also can test their classroom knowledge and skills in the field during clinical rotations with the service.