2007 The Valley Voice - Cornelia Naylor
Business Profile: The Happy Hoofer
“I STILL ENJOY CUTTIN’ HOOVES”
Not everyone can appreciate Kevin Hinton’s dream job.
As Kevin Hinton cuts into his first hoof of the day, a
pungent odour like ripe cheese wafts through the barn.
“I love that smell,” says Hinton who has been trimming cows’ hooves for more than 20 years.
Listening to him talk as he trims, it’s clear there isn’t much that Hinton doesn’t like about his job.
He calls his hoof–trimming service the Happy Hoofer, and few people are as happy with their work as he is. Born in Alabama, Hinton still speaks with a slight drawl even though he grew up in Oregon and moved to B.C. 20 years ago.
It lends his words a down-home, no-bull quality.
Hinton chose his calling when he was just 12 years old. He had been watching his dad trim hooves during one of their summers together.
“Dad, I’ve made two decisions,” he said. “One, I’m gonna live with you. Two, I’m gonna be a hoof trimmer.”
Hinton trained with his dad for three months.
He is skeptical of some hoof-trimming courses available nowadays that include only two to three days of training and a few days’ experience on a farm.
“You can’t see everything in three or four days,” he says. “There are so many problems.”
As a “bovine podiatrist” (“That’s my fancy name,” says Hinton) he keeps the feet of valuable dairy cows healthy- trimming them so that their weight is evenly distributed on the hard, outer shell of the hoof, applying medicated wraps to infected hooves, and supporting damaged ones with wooden blocks.
One day, while Hinton and his dad were still trimming south of the border, a milk-truck driver showed them a B.C. dairy magazine that mapped out the province’s abundant dairy farms.
When Hinton and his dad realized that the swarm of little red dots on the map were all dairies, they headed north in a hurry with little regard for the finer details of immigration.
“We packed up and drove up to the Canadian border in Vancouver with the chute and everything,” says Hinton. “We didn’t have a clue.”
They were turned back, but Hinton, determined to sink his trimmer into all those dairy cows’ hooves, immigrated shortly after.
He has lived in Abbotsford ever since, making a comfortable living and raising two kids with his wife Cindy, who is B.C. born and bred.
Hinton’s business leaves plenty of time for family. On most days, he’s home before three o’clock.
“When the bus comes home, I’m waiting for my kids,” he says.
“That’s the neatest part of my job – I’m always home for my kids.”
Hinton coaches his son Taylor, 12, who plays for the Abbotsford Falcons junior bantam football team, and his daughter Jessi, 9, a cheerleading prodigy, can count on him to be front and centre with the camera at all her competitions.
Hinton has worked out a simple solution for those occasions when work conflicts with family.
“I just take my calendar and put a big line through it,” he says.
Not everyone can appreciate the appeal of Hinton’s dream job, though.
A few years ago, during a school tour of a dairy farm that Hinton was trimming at, a teacher was overheard saying, “You see that kids. If you don’t graduate Grade 12, you could be doing a job like that.”
Hinton laughs at the obvious irony.
“I’ve done it for 20 years, and I still enjoy cuttin’ hooves.
It was like he was slicing Gruyère cheese. Kevin Hinton leaned near the cow’s elevated hoof, and with an expert snip of his clippers, exposed a section of creamy white sole. It looked soft, even pliable.
“It’s not,” Hinton said, holding up the forearm-length clippers. “My clippers are just really sharp.”
Clippers aren’t terribly common among hoof trimmers these days—“bovine podiatrists,” if you want to use the technical term—but Hinton doesn’t care. It’s what he learned to use 40 years ago, when he joined his father in Oregon one summer to watch him work. The connection then was electric. Seeing his father snip and clip the overgrown hoof away from the sole made him realize he wanted to do this for the rest of his life.
And he has, more or less. Now 56 years old, Hinton works with a number of barns across the province—he can’t remember exactly how many—to check on the health of his clients’ feet.
“I consider these guys Olympic athletes,” he said. “They produce up to 100 pounds of milk a day. If everything’s not perfect—boom.”
Most of the time Hinton stays in the Fraser Valley, keeping his local herds on a maintenance schedule so he can check about 25 cows at a time. Twice a year he heads “up country” to the Cariboo to help hobby farmers who can’t get a local hoof trimmer, following a former client who had moved up there years ago. But most days, he heads to farms like Eagle Acres in Langley to keep their herds’ feet healthy.
Erin and Brian Andersen, who own the educational Langley farm, have worked with Hinton the whole time they’ve had their farm. They started Eagle Acres 23 years ago, and eventually turned it into a destination for people who wanted to learn how food gets from the farm to their plates. At their Glen Valley location, they have a herd of 55 Holstein, Jersey, Brown Swiss, Ayrshire, and Guernsey cows—and like most farmers, they do a lot of the heavy lifting themselves. (Brian was busy mucking out the close-up pen for the pregnant cows who were about to give birth while Erin gave The Current a tour of the barn.) But, some things are best left to the professionals.
“Some people do their own hoof trimming and jobs like that… but that’s something we never even attempted to do,” Erin said. “Hoof trimming is a very specific thing as well, and he’s very good at it.
“I don’t want to mess up the cows,” she added. “If you mess up the foundation of an animal, you can ruin it completely.”
That’s why Hinton was there, clipping the hooves of a handful of young cows who had never gone through the experience before.
They were not enjoying it.
One Holstein cow was ushered through a shoot into Hinton’s hoof trimming contraption. The bar clanged shut behind her, and her eyes widened as she struggled forwards and back. Hinton and his assistant raised a thick strap up to the cow’s chest to help support her weight. They then locked her back foot into place at waist height.
“Any cow will go crazy when you’re doing something different to them,” Hinton said, sitting down on the stool near her foot. “They’re definitely creatures of habit; they don’t like nothing different.”
The contraption is actually what brought Hinton to British Columbia in the first place. It wasn’t common outside of the United States—in fact, Hinton says it was the first of its kind in Canada. He and his dad came to the country for two weeks in the 1980s to show it off. The farmers, Hinton said, were ecstatic. It eventually led Hinton and his father to immigrate to Canada and start their local business in the valley.
The machine is not common in the industry—most of the hoof trimmers of the past used “tilt tables” which, as the name suggests, tilt a cow on its side to expose its hooves to the podiatrist. Young trimmers use equipment called elevators, which raise the cows up to an appropriate level to use a grinder. But, like with the clippers, Hinton is set in his ways.
Hinton’s contraption has a built-in stool on which he can sit while he trims the hind hooves. The machine has a light to illuminate the front hooves in poorly-lit barns. And it has a small cupboard where he keeps his tools: the clippers, a knife, and a bucket of lime green painkillers.
“They walk in not feeling so great and after a couple hours, when you get all that weight off the problem area and you get the painkiller and the antibacterial in there,” Hinton said, trailing off. “Really that’s my favourite part of the job.”
Hoof health is directly connected to overall health for cows. A bruised hoof can make a cow lame, reducing her milk production. That is also bad for the farmer.
“If you don’t keep [their hooves] maintained, they can go lame, they go down in production, you can’t feed your family, you go out of business,” Hinton explained.
“If they’re not happy, [the farmers] can’t make a living,” he added. “These cows have to be happy and healthy. Shiny, beautiful, well-conditioned cows.”
Hinton plans to keep up his part of that job for at least the next decade. But eventually, retirement will be on the horizon.
He has no son to take over the business—the succession plan for many in the industry—but he said he plans to see if one of his clients’ kids might be interested in learning the trade. Then, he can turn his tools, his contacts, and his years of industry experience over to them.
“Then my clients will have the same work that they love,” he said. “They don’t hire me for my fancy brand-new shoot and equipment and my fancy truck. They hire me for my experience.
“When you get a good hoof trimmer that you like, he stays for life.”