For Julie Mathias, it began with every horse-loving adolescent's dream: discovering in the last stable stall the abused filly no one wanted and turning it into a first-class champion show horse.

But just when it seemed that the 17-year-old filly would be Mathias' ticket to the Olympic games, the Loudoun County resident recalls, the horse developed a rare hoof disease that ended its career.

And Mathias found herself spending hours with local blacksmiths, trying to learn how to care for her horse's deteriorating hooves.

That's how Mathias, 26, became the only full-time woman blacksmith in Northern Virginia's hunt country.

"I was sort of drafted into it," she said, laughing.

Mathias is a tall and powerful woman. Even so, shoeing horses takes an enormous physical toll on her. The discs in her spine have been cracked by rearing horses, and both her knees dislocated by well-aimed kicks. She has had sharp horseshoe nails jabbed into her hands and raked across the flesh of her upper legs.

There have been times when Mathias thought of abandoning the blacksmith profession and going into more mundane careers, such as restaurant management.

But, she said, barns appeal to her more than kitchens and that has kept her determined to stick with her job, even when shoeing the most difficult horses in the coldest of stables. "It's a labor of love," she said. "But it has to go both ways. The horse has got to know you and trust you."

Mathias' rapport with horses was demonstrated at the Bay Ridge Equestrian Center in Centreville last week when Amber Eve, a chestnut mare, obligingly lifted her hoof as she saw Mathias approach.

"All the horses here know and trust Julie," said Amber's owner, Kay Kensinger of Chantilly. "She's very popular. Sometimes you have to wait weeks until she can do your horse."

Mathias knows her craft and its ins and outs as well as anyone. With Amber's front leg locked securely between her knees, Mathias explained the complicated structure of the horse's hoof, which is really an overgrown third toe with a thick hardened nail. Horses need to be shod every six to eight weeks, said Mathias, who shoes 10 to 12 horses a day, charging $16 to $30 each.

She removed Amber's worn shoes and clipped and filed the overgrown hooves to an even plane. Then, at an anvil on the bed of her pickup truck, she pounded ready-made steel horseshoes to a custom fit.

She stretched out her hands to show the hardened muscle that bulged like a padded rock between her thumb and forefinger. "That's what you get from an anvil," she said, as she got ready to stick a handful of nails in her mouth. "I don't mind that or the scars. My only problem with this job is that these nails don't come in different flavors."

Then she nailed the shoes into the horse's hooves, careful to avoid a thin white line of tissue she likens to the cuticle of a fingernail.

Mathias said it took her years of watching other blacksmiths before she learned enough to go into business full-time herself two years ago.

Mathias does not hold much stock in blacksmithing schools. She said she knows of master blacksmiths who have honed their craft for 40 years but who still meet regularly to exchange information. "It is something you learn and then keep learning," she said.

There are few women in the profession because of the demanding physical labor, she said.

But she describes how she once watched a slightly built woman blacksmith subdue a bucking horse: The woman simply picked up a hammer and wacked the handle between the horse's eyes, stunning him into submission. "As long as you get the horse to know you mean business, I guess anyone can do it," she said.

Mathias has six horses of her own and boards another eight in the barn behind her house. Most of her horses were victims of abuse or neglect that she rescued and nursed back to health, she She Shoes Horses With The Best of Them Woman Nails Down A Demanding Job By GAYLE YOUNG Special to The Washington Post

For Julie Mathias, it began with every horse-loving adolescent's dream: discovering in the last stable stall the abused filly no one wanted and turning it into a first-class champion show horse.

But just when it seemed that the 17-year-old filly would be Mathias' ticket to the Olympic games, the Loudoun County resident recalls, the horse developed a rare hoof disease that ended its career.

And Mathias found herself spending hours with local blacksmiths, trying to learn how to care for her horse's deteriorating hooves.

That's how Mathias, 26, became the only full-time woman blacksmith in Northern Virginia's hunt country.

"I was sort of drafted into it," she said, laughing.

Mathias is a tall and powerful woman. Even so, shoeing horses takes an enormous physical toll on her. The discs in her spine have been cracked by rearing horses, and both her knees dislocated by well-aimed kicks. She has had sharp horseshoe nails jabbed into her hands and raked across the flesh of her upper legs.

There have been times when Mathias thought of abandoning the blacksmith profession and going into more mundane careers, such as restaurant management.

But, she said, barns appeal to her more than kitchens and that has kept her determined to stick with her job, even when shoeing the most difficult horses in the coldest of stables. "It's a labor of love," she said. "But it has to go both ways. The horse has got to know you and trust you."

Mathias' rapport with horses was demonstrated at the Bay Ridge Equestrian Center in Centreville last week when Amber Eve, a chestnut mare, obligingly lifted her hoof as she saw Mathias approach.

"All the horses here know and trust Julie," said Amber's owner, Kay Kensinger of Chantilly. "She's very popular. Sometimes you have to wait weeks until she can do your horse."

Mathias knows her craft and its ins and outs as well as anyone. With Amber's front leg locked securely between her knees, Mathias explained the complicated structure of the horse's hoof, which is really an overgrown third toe with a thick hardened nail. Horses need to be shod every six to eight weeks, said Mathias, who shoes 10 to 12 horses a day, charging $16 to $30 each.

She removed Amber's worn shoes and clipped and filed the overgrown hooves to an even plane. Then, at an anvil on the bed of her pickup truck, she pounded ready-made steel horseshoes to a custom fit.

She stretched out her hands to show the hardened muscle that bulged like a padded rock between her thumb and forefinger. "That's what you get from an anvil," she said, as she got ready to stick a handful of nails in her mouth. "I don't mind that or the scars. My only problem with this job is that these nails don't come in different flavors."

Then she nailed the shoes into the horse's hooves, careful to avoid a thin white line of tissue she likens to the cuticle of a fingernail.

Mathias said it took her years of watching other blacksmiths before she learned enough to go into business full-time herself two years ago.

Mathias does not hold much stock in blacksmithing schools. She said she knows of master blacksmiths who have honed their craft for 40 years but who still meet regularly to exchange information. "It is something you learn and then keep learning," she said.

There are few women in the profession because of the demanding physical labor, she said.

But she describes how she once watched a slightly built woman blacksmith subdue a bucking horse: The woman simply picked up a hammer and wacked the handle between the horse's eyes, stunning him into submission. "As long as you get the horse to know you mean business, I guess anyone can do it," she said.

Mathias has six horses of her own and boards another eight in the barn behind her house. Most of her horses were victims of abuse or neglect that she rescued and nursed back to health, she said.

"Isn't it a beautiful sight?" she asked as she watched horses frolicking in fields near her barn. "Sometimes I just stand here 15 minutes before I go to work and watch them."