Kelly Vermeer-Vella is a great testament to the wonder of chance and the power of fate.
As a kid, roaming the hills of Tuolumne County, no stranger to ranch life, she wasn’t much interested in playing with dolls or any other stereotypical girlie activity. No, Vella wanted to be where the guys were, doing what the guys were doing and chances are, she was trying to do whatever they were doing — better.
That competitive streak would serve her well as she grew to adulthood and fairly stumbled into what would become the career of her calling.
Vella took a job at a local ranch and when it came time to have the horses shoed, she found herself between a rock and a hard place because no one was available and she’d plain run out of time to get the job done.
So, she did it herself.
“I shoed my first horse without any experience,” Vella said. “And then, because I did a pretty good job, I started shoeing all the ranch horses after that point.”
And just like that, Vella had stumbled upon what would become a career that would send her around the world, winning titles and gaining recognition in a field typically dominated by men.
“I guess you could say it was a happy accident,” Vella said. “I had the right people pushing me; a great group of people. It’s a close-knit group and they all try to help each other. I learned from a lot of talented people.”
Quick to smile and laugh, at 5 foot 7 inches, Vella is a powerhouse of muscle and strength with an enviable seemingly boundless energy. When she pounds the metal against the anvil, the rippling muscles in her forearms are enough to give a female body builder a run for her money.
“They used to be bigger,” Vella boasted, smiling. “Back when I was competing. They’ve gotten a lot smaller now.”
Once Vella realized she had a real knack for the farrier and blacksmithing trade, she apprenticed with Dennis Silva and Emil Carré, the resident farrier for Pioneer Equine Hospital at the time.
It was then her mentors suggested she start competing — and winning.
“I got into horse shoeing competitions and traveled all around the world,” Vella said. “I’d never left Northern California until I started horse shoe competitions.”
But for someone who never imagined she might go into this particular field, in 1997, she placed fourth in the world and made the American Farrier Team in 1998.
“I’m the only woman to ever do that,” she said.
She’s also earned a journeyman’s certificate in her trade by the American Farrier Association.
Vella is surprisingly modest about her success, tending to shrug off her accomplishments with a grin.
“It gave me something to do, some direction,” Vella said. “I love building stuff that works and can be used. What can I say, I love my work.”
Her house décor is filled with items she’s created in her shop, including decorative curtain rods and bathroom towel rods as well as numerous antlers from deer she’s brought down throughout the years.
An avid hunter as well as farrier, Vella actually met her husband, Vince, at the archery range. Married for seven years, the two enjoy hunting together when their work schedules allow.
“He likes to fish, I like to ride,” she said of their recreational outings.
In spite of the fact that her line of work is hard on the body, physically demanding and likely to end with injuries of some sort, Vella is happiest when she’s in her shop making something.
“There’s not a day when I don’t love going to work,” she said. “I live for this. I’ve taken the time to learn my trade and I’m going to shoe horses until I can’t do it anymore. You’re always learning. When you quit learning, it’s time to quit working.”
She’s traveled around the globe to compete or to learn a new skill, but she admits her first love remains with making horseshoes, which seems fitting as that’s where she started.
Today, she only competes in one competition a year, but it’s a doozy.
“You make a draft horse shoe,” Vella said.
Winning is nice, as it comes with a cash prize, but Vella values something more: “The admiration and respect of your peers.”
As a woman in a male-dominated field, Vella managed to fight prejudice and gender bias with the help of that inborn competitive streak.
“You have to work harder and do a better job than the guys,” Vella said. “There are still a few cavemen out there who believe a woman can’t do this job. I’m very competitive. I want to do a better job every time.”
Vella has trained more than a handful of fledgling farriers and currently has five people apprenticing with her. She continues to travel to ranches to shoe horses and now that she’s older, she limits how far she’ll travel for a job. But she has plenty to keep her busy.
When offering advice to up and coming farriers, she is blunt and to the point.
“The best advice I give is to find a qualified person and apprentice with them. And then work hard and show up on time,” she said. “I’m compulsively on time because that’s one of the complaints about farriers, that they never show up on time. I’m not like that. I’m there when I say I’ll be there.”
Vella is a living example of how people can accomplish anything they put their mind to, particularly when they’re told they can’t, won’t or shouldn’t.
In Vella’s world…those words just don’t exist.