The path to Richland Center farrier Jeff Rusk’s life’s work was a hallowed track of Kentucky bluegrass, with his mentor a large chestnut colt nicknamed “Big Red.”

“In May of 1973, I had just graduated from high school and was working on a construction job across from Lake Erie College for women in Ohio — a college with a strong equestrian program,” Rusk recalls. “One day, a group of co-eds asked me to drive them to the Kentucky Derby in exchange for a track-side seat. It was an offer that changed my life.”

Born in Rockford, Ill., with a riding stable near his home, Rusk had learned to ride by the age of 6, and during his teen years, had worked as a stable hand.

“I have always loved nature and animals, particularly horses, but wasn’t sure I could make a living working with them,” he said. “There was also some pressure from my father to make a ‘sensible career choice,’ and I was planning to enroll in college in the fall.”

Yet those concerns were far from Rusk’s mind on May 6, 1973, as he settled himself into his front-row seat to watch the 99th Kentucky Derby — a moment that has not been forgotten despite the passage of 35 years.

“I just sat there looking at the track and thought I must be dreaming,” he said. “I had no idea I was about to witness racing history.”

As 13 horses broke from the gate, one horse in particular was on everyone’s mind — Secretariat, the 3-year-old son of former Derby winner Bold Ruler. Winning the first two races of his career, the pressure on the colt to win was overwhelming.

“Secretariat had lost his final prep race before the Memorial to Sham, and there was some talk that the mile-and-a-quarter Derby track might be too much for him,” Rusk said. “Still, Secretariat was the odds-on favorite to win.”

Watching the 13-horse field round the final turn, Rusk saw Sham come into view at the head of the pack with Secretariat five lengths behind.

“Sham was picking up steam as he headed for the finish line, and there didn’t appear to be any way Secretariat could catch him,” Rusk said. “Yet halfway down the stretch, Secretariat caught him and won by 2½ lengths. It was an incredible victory.”

Big Red not only won the Kentucky Derby, but he was the first horse to crack the two-minute barrier, setting a Derby record that he holds to the present day. Incredibly, each quarter-mile he ran was faster than the previous one.

“As I watched the roses laid across his back, I knew that horses and horse people would always be a part of my life from then on, and I decided to start living the equestrian lifestyle,” Rusk said. “It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.”

Within weeks, Rusk had packed his belongings, said goodbye to his family and set out for his grandfather’s farm in Richland County to begin living his dream. Outfitting himself with a VW bus, a fast canoe, two saddle horses and a golden retriever named Joshua, Rusk entered what he now calls his “Walden Period.”

“For the next four years, I lived alone at the farm and learned the ways of nature and horses,” he said. “My horse took me over country roads, the canoe over rivers and streams and the bus everyplace else.”

In 1983, Rusk began working for Madison’s Cobblestone Carriages.

“I worked as a commercial carriage driver with Cobblestone until 1998 and loved working with the teams,” Rusk said. “Still, after 15 years, I realized that something was missing and I needed a change.”

Enrolling in the Kentucky School of Horseshoeing in Mt. Eden, Ky., Rusk spent the winter of 1998 learning the farrier trade, an education that included numerous trips to breeding farms such as Calumet Stables. In spring 1998, he returned to Wisconsin a licensed farrier.

“Initially, I advertised through word-of-mouth, and the phone started ringing almost immediately,” Rusk said. “Since then, I’ve always kept busy and see horses all over southwest Wisconsin.”

Rusk describes his work as “reading the horse” — where the horse lives, what it eats, its body conformation and its activity level.

“A farrier must be able to do much more than just shoe and trim a horse’s hoof; he must have knowledge of horse anatomy and be able to recognize deformities and infections before they become life-threatening,” Rusk said. “A relatively common hoof condition called laminitis is what ended Secretariat’s life when he was only 19.”

A painful condition that compromises circulation in the hoof capsule, laminitis has a number of causative factors, including obesity and lack of exercise. Horses that are allowed to gorge themselves on lush spring grass with its high sugar content also are at risk.

“In the wild, horses would travel 20 to 30 miles a day, and their diet was more varied; they had plenty of exercise and did not put on excessive weight,” Rusk said. “Now, we are trying to manage horses in in a less-than-perfect environment, and laminitis has become more frequent.

“Wild horses also didn’t need hoof trimming or shoes in the wild, but now, nature has been taken out of the equation.”

Indeed, there are two farrier camps when it comes to hoof care — the traditional camp that advocates shoeing a horse and the natural, which believes in leaving a horse unshod, replicating how they live in the wild. Rusk does not exclusively subscribe to either camp.

“For the most part, the environment a horse lives in should dictate whether a horse is shod or not,” he said. “The majority of Amish horses I see should be shod, as they need traction to walk on hard surfaces such as ice and city streets. Field horses that spend the majority of their time in a pasture probably don’t need shoes.

“Overall, my work consists of approximately 80 percent hoof trimming and 20 percent shoeing,” he added.

Watching Rusk patiently trim and clean the hoofs of his charges, his affinity for the equines he cares for is obvious.

“Horses once ran free with no constraints, then man came along, took away their freedom and put a saddle on them,” Rusk said. “Because of this, I feel we have the responsibility to provide them with the best environment and care that we possibly can. It is the honorable thing to do.”

Jeff Rusk can be contacted at 608-604-2002.