The #1 smash hit of Kristen Kovatch’s summer? A surprise voyage into the world of showing draft horses.
As usual readers of this column have probably realized by now, I like to consider myself fairly well-rounded in the horse world: I primarily teach western horsemanship, but I also ride a lot of reining and have ridden reined cow horse, team sortings, and dabbled in roping and cutting. I ride a lot of hunt seat, schooling horses over fences for the University. I also teach the driving program.
So when given the opportunity to join my boyfriend and my former driving class assistant to show their family’s horses at a county fair, I naturally was ready to go. Over the course of four days at the Warren County Fair, I watched, I learned, I showed and I had the best time I can remember having at a horse show, ever. Over the week I experienced halter classes, hitch classes and even some horse pulls. Here are some key pieces of information about the world of showing draft horses:
1. Draft horses weigh on average around a ton. Illogically, only hold the lead in one hand in halter.
This one I don’t actually understand completely—the traditional way to show drafts is to lead with only one hand, the other hand holding a “show stick” or short crop-length stick with which to help guide and control the horse. While logic states that two hands might be more helpful, the style has evolved in the other direction. You’re also allowed to have an additional person “running whip,” or following behind you with a driving whip cracking along to encourage your giant animal to really pick up its knees—or, alternately, completely run you over. This generally seems to be accepted as a side-effect of halter. It’s actually a really fun class to watch.
2. You either like Percherons or you like Belgians.
I managed to skate my way out of good-natured teasing all week from the “other camp” by proclaiming that my favorite team was whichever one I had driven most recently. My boyfriend’s family owns Percherons but my school team is Belgian. Loyalties typically are fast and hard; no one ever seems to own both. To change to the other breed would be a great betrayal to the home team. Shires, spotted drafts, or heaven forbid, Clydesdales, are all right out.
3. You can never have too much electrical tape or zip-ties.
The more parts you have on an object—like, say, a very elaborate show harness—the more parts can break. Reinforce liberally. There’s a lot that can go wrong with several tons of horse controlled only by lines and voice while attached to large wheeled objects that tip over easily.
4. Remember those four natural aids?
Take away two. Again—all you’ve got is your voice and your lines, as well as the driving whip. Having driven for several years, I didn’t have to think twice about this adjustment, until I took one of the mares from the team into the riding class and tried applying my leg. The under saddle classes were hysterical as fifteen drafts bombed around the ring looking for their partners, riders bouncing along hollering “GEE” or “HAW” or “WHOA.”
5. Nothing beats a good hooker.
In the horse pulls, the driver is only part of the equation—just as important are the two hookers, or assistants who actually hitch the team to the weight boat. These people need to be not only physically strong, but quick on their feet: pulling teams can come in pretty hot and ready to go, and the minute they feel the evener bar drop (the piece of harness that attaches them to the load) they might just surge right forward. These assistants are often the closest people to the team should a header need to step forward to help turn or stop runaways.
6. Unicorns are awesome.
So is the single tandem, four abreast or four up. Each of these different arrangements of hitches has its own historic purpose; the single tandem, placing one horse in front of the other rather than side-by-side in a traditional team, was used on narrow city streets when a wider team would simply take up too much room. History aside, seeing—and hearing—these various hitches thunder by took my breath away, hooves pounding in rhythm, wagons creaking, heel chains jingling and the drivers’ voices cutting through it all to urge the horses on.
For my first draft horse show, I couldn’t have been happier, taking home a fourth of eleven in ladies’ cart with “Rose” and a third place in draft horse equitation (apparently it’s a thing) of fifteen with “Sue.” I’m already looking forward to next year’s fair and the opportunity to do it all over again.
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team and teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving. She has shown reined cow horse, reining, western pleasure, and draft horses, as well as dabbled in hunt seat equitation. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian, Take the Reins and Ranch and Reata.