I mean, technically they’re horses. That’s about where the similarities end.
I’m fresh off a week at the Warren County Fair, said to be one of the biggest draft horse shows in Pennsylvania. “Fresh” might be the wrong word — I’m exhausted, sore, and my knees still won’t straighten 100% (turns out I’m not big enough to stop a draft horse in hand who’s decided she is leaving the arena RIGHT NOW– who would have guessed.) How is this any different, you may ask, from any week at a show? We always come home exhausted, sore, nursing various minor injuries and covered in dust and horse sweat and accumulated grime. But anyone who’s experienced a draft horse show understands these mysteries — let me count for you the ways that showing drafts is another thing entirely.
1. Wagons, wagons everywhere.
It’s not enough to just throw the saddle in the trailer, load the horse and head down the road. Many draft horse outfits have either much bigger rigs than we do (we’re strictly hobby draft owners) or multiple rigs for assembling a draft-horse convoy on the way. For the hobbyists, we first hauled a load of wagons down to the fairgrounds, meaning that the three of us wriggled this enormous hitch wagon out of the barn, lined it up just right with the flatbed, then heaved/hauled/pushed/sweated the entire thing uphill until it was safely loaded. We later packed a meadowbrook cart for driving a single horse underneath this wagon, then tied it down with endless straps to make sure the whole thing didn’t cut loose halfway to the show and go rolling off on its own.
At the fairgrounds, the parking area looks as much like an antique wagon show as anything else — these hitch wagons are beautifully detailed in farm colors and some are actual antiques, painstakingly restored to their former glory. There’s a huge variety of hitches, from fifth-wheels like our blue Painted Forest Farm to farm-type vehicles. Some teamsters even drive manure spreaders or other implements in the farm hitch classes.
Even if you’re strictly showing halter, you’re gonna be staring at a lot of butts — at least in a typical tie barn. Other shows may give each competitor a box stall for each horse, but at the county fair level your horses are going to be in tie stalls all week long. You can imagine the obvious consequences if someone’s not thinking and just marches right up to their horse without giving a good warning — but generally the drafts are pretty tolerant of a lot of activity right behind them. The truly terrifying aspects of the county fair are equally a testament to the patience, good humor and dispositions of draft horses: I’ve seen people wheel their strollers bedecked with balloons right behind these horses and stop to croon at how pretty they are, and bless us all that there hasn’t been a tragic incident.
3. Barns are grouped by color (sometimes).
This may be an individual whim of this particular fair, but this barn was all Percherons, which meant stall after stall of fairly similar black rumps and docked tails. Next door to us was a mixed barn of Belgians and Percherons and there were some spotted drafts somewhere in there too (and oxen, but let’s not talk about that, they just confused things.) Generally speaking, within all breeds there are show types and work types — the show types will have higher natural action and self-carriage, will be put to show wagons in fancy harness, and may also have scotch bottom shoes (the big square shoes that encourage that high-stepping and flared action.)
Ever climbed up into the driver’s seat on a hitch wagon? Baby those things are HIGH UP. The advantage is that you can see exactly what your horses are doing, where you’re going and where everything is around you. The disadvantage is that until you adjust to actually being that physically far away from your horses, it’s slightly terrifying to have the center of gravity on a hitch wagon so high up. These wagons are easy to jackknife and roll over, but once you figure out the limitations they’re super fun to drive.
5. Multiple horses, multiple hitches.
We brought two mares, which made us eligible for men’s and ladies’ cart, men’s and ladies’ pair hitch, and this pictured class for which we’re practicing, the single tandem. “Cart” refers to a horse shown single, put to a meadowbrook or similar two-wheeled vehicle; the pair hitches put to the big show wagon (as opposed to the farm hitch, which uses a work harness, work wagon and typically less showy horses.) Single tandem is put to a cart like a single horse, but with an additional lead horse out front. This can be a dangerous class, as there’s not much keeping that lead horse in place (the term “free agent” has been used) and spotters can be used in the show ring to help keep everyone safe.
And if you brought multiple horses, you can show in the unicorn (show hitches, with a wheel team and one lead horse,) the three-abreast (farm hitches with the horses hitched three-wide,) the four-up (show hitches, with a wheel team and a lead team) and the four abreast (farm hitches with four horses working side-by-side.)
Braiding and banding Mane rolls and tail buns
Drafts have their own variety of show grooming to accentuate the head and neck as well as the hind end. Forelocks are braided with long ribbons and manes are “rolled” — a long piece of fabric in contrasting colors is woven into the mane right at the crest to help show off the curve of the neck. (Mares will not be rolled for halter classes.) Rosettes can then be added — the little flowers or flags that you’ve seen on the Budweiser Clydesdales — five for hitch classes, seven for gelding and stallion halter.
Tails will be put into buns with bows to help show off the muscling of the hind end and to present a clean set of hocks.
7. The noise.
Once you’ve finally got your wagons loaded, your harness polished, your horses rolled and groomed, the team hitched and you’re finally getting tired of staring at horse butts all week, you enter the show ring and promptly get completely overwhelmed by the noise. Put twelve teams (which makes twenty-four horses) and twelve wagons all at a working trot rumbling around together and it’s an experience like none other — the wagons rattle, the hooves thunder, the chains clink and the drivers call to their horses. You can feel the ground shake if you’re standing ringside, making a hitch show a full sensory experience.
8. At the end of the day, there’s just more to love.
Win, lose or excused, it’s hard to come out of the ring without a smile on your face because on of these enormous horses has graced you with its presence. There’s just some sort of inherent majesty in these big horses, and once they get hold of you they have you for life.