Since getting one horse tacked up and to the arena on time for her class wasn’t enough of a challenge, Kristen Kovatch upped the ante: she unpacks a recent draft horse hitch show day for a behind-the-scenes look.
My horse life has taken me on several different paths: I was part of a wrangler crew on a working guest ranch in Wyoming that would prepare and saddle up to thirty or forty horses twice a day; I coached and hosted horse shows at a college facility and oversaw the preparation of around thirty show animals; I traveled with a modest string of nine or ten horses for high school and college equestrian championships and juggled their show schedules for weeks at a time. Nothing, however, compares to the frantic hurry-up-and-wait of a draft horse show — and nothing has been as rewarding either.
As a disclaimer, we’re not a massive top-flight hitch company, traveling all over the country to compete at the biggest and best shows at world-class facilities. We’re recreational hobby farmers and we show at one or two shows a year at the county fair level, which is a special kind of venue in and of itself as our horses contend with tie stalls, close proximity to a wide variety of noisy farm creatures and all of humanity traipsing up and down their barn to marvel at their size.
Our local fair, to its credit, is said to be one of the best county-level fairs in the region for heavy horses and drew over 40 drafts for last week’s festivities.
Thursday, August 11: 6:30 AM
I drive by my sister-in-law’s house and she pulls out of her driveway to follow me down to the showgrounds, which are forty minutes to our south and actually across state lines. We’re planning to stay long enough to get the show horses’ manes rolled and tails braided before Kaitlyn has to be back at work; I’m going to try to stay long enough to see the first few classes and then I too will have to come home to cover the rest of the day. The pre-dawn air is already heavy with moisture; it’s going to be another hot and humid day.
7:15 AM: The sun’s just coming over the hills but we’re already sweating as we greet the early-morning gatekeeper at the fairgrounds and hustle to the three draft horse barns. My father-in-law, Dave, is nearly finished already with the morning chores of watering, feeding and shoveling out the fair-style tie stalls, but he’s happy to receive a drive-thru coffee from us despite the heaviness of the morning. The lights are on in all three draft barns and I can hear the other teams getting ready — our neighbors in our barn, the smallest of the three, are starting to brush out manes and tails.
7:35 AM: Dave has brought all four of his Percherons to the fair this year, with plans to show in both the farm team and the show team. The farm team won’t require any braiding or mane rolls, so we let them enjoy their breakfast while we get to work on the show team Chuck and Derek. Kaitlyn perches precariously with one foot on the manger and one foot on the stall divider so she can work on mane rolls: at first glance, this might look like a running braid to the lay equestrian but it’s a different process involving twisting sections of mane with the long two-colored band of fabric. In our case, one end of the mane roll is white and the other is blue, which looks sharp against the jet-black Percherons.
Kaitlyn stops the mane roll about two-thirds of the way down the horses’ necks, as they should end above the collar. We’ll add the rosettes later.
8:00 AM: We’re plenty ahead of schedule, so we do a quick lap around the other barns to see how our friends are making out with their horses. Kaitlyn gets snagged right away to help roll a mane, so I duck back to our barn to attempt to braid a tail with Dave. For docked draft horses, the tails are braided up into a bun and decorated with a bow to accent the shape of the hindquarters, and we do what I think is a slightly clumsy but decently-effective job. When Kaitlyn returns fifteen minutes later, she scowls at our rough attempt at a tail bun and we summarily undo and rebraid Chuck.
8:20 AM: The show starts at 10:00, so we’re not feeling any kind of rush yet — Dave wanders off to buy a fresh coffee, Kaitlyn chats with our barn neighbors and I sort out ten matching rosettes from the bundle in our grooming kit. These rosettes are homemade but they’ve done the job well: they’re pipe cleaners in our show colors of blue and white, formed on florist’s wire. After the collars go on, Kaitlyn will twist these into the mane rolls.
8:35 AM: Dave deems it time to start casually harnessing, and Kaitlyn gives each piece of harness a final wipe with a clean rag before passing it to me to shuttle to Dave where he stands in the tie stall with Chuck. The show harness is intricate and it’s simply much easier to have Dave do the job himself than for him to constantly be adjusting what I apply, so I pass him the harness in sections: collar, polished hames, backpad and belly band, tugs, martingale, britchen assembly. We work first on Chuck, then on Derek.
9:10 AM: There’s about ten minutes of low-key panic as we scrounge all over our section of the barn for our shaft loops, which are a necessary part of the harness to adapt it to the single cart as opposed to the hitch wagon. After turning over pretty much every object in our area I finally find them hanging up where they would have been all along. We’re not entirely sure why it took us so long to find them but we’re blaming the heat, which already has our shirts soaked through.
9:20 AM: Kaitlyn shimmies up into the mangers again to add the rosettes, twisting and manipulating the wire until each gelding has five “flowers” accenting the impressive curve of their necks. All we need to do now is bridle and then bring Derek down to the hitching area while Chuck hangs out in the barn. We haven’t looked closely at a prize list but we remember the team hitch coming right up soon after the cart classes so Chuck will be ready to go.
9:35 AM: Dave changes into a blue button-down to match the horses’ decorations and then bridles Derek. Our friends at the end of the barn chain off the entrance with a “Barn Closed” sign, and at the other end the barricades are going up that are supposed to keep vehicles and pedestrians from mingling in the space where we’ll all be leading our hitch horses to the arena. That’s the idea, anyway.
9:45 AM: It’s time to head down and get hooked up for the men’s cart class. Dave threads the lines through to the bit and clips a lead on Derek and we back him out his stall and head down to the hitching area. Naturally, the barricades have stopped no one and we have to call a “heads-up!” so passersby will stop gawking at our beautiful horse and not accidentally get stepped on. Just as we’re reaching the hitching area, a woman holding a toddler steps right in front of us to ask if her daughter can put our horse. Dave politely declines as Derek dances at the end of the line.
9:55 AM: Surprise. We thought the Belgian men’s cart class was first in the ring, but it’s Percherons, and now we’re holding the gate as we hook Derek as quickly as we can without sending the horse into nervous jitters. Dave sits cool and steady on the lines as we finally get him set and he jogs Derek up to the in-gate for a brief moment of warm-up, then trots right into the show ring. Kaitlyn regretfully dashes out the gate so she can get back to work, but I linger on the rail with the rest of the ground crew not actively showing. To hook a cart safely requires at least three people — one to hold the horse and two to actively make the connections — so there’s lots of us there to watch our horses perform.
10:10 AM: Yes! Lots of cheers and applause as Dave wins a very competitive men’s cart class. The other ground crew and I share congratulations with each other and we clap and cheer as Dave takes the customary victory pass with Derek trotting to beat the band.
10:15 AM: Now that Derek has a class under his belt and he’s standing quieter, Dave and I are unable to unhook him with just the two of us working. Dave looks like he needs to be wrung out after just that twenty-minute class but I leave him down at the in-gate area as he’s mobbed by well-wishers after his win, and I take Derek back up to the barn so he can get a drink and relax in the shade.
10:35 AM: I’ve removed and hung up the single lines and unbuckled the shaft loops when Dave appears back in the barn with a young man I recognize as the grandson of one of his draft horse friends, who isn’t showing any horses this week. Another surprise — he’ll be showing in the youth class, and we need to get Derek hooked back up again.
11:05 AM: Our youth driver won his class, so Derek is two for two today! I can finally and officially pull the single lines and tug loops and we can get ready for the team hitch.
11:10 AM: We return to the barn to find that Chuck, anxious that his partner departed the barn and abandoned him twice now, has clearly been bouncing off the sides of his tie stall and has destroyed a key part of his harness. I tend to Derek while Dave takes tools to Chuck’s harness, removing the bent section and swapping it out with parts from one of our backup harnesses — the details don’t match perfectly but on a trotting horse no one will notice.
11:15 AM: Fortunately, one of the perks of showing at the county fair is that there are plenty of other displays of tools and equipment, and Dave and one of our showing friends manage to find a shop vise at the exhibiting fire company and get the damaged harness piece — a hook for the tug — straightened back out.
11:20 AM: I really ought to get back home and get back to work, but I hate to abandon Dave to have to fend for himself to get two horses prepared. Lorraine Jackson, however, is a gift from heaven and graciously offers to cover the rest of the day, totally unprompted, so I can stay and help.
11:45 AM: Mental note for next year — the team hitch classes come AFTER the lunch break, so it turns out we didn’t have to rush to harness Chuck anyway especially if all he was going to do was standing in his stall and try to break everything. Live and learn.
12:10 PM: Dave finally sits down to slam some bottled water as I top off water buckets … again. It’s still oppressively hot, but dark clouds are gathering ominously to the west. From the front of the barn I can just see the show ring and catch the end of the single tandem class — one horse hitched in front of the other, put to a cart. That’ll be the last class before lunch break.
12:55 PM: Just as the first class after lunch enters the ring — Best Matched Pair, which is driven from the ground — the long-threatened storm breaks and drenches everyone currently walking around with their teams. Dave changes into a fresh button-down as I gather up water bottles and clean polishing rags in preparation to hitch; we’re both feeling pretty lucky that Dave decided to scratch this class or we’d be out there in the downpour too. We consult the schedule and discover that the farm hitch class comes right before the show hitch — we opt to scratch that one too, as there’s no way the two of us can juggle all four horses in back-to-back classes. We’d need about six people to make that happen safely.
1:15 PM: The rain is finally letting up, and I anxiously ask Dave if we can go ahead and get hooked up early so we’re not rushing like we were this morning. He agrees, and we back Derek and then Chuck out of their stalls and proceed to the hitching area.
1:20 PM: The sun’s come out again in full force, and somehow despite the downpour it’s even hotter and more humid than it was this morning. Dave and I lead Chuck and Derek into position in front of the beautiful hitch wagon and then glance at each other, realizing that we’re going to need a lot more than just the two of us to make this happen. The process of hooking up is one of the most dangerous parts of driving draft horses, especially in a high-energy environment like the outside of the show ring, and we want to make sure we’re taking every precaution.
Fortunately, our barn neighbors have already gotten hooked up and their ground crew hurries over to help us. One young woman shimmies up onto the driver’s bench to take the lines while Dave and her father get the massive and heavy tongue clipped in to the horses’ martingales, then drop the tugs and chains to anchor to the eveners as I hold their heads for added security. Dave climbs up to the driver’s bench, our friend hops down, and he’s ready to go. The horses dance on the spot, ready to perform, and Dave splashes off into a very muddy show ring.
Bedecked with lead lines and rags, I grab a spot by the rail and then rapidly jump back about ten feet when the first wagon rumbles by and sends a wave of mud splashing right over the fence. All of us on the ground crew lurk well off the rail for the duration of the class.
1:45 PM: This was another tough, competitive class and Dave is happy to place fourth. As he rumbles out of the ring, he calls down to me — apparently, he’s already put in an entry for ladies’ team hitch, and if I’m comfortable to give it a try now is the time. He pulls up to a halt and I scramble up to the driver’s bench, Dave scooting over and handing me the lines. I’ve never driven this team before — truthfully, today is the first time I’ve even seen them hooked together — but they handled the last class like champions.
I get about two minutes to feel their mouths — light and sensitive, and they’re very responsive to my voice even as I sit far above them on the high seat of the show wagon — before they call ladies’ team hitch to enter. I get lined up and trot into the arena, Dave coaching me on exactly how to present the team to their best performance.
The class is pretty large, and unlike an under saddle class where it’s safe and appropriate to pass, hitch wagons show on the rail only. So as soon as I catch up to the wagon in front of us, I’m forced to walk the team and wait, trying to let the slower-moving rig before us get a bit further ahead so I can urge Chuck and Derek back into a showy trot. The judge and ring steward must see my struggle and take pity on us, letting us be the reverse team: I use my voice and a light touch with the driving whip to urge the geldings back into a big trot and let ’em rip across the diagonal, turning to pass the other teams to the inside in the opposite direction.
We trot in the other direction and then trot in to line, a thrilling sensation as eight other wagons and trotting teams pull up alongside in a rainbow of colors and a cacophony of jingling harness and rumbling wheels. I back the team for the judge and then await the decision, chatting with Dave about how the class went, how nicely his horses are driving and about how dark clouds are piling up again in the west. When the ring steward walks our way and raises her pointer finger, directing us to step forward just as the announcer crackles to life to announce me as the winner, Dave grabs my shoulders in a hug.
As the rest of the placings and honorable mentions file out of the ring, I get to trot the team up in a victory pass, enjoying my thirty seconds of fame.
2:10 PM: As this, of course, is the county fair, all of the wagons need to be removed from the hitching area to make way for of all things the woodsmen’s competition that borrows the space this evening, so I jump down off the bench to open a gate to the parking lot so we can drive the show wagon down to a storage lot.
Chuck and Derek are happy to trot the width of the fairgrounds, even past the slightly-terrifying carnival section; Dave is taking no prisoners as those stormclouds are rolling closer and closer.
2:20 PM: The only downside to this plan is the long, long walk of shame line-driving the geldings back up to the barn from the opposite corner of the fairgrounds. Fortunately, the boys have plenty of pep in their step even though they’re clearly tired from pulling the wagon through all the mud in the show ring, and we make it back to the hitching area just in time to hear the announcer calling for an evacuation of the stands and show ring due to the oncoming storm. The area becomes total chaos for a moment as drivers drop their rigs and hurry their horses back to the barns; we get Chuck and Derek safely back to the barn aisle, separated and haltered just as the storm breaks.
2:25 PM: One piece at a time, Dave removes the harness the same way he put it on, all while rain hammers the roof of the barn. Periodically, he’s interrupted by our barn neighbors who come through to shake his hand, give me a hug and congratulate Dave on a wonderful team and a great day of showing. Since the lightning and pouring rain makes it too dangerous to take the horses to the wash stall, I opt to sponge them down with a wet rag and a bucket of cool fresh water, making sure our hardworking geldings are as comfortable as can be after a long tough day.
2:50 PM: As the rain continues to fall, I remove the rosettes, mane rolls and tail bows as the horses enjoy a good drink and munch on hay. We’ve conquered several challenges today, from the hurried hitching-up process to tricky weather to the show ring itself, and they’ve come through with flying colors. The fact that we brought home some blue ribbons makes the day that much sweeter. I’m already planning ahead for next summer, and maybe a few other local draft shows we can attend …