Horse Power Reigns at State Fairs

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    “Easy, boy!   Wait for Blaze.  Slower around this corner.  Now, ya got it.  C’;;mon, fellows!  Go for it!”

    With narrow leather straps crossing the palms of his hands, the Reigns man, perched on the edge of the fancy wagon seat, brought his six festive giants around the back stretch.  They stopped in front of the cheering crowd, with 114 other horses, to be judged on their performance.  This was the Six-Horse Hitch Competition at the State-fair arena.

    Fancy chrome and silver harness buttons sparkled. The rumble of hoofs and rhythms of organ music had filled the air as the huge horses trotted, walked, turned and pulled their wagons. Festive, with manes braided in the Aberdeen roll and tails folded with matching ribbons, each team had moved together, with grace, intelligence, and discipline.  In their party clothes, they hardly looked like the workers of last century.   However, it was the “horsepower” of Draft horses like these that had a great part in the development of America as the nation it is today.

    Long ago, horses that lived in the rugged lands in Northern Europe, grew large with abundant food. Their feet and legs became strong and heavy as they worked the damp, clay soil.  By early medieval times, 500-1000AD, one type of horse known as the “Black Horse of Flanders” in Belgium and Northern France, became well known.  He is considered to be the Father of all modern Draft horses.  Called “cold blooded” because of their even temperament and slow movement, these horses were all large, strong, gentle, and big footed. They served the farmers of Europe for ages.

    In 1823, the first of these large horses came to help American farmers plow new fields and work new soil. They were black, dark or light gray, and their breed was called PERCHERONS.

    In 1848, at a Farmer’;;s Fair in Springfield, Ill., a boy named Mark Dunham was fascinated when he saw one of these beautiful giants.  As an adult, he brought many, both gray and black, from France to his hometown.  He wanted them to feel at home so he built red barns, planted alfalfa, clover and elm trees, and talked to them in French!  Wayne, Ill. became the Percheron center in the US.  These horses were sold all over the country to work on farms.

    To the delight of kids, some of the “grays” found their place in the circus.  Their color didn’;;t show the white rosin which was rubbed on their backs to give traction.  Their calm manner provided a steady gait, with no sudden movements when the performer did his antics.

    As the huge fields in our western plains began to be used, the breed called the BELGIANS arrived to help.  They were even larger and stronger.

              SIDEBAR (Today they are so big that on a double scale they would  

               need 1/2 subcompact cars to balance the other side!)  

Because they had no long hair on their lower legs which needed grooming, they were called “easy keepers.”  They soon replaced the Percheron as the most numerous on the American scene.

    Teams of eight, ten, twenty horses were used to pull the huge combines that harvested the crops on the western plains.  Round houses were built with a circle track for horses to pull the mechanisms that turned a wheel and ground the flour.

              SIDEBAR (These tracks might be compared to pony rings at the fair,

                but no pony could compare his boredom to that of the mill horse!)

The term “horsepower”, still used today, indicated the strength of power produced in these tasks. As a result of this power, America became an agricultural leader, shipping food around the world.

    In addition to farm and industrial work, these horses were on the recreational scene in great pulling contests.  A pair of Belgians gave a record pull of 4,275 lb. as measured by a dynamometer.  These pulling contests were so popular that they might have 125 pairs of horses enrolled at once.   

    When the CLYDESDALES arrived from Scotland, they were noted for their white blaze, knee length white stockings, long stride and high lively step.  They almost resembled the Scottish dancers, and their performance was even enhanced by the swishing of long feathers on the backs of their legs and feet. They were not “easy keepers”, but they were big and strong.

    Their fame came, however, when a gentleman from Anheuser-Busch Beer Co. made them stars.  He said, “I want them!  They must all be alike; male, 18 hands in height, bay in color with identical white blazes.  They will pull the wagon advertising Anheuser-Beer around the country. Everyone will know our beer and our horses.”

    Only a few were chosen, and the rest joined their comrades in the work force of America. However, the Clydesdales became horse “stars.”  This company now has the largest group in the world. They wear harnesses costing $10,000 each, made by a special leather company in Massachusetts. They still appear at big occasions around America.

    Settling the west in America meant cutting down acres and acres of huge trees.  Not only did the land need to be cleared but the logs were needed for building and for railroads.  Transporting these logs out from the forests was difficult.  While all draft horses were used, the SHIRE, from the lowlands of England, was probably the best.  Everything about the Shire is enormous. He weighs a full ton and is mostly brown.    

             SIDEBAR (In his homeland, the horseshoes needed for his huge

            feet are considered to bring special good luck.  Used ones are valuable!)          

His heavily feathered legs are like the Clydesdale except the hair is coarse, protecting legs from the sword-like sedge grass and dampness of England’;;s marshy fenland. 
    Nothing bothered the Shire, and that is why he made a wonderful logger.  He loved to sleep, and even a tree falling nearby would seldom disturb his nap.  The only thing that he seemed to hear was the pouring of oats.  Eating has always been his passion, and today he still prances and snorts with pleasure at dinner time!

    During the 19th century, as these different breeds worked in the fields, the forests, and in industry, America become a world leader. At the same time, America found new ways of making power.  The modern mechanized country of today is no longer in need of four legged horsepower!   

    The teamwork of these Gentle Giants, however, has always been recognized.   They work and communicate with each other in very special ways as they respond to the task at hand.  Now, moving together around the Arenas at the fairs, they are showing the world that this is another key to their power!


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