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Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Awesomeness of Enormous Equines

Big boy.
I have a confession to make. I love big horses. The bigger the better. In my mind, a horse ought to be substantially larger than a person. Maybe it's from seeing pictures of tiny jockeys on racehorses, but I think the scale looks all wrong when you see adults mounted on the larger pony breeds. Heck, anything under 16 hands (that's 5'4" at the withers) looks off to me! Of course, part of this prejudice no doubt stems from the fact that three of the four horses at the stable where I ride are over 16 hands and the fourth is just under. I love leading big ol' Drifter, who is larger than your average Quarter Horse, out of his stall, a massive animal willingly following my lead. So I guess it's about power, too. And then there's Syd. From the moment I arrived at Sage Meadows, I've had a crush on the huge, handsome, Hanoverian cross. He's gorgeous and glossy, with a thick, black, wavy tail more than five feet long that cascades nearly to the ground, a rather delicate face for his bulk, an alert and inquisitive expression, and a outgoing, friendly personality. And he's over 17 hands. Imagine my delight, then, when I arrived for my lesson two weeks ago to find that Drifter was on stall rest with an injury and my mount for the day was none other than the horse more formally known as Syndicate! I'd thought that, since he's a youngster who is still in training himself, I would have to be much more skilled before hopping on his back (well, with a back that high, you don't hop, you heave and climb), but apparently Drifter has taught me well and I was equal to the task of handling Syd for a day.

Note the height of his withers (the point where his neck meets his back) relative to my head. I'm 5'7" and can't see over him!

Isn't his glossy, brown-black coat beautiful?
Because he's not a reliable old plug like Drifter, I did have to take a more active role in making Syd stay on the rail while we rode around the arena, but it was a grand feeling to be riding on top of something so tall. He had a lot of pep to his step and while his bouncy, speedy trot was rather beyond my current posting abilities, I had a blast traipsing around the arena in my elevated position as if I were Queen of the World. I'm very happy that Drifter has recovered and that he was eager to get to work this week because he is a very special horse with a lot yet to teach me (like how to get skilled enough at posting that I could easily ride Syd), but it was incredibly fun to ride my massive horse crush at last and for it to be even more delightful than I imagined. I know that saddle horses over 17 hands are hardly a dime a dozen and that there are wonderful horses of more diminutive stature out there, but I gotta say, I'm spoiled. I want to go big or go home!

My instructor hopped on Syd after my lesson to give him some schooling. It was delightful watching him practice both collected and extended canters and flying lead changes as she put him through the paces necessary for him to become a higher-level dressage horse.

So, given my penchant for horses of considerable size, it should be no surprise that I loved the "Horse Sense" story in the August 4th edition of the Seattle Times' Pacific NW Magazine about a rural community's long-standing love affair with draft horses. It talked about the friendliness and docility of these massive animals and the successive generations that have nurtured them. Draft horses require lots of space and consume prodigious quantities of (costly) food, so it's unusual enough for private citizens to keep entire herds, and more unusual still that there would be half a dozen herds concentrated around a single area. Unlike their fathers or grandfathers, most of the draft horse owners are no longer farmers themselves, but the bonds that were built back when the horses were indispensable aids to farm work have endured. It doesn't hurt that the scenario presented in a certain Budweiser commercial that may have left a few of us misty-eyed isn't that far from the truth: the affectionate beasts have long memories when it comes to people they love. When we learned that the highlight of the year for the horses, their owners, and their fans was the daily displays of the horses hauling wagons in teams of six at the Northwest County Fair in Lynden, Washington, just south of the Canadian border, my family resolved to go see them for ourselves.

Snow-covered Mount Baker rises over the fertile farmland outside Lynden.

My parents took the day off from work just for the occasion, so it was on a beautiful, sunny Tuesday that we made the hour and a half drive north to the little town best known for being populated by Dutch immigrants and growing lots of raspberries. The fair itself was a rural community celebration at its best: the usual carnival rides and fried food vendors, craft displays and cover bands, and barn after spotless barn filled with white-clad youth showing their carefully groomed livestock in 4-H competitions. It was a pleasure just to watch these kids primping their cows or standing proudly by their prize-winning pigs, but we had draft horses to see.

Teenage girls show off their heifers. 4-H is clearly still a very big deal in Whatcom County!

And my goodness, did they ever deliver.

This was the official draft horse "greeter," a Clydesdale so mellow and friendly that it tolerated the endless barrage of strangers reaching through the bars to pet him.

We timed our arrival at the fair so we'd have a chance to poke around and watch the horses being hitched to the wagons before the noon show. We made our way to the draft horse barn just as the first harnessed horses were being led out. Right there, just on the other side of the rope, was a towering Clydesdale of mammoth proportions, wearing 150 pounds of silver-embellished tack, having ribbons attached to his mane by a woman on a step stool. I marveled at the massive, spreading hooves, the arching necks, the gargantuan hindquarters, and watched with hungry awe as the horses clip-clopped with surprising elegance to their places in front of the wagons. There was a friendly Clydesdale in a pen just outside the barn for eager fairgoers to touch and I obliged him by rubbing the hollows above his eyes, but I longed to run my hands over the flanks of the beauties in the hitches!

A Clydesdale in full regalia is led out of the barn.

Even with the assistance of a step stool, this woman still had to stretch to add a few more decorations to his mane.

With bows in place, this horse is ready to get hitched!

This Belgian lifts his freshly-polished hooves high as he is led out to the wagons. The grace and elegance with which these huge animals moved was astonishing.

A woman holds a pair of somewhat bored Belgians in place while the complex task of linking the horses together begins.

We found seats in the shaded grandstand just prior to the start of the show, which was more than just an exhibition of the draft horses. There were equine drill teams, trick riders, mutton bustin', chariot races, and eight-pony teams hauling wagons helter-skelter in an event known as the "crazy eights."

Young women put their well-trained horses through complex maneuvers.

Trick riders show off the prowess of their mounts in competitive heats.

Teams of ponies raced around a course as their drivers, middle-aged men wearing capes and helmets, their faces grim with concentration, braced against the reins in their chariots.

Four pony teams took part in the Crazy Eights: a team of blacks, a team of palominos, a team of paints, and this handsome hitch of sorrels taking a sprightly turn around the arena with the fair rides rising in the background.

It was all good fun, but the draft horses did not disappoint. Team after team of huge and handsome horses--Clydesdales, Belgians, and Percherons--in jingling harnesses paraded into the arena pulling brightly painted wagons. When all eight teams had made the requisite circuit of the arena, the "free drive" began, the horses shifting into high gear and thundering about with their wagons in tow, their drivers guiding them into deliberate near misses with other teams as the sun shown down and the sound of heavy hoofbeats and ringing tack lifted to the heavens. It was as grand a spectacle as you'll ever see.

I thought these dappled grays were simply stunning.

The blacks were the most beautiful movers, lifting their hooves high in perfect unison.

Glorious draft horse chaos!

After the showcase was over, we fortified ourselves with fair food and then toured the horse barns where the draft horses and pony teams were enjoying a post-performance lunch. I once again longed to touch those massive, rounded rumps!

Butts don't get bigger or more beautiful than this!

The show has not one but TWO teams of sorrel Belgians, a genetically rare coat color for the breed.

Those high-stepping blacks eat up--they have another showcase coming up in the evening!

I don't think I've ever seen a sight so fine as these dappled rumps all in a row.

Clydesdales Miles and Ranger look up from their mangers in anticipation of the arriving water buckets.

Sorrel Belgian Roy, his team colors braided into his mane, impatiently waits for his lunch. While draft horses are known for their pleasant dispositions, when a 2,000 lb. animal has an opinion about something, it becomes, by default, a very large opinion! 

Splendid Syd
It was a glorious day. After four hours of exploring the fair, I ran out of steam and was sick for much of the rest of the week because of the energy I expended there, but it was so worth it. The horses were magnificent and reinforced my belief that big horses are better! I told my mom that I definitely wanted to see them again--perhaps next summer, or maybe as soon as October, when the draft horses make an appearance at the Lynden Horse Show and Draft Horse Spectacular. In the meantime, I'll make do with Drifter, my taller-than-average Quarter Horse, and his outsize stablemate, Syd, no small (ha!) consolation prize, as, unlike those delectable but untouchable Clydesdales and Belgians and Percherons, I am free to caress and lean into "my" boys' big bodies as much as I like.

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