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Draft Horses: Pulling into a Show Near You

Horse show

Characterized by their heavy bone structure and docile temperament, draft horses have played an integral part in the history of the United States. In the 1800s, as agricultural technology improved, American farmers began to rely on teams of draft horses to pull mowers, steel plows and combines while working the land. This utilization of horsepower and advances in farming equipment enabled farmers to expand their acreage and establish the United States as a powerful world agricultural market.

Not only did draft horses help expand farming in the U.S., but they also played a significant role in the growth of urban America.  As cities grew and suburbs emerged, draft horses powered the mass transit systems. Nearly every large city in the U.S. had horse car lines to transport workers from their city jobs to their more affordable housing in the suburbs.

As the 20th century got underway the golden age for draft horses in America started to come to an end. With the Industrial Revolution rolling full steam ahead, America’s beloved draft horses began to be replaced by new machines and vehicles.

Fast forward to today, the powerful horses whose ancestors powered America pre-Industrial Revolution can now be found in show rings across the United States. Low Gap, North Carolina, resident Stephanie Rupple, shares her insights into the world of competitive draft horse shows.  Rupple, a freelance draft horse trainer, grew up in Wisconsin on her family’s Medina Horse Company, Belgian focused farm. It was there that the love of the heavy horse developed for her.  Today Rupple’s specialty is the six horse hitch class; however she also shows young horses in the in-hand conformation classes.

The six horse hitch is one of the most impressive classes at a draft horse show. A six horse hitch team consists of three pairs of horses; leaders, swings, and wheelers. Each pair has a specific job. Rupple said, “The lead team consists of the fanciest horses with the most leg action. They are put out in front to catch the judge’s eye.” 

As the judge bases their first impression of the hitch on the lead team, it is important for them to set the pace. Rupple commented, “There is a fine line of balance with the lead team, as they need to be bold, confident and flashy, but they must also be very obedient as they can cause a lot of trouble out front.” 

The swing team has a difficult position as they are in the middle of the hitch and must stay in their spot.  Bigger than the leaders, the swing team helps to round the corners for the hitch. According to Rupple, the wheel team positioned closest to the wagon consists of the largest and most trustworthy team members. This team knows how to react to the subtle jerks on the lines made by the driver. It is the wheel team that does the actual steering of the wagon and is responsible for the majority of the pulling.

Horse showSimilarly to how there are the fall indoors championships for Hunters and Jumpers, along with the All American Quarter Horse Congress for Quarter Horses, there are also finals for Six Horse hitch competitors. One such show is the North American Six-Horse Hitch Classic Series Final.  After traveling to state and county fairs across the U.S. and Canada , the four highest qualifying hitches in each of the three breed categories are invited to compete for over $30,000 in prize money.  In addition to the National Classic Series, there are also a variety of national championship shows that are breed-specific, for example the Belgian Horse Association last had their championships in Davenport, Iowa. Rupple participated in this year’s Belgian National Horse Show where she showed her champion mare in a conformation class.

Whether it’s at the championship level or the local level a good judge considers everything when judging a draft horse driving class. According to Rupple, the main focuses of the judge are conformation, movement of the horse, presentation and the driving. When judging the conformation of the hitch, it is important for all team members to be uniform in size, color and markings. The hitch should represent the best of the breed pulling the wagon. All horses that are part of the hitch must be sound. Rupple said, “The judge looks to see how well the horses are presented, how well they are working together and how well the driver maneuvers them through the show ring.”

In addition to the six horse hitch there are also a variety of other hitch classes at a draft horse show. The other main classes include: men’s cart, ladies’ cart, team, unicorn, four horse hitch and eight horse hitch. Regardless of what class is competing, they all follow the same pattern through the ring. Rupple explains, “Exhibitors travel to the right in a counter-clockwise direction at a walk and begin to trot for a few laps, then they reverse across the diagonal of the ring and demonstrate the walk and trot going to the left”.

During this time, the judge stands in the middle of the ring observing all teams. At the end of the rail work, the judge calls the teams to the center of the ring to line up. Once in the center of the ring, the judge looks over each hitch and has them back up one at a time. The number of entries can range from 6 at the state fair level to 18 or more at larger shows according to Rupple.

To prepare for competition, Rupple begins to put her drafts into a training program when they are two years old. Rupple first places the harness on the young horses at an early age so they can get used to both the weight of it and the jingling noises associated with it. After the horse gets used to the harness, Rupple proceeds by having it pull a tire around. Once the horse is comfortable with the tire she moves forward with a sled. This allows the horse to get accustomed to both the weight and drag associated with the tire/sled. As the young horse accepts the weight of both the tire and the sled, it is then paired up with an older horse to learn how to team. This older, experienced horse provides confidence to the young horse as he is learning how to pull as a team. Rupple remarks, “With this training they could be ready for the hitch by three and possibly four to show.”

In an effort to expose the young horses to the show atmosphere prior to being attached to a hitch, Rupple shows her yearlings and young horses in in-hand conformation classes. Rupple believes this show ring exposure will make her horses less affected by the atmosphere and craziness of horse show venues as they progress in their careers.

While the draft horses' job description has remained primarily the same over the years, now instead of just delivering goods they have entered the world of horse shows. These majestic animals can be seen from the Devon Horse Show to the Big E Draft Horse show with many stops in between. The grace, power, and fluidity they possess enable them to pull beautiful carriages/wagons in the show ring with ease. So next time you are looking for a family friendly event, check out the draft horse driving competitions and fairs in your area.

Rupple feeds her horses Triple Crown Complete. As she trains a variety of breeds, Belgians, Arabs, and Thoroughbreds, she values the Triple Crown line as it is compatible with, and provides an excellent nutritional value to, the horses under her training program. Mount Airy, NC is the local Southern States store that fuels Rupple’s horses.

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