Traverse City Record-Eagle

Our Town

August 23, 2010

'Gentle giants' at horse driving school

OLD MISSION — Four-legged overgrown children or massive examples of horsepower?

Draft horses may weigh in the thousands of pounds, but their gentle and patient demeanor makes them ideal work animals; with a dose of playfulness thrown in.

"Once you get to know the horse, they're really soft, gentle horses," said Dan Sheffer, of Interlochen, who learned his love of draft horses from his dad. "What we talk about is soft eyes, the heart behind the horse."

"You just got to treat them like a kid, they're fun," he added.

The Northwest Michigan Draft Horse & Mule Association showcased the gentle giants during their annual three-day Driving School. Held at a farm at the base of the Old Mission Peninsula, the school drew 20 students, including 11 participants ages 17 and under.

Attending full-time or for whatever their schedule allowed, students learned how to drive or deepened their skills. They also mastered basic skills such as harnessing and what to look for in a wagon. Blacksmith Will Lent, of Shelby, was on hand to demonstrate the ancient craft as well as answer questions.

"We've also had a lot of spectators come in and fed 45 people for lunch," said organizer Nancy Wieland, of South Boardman.

Driving School participants included cousins Rachel Gingras, 13, of Manton, and Preston Proseh, 11, of Leroy. Saturday after lunch, the two worked on harnessing the horses to drive, a 10 to 15 minute process after mastery. Working with their grandpa, Butch Ruppert, Proseh buckled, fastened and maneuvered all the components.

"You start from the back and go to the front," said Gingras, who has been driving since she was ten years old. "Sometimes the hardest thing is controlling the horse if they're not trained."

Attending the Driving School for the third consecutive year, Gingras has learned how to drive different numbers of animals; for example, two- and four-horse hitches.

"I like driving these horses and learning new things," she said.

One key to successfully managing draft horses is to drive defensively: always watching what the horse or horses are doing while also being constantly aware of the surrounding environment.

"When driving you have to pay attention," Gingras said.

In addition to a team of donkeys, the horses on hand for the clinic included Morgan-Percheron crosses, Belgians, Percherons and shires. Club members and visitors also brought wagons to allow students to build and practice their skills.

"Our club members have a wide variety of animals," Wieland said. "They're here today as volunteers, sharing their animals and expertise."

The club offers scholarships to encourage youth participation and met some of the students at this year's Northwestern Michigan Fair. Passing driving skills on to the next generation is crucial to keeping them alive.

"You just can't lose this, it is something you'll never get back," Sheffer said.

For more information about the Northwest Michigan Draft Horse and Mule Association, call Dan Hubbell at 947-5600.

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