I was paging through a regional tourist magazine while on a trip out west last year. There were the usual glossy pages depicting happy hikers on trails through gorgeous scenery and thrilled rafters being bounced through frothing rapids. Then I turned a page and was looking at a picture of horses that could have come from my own pasture–beautiful red Suffolk Punch horses. I had to know whose they were.
Well–long story short–after some months I was able to come to Montrose, Colorado, again, this time specifically to see the Y Bar Hitch horses, and have a lesson in learning to drive a Suffolk Punch four-up.
Val Barnica is a woman of enthusiasms. Suffolk horses happen to be one of them. She and her Y Bar Hitch partner, Ken Spann, have built a herd of eleven of those chestnut horses with the kind, dark eyes. Each of the horses is broke to drive, and Val loves driving horses. She especially likes driving larger hitches–the four-ups and six-ups. She's planning on eight-up before long.
It started in 2010 with the cutest little sleigh. Ken bought it and Val agreed with him: they had to take it for a ride. For Christmas that year, they bought each other an elderly Percheron named Ted, and Val found that she really enjoyed driving him. The following spring, she ordered a Pioneer forecart so she could take Ken's mother for a ride to see the calves being born on the ranch. The cart arrived, was assembled and ready to go the next day–but old Ted died during the night.
Well, poor Ted and poor timing! With Val heartbroken, Ken scoured the Internet in search of a team. In southern Iowa, he found Bert, a grade Suffolk Punch mare and her half-Belgian daughter, Nell.
Suffolk? He didn't know much about that particular breed. He'd been driving horses for years on his family's cattle ranch–Percherons and Belgians, mostly. He's a curious and open-minded man, so he wanted to know more. Suffolk horses, he learned, are a rare breed. The Livestock Conservancy estimates there to be only about 600 of the horses in North America and another 200 in Britain. The horses were originally bred in Suffolk County, England, exclusively for farming that region's heavy, clay soils. They are compact, powerful, willing and easy to keep. Bert and Nell had a new home. The two mares were such good horses, Ken and Val were convinced that owning more of these Suffolk horses was in the cards.
While Val was on a ten-day horse-pack trip in the Weminuche Wilderness with a girlfriend, Ken searched and found another experienced Suffolk team available in Texas. Val emerged from the wild to find her cell phone packed with messages from Ken. “You need to come home so we can go pick up our new team!” Before long, the grade mares were joined by registered geldings Rowdy and Rebel and later, when Bert tragically passed away, by Chester, a well-trained young gelding bought from a retiring breeder in Oklahoma. They bought Doc as a rescue project. Ken thought he'd last six months at most, but extensive dental work, good nutrition and a lot of Val's loving care proved him wrong. Doc blossomed back into health.
Although Ken had grown up working horses, and Val was gaining experience in driving, both he and Val felt the need to learn more about the technique of hitching and driving multiple horses safely. They asked Chuck Baley, a longtime experienced teamster from Pagosa Springs, Colorado, to come to their place and help them.
Mr. Baley arrived with a truckload of eveners, long lines, harness modifications and knowledge. He showed them the safest ways to harness and hitch a team. He helped them hitch two horses, then three, then four abreast. “Let's try four-up!” he said. Val took the lines after listening carefully to his explanation and demonstration of how to hold them, how to keep one eye on the wheelers and the other eye on the leaders.
“I heard her giggle,” Ken remembered. “Those four horses broke into a trot and she just giggled.”
Val, who had ridden horses all her life, had found something else she loved and was good at–really good. Driving the four-up came naturally to her and she loved it.
She took a trip home to visit family in Nebraska and Ken found himself on the Internet again, this time searching for a hitch wagon. He found a doozy. Natural oak finish, 3,200 lbs., drawn by the winning hitch in the 1989, 1990 and 1991 North American Six-Horse Hitch Classic Finals (Windmill Acres Farms of North Carolina) and now retired, seeking a new home. Val had more calls and messages from Ken. "Yes," she said. "Let's get it."
The bank loaned them the money to buy it–the banker told Ken that it was an easy decision. “If you can't repay the loan, I think we'd like to have that wagon ourselves!” The wagon arrived, carefully packaged in a transport in which the previous cargo had been Elvis Presley's convertible. Ken and Val not only repaid the loan, they brought the four horses and wagon to town and Val gave the banker a thank-you ride in it, right past the drive-through window and down the streets of Gunnison, Colorado.
Next Val and Ken bought Sam and Levi, two big, powerful, impressive Suffolk geldings from British Columbia. They are terrific wheel horses. Four young registered Suffolk mares–all sisters–imported from Eagle Ridge Suffolks, also in B.C., round out the Y Bar Hitch horses. Val has a four-up of geldings (with extra fellows ready to step in should one of the varsity team need a break) and very soon will have a matched four-up mare hitch.
The Y Bar Hitch began to get noticed. They drove them in local parades and shows. They received a coveted invitation to the 2015 Cheyenne Frontier Days Grand Parade. Why not shoot for the bigger leagues? Denver's National Western Stock Show was next.
Ken and Val loaded up the fancy harness, the chuckwagon, and Sam, Levi, Rebel and Chester. They went to Denver for the 2016 show, where Val drove the first Suffolk team in living memory in the farm team classes. The horses performed like the stars they really are and the crowd in the stands sought them out in the barn after each class. “We stood in the aisle and answered questions about Suffolk horses all day long!” Ken explained. The Y Bar horses and folks came home with no ribbons or prizes, but they hadn't really expected any. They were more than satisfied with the experience–and prouder than ever of their horses and the exposure for the Suffolk Punch breed.
Val and Ken use the horses on the ranch to pick up irrigation pipe, drag the pastures and do whatever other chores come along. The horses also earn their keep by working at weddings and special events. The Y Bar has a beautiful green Vis-a-vis carriage for special occasions as well as a corresponding green Vis-a-vis sleigh for use in winter. They do hayrides on the Spann Ranches property along the Uncompahgre River in the fall. Ken and Val also volunteer their teams and wagons for community fund-raisers and events.
The Y Bar Hitch works hard during the weeks before Christmas. In the evenings, after their regular jobs are done, Ken and Val often split up, each driving a team to take people around to see the holiday lights in town or on sleigh rides. After that there's a bit of a lull, with just the occasional sleigh ride or hay ride. Val works on training the young horses and polishes her skills by driving the four-up and six-up on the county road that passes the ranch.
“She just took to it,” Ken said of Val's driving ability. “She has an amazing aptitude for driving the multiple hitches.” He can drive them, too, but his pride in Val is evident and he's happy to stay out of the limelight and make sure she has what she needs to make each parade, show, or event as safe and successful as possible.
Val shared some of her know-how with me when I came to visit. I wanted to get started on learning to drive a four-up and Val was eager to pass on not only her knowledge, but also some of the many kindnesses she has received from other teamsters as she's learned from them in the past three years. She spent hours helping me to hitch and drive Rowdy, Nell, Chester and Rebel. (Levi was nursing a cut on his hoof and Sam was keeping him company.) Val's enthusiasm is infectious–I won't be entering any hitch classes, but I'm looking forward to working more on what I learned about driving a four.
I know from my own experience with Suffolk horses that they are easy to love–well, we all love our horses, no matter what the breed. Some of us just love that brick-red color and the kind eyes and the interested, intelligent way these particular horses look at the world. “I love these two so much, I could cry,” Val said to me in passing as she led Chester and Rebel to the hitching rail. Well, not to take away from those two handsome geldings, but I think Val loves all her horses to the point of tears. It's fun for her to drive them, but anyone who has shown horses knows how much work is involved in preparing, hauling, showing and then loading back up and reversing the process. Val puts her horses out there because she loves them and wants everyone else to love them, too. She and Ken have become enthusiasts for the Suffolk breed and are hoping their work with their horses can make it more popular.
Val has a personal ambition for the horses, too. Some years ago she spent a week with her Aunt Jean out in Pasadena, helping to build floats for the Rose Bowl parade. Jean took a great interest in Val's growing herd and enthusiasm for driving. In honor of her Aunt Jean (who passed in 2014), and because she loves a challenge and wants even more attention for her horses, Val hopes one day to drive a six-up in the Rose Bowl parade.
Until then, and–let's face it–after that, Val will continue to drive her hitches up and down the county road near the ranch. She and Ken will probably get those mares bred and raise some Suffolk babies. They'll be fixtures at local parades and events–and they'll hit the big shows in Denver, Grass Valley and wherever else they think their horses will win hearts–and, possibly, ribbons. They'll promote Suffolk horses with an eye to improving and strengthening the breed. I know this much for sure–they'll have a good time doing it as they welcome everyone around them to join in the fun, too.
Visit the Y Bar Suffolk Hitch on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ybarhitch/