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The Dakota Thunder Comes Up Roses

by Cappy Tosetti

Wishes can come true, especially when surrounded by family and friends cheering you on and sharing the journey together. Just ask Houston Haugo, owner of the Dakota Thunder Shires six-horse hitch from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He will tell you to hold onto your dreams and do everything possible to see things through. Perhaps he has the same determination that motivates Jiminy Cricket, the fictional character from the children’s book, The Adventures of Pinocchio, with a favorite quote: "If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme.”

“It began in 1991 at the National Western Stock Show in Denver when I first saw a magnificent hitch of Shires owned by Argonaut Farms,” Houston explains. “Watching them in the arena literally took my breath away. I knew immediately that someday I would have my own horses that would dazzle and inspire a crowd.

“I guess it’s the little kid in me, but I’ve always loved parades, whether it’s a small town event covering three blocks on Main Street or the big one that’s been starting off New Year’s Day since 1890–Pasadena's Tournament of Roses Parade. It’s pure magic, especially watching the horses in all their finery."

Being part of the festivities this year in Pasadena was especially poignant for Houston; he’s been dealing with complications from diabetes for many years, losing a leg to the disease and now undergoing wound care treatments to save his other foot. He has had his share of doctors, hospitals and checking his glucose levels several times a day. Focusing on the positive can sometimes be the best medicine.

Houston Haugo (far right) enjoyed the grandest of New Year's Day celebrations from the comfort of his own wagon, accompanied by his family, (L to R) son Chris, granddaughter Caroline, daughter-in-law Jill, granddaughter Catherine and wife Judith (with whom he was also celebrating their 50th anniversary). —photo courtesy of Pasadena Tournament of Roses

Another reason for celebrating was his and his wife, Judith's, 50th wedding anniversary. He smiles while recalling some the comments from friends, “Why in the world would you want to get up at dawn and sit on a wagon for close to six miles on Colorado Boulevard? That’s not a romantic way to observe such an important milestone; why not escape to a tropical island or take a luxury cruise in the Caribbean?”

Anyone who knows the couple just needs to ask Judith. She’ll tell you what a wonderful adventure it was, especially sitting next to Houston with their children and grandchildren along for the ride. She’ll gladly show you their golden wedding anniversary photo of the family with beautiful yellow roses and six black Shires. These are the memories one cherishes forever. The Caribbean can wait!

Moving Forward
Houston knew that Shires were the horses for him so he began gathering information, visiting farms, going to events and talking with people in the field. He also realized he needed a good manager to train and oversee the care of the outfit. One name kept coming up in conversation–Joe Biren, a teacher and draft horse owner in nearby Iona, Minnesota.

One of Houston’s good friends, Walter Schaefer, Schaefer Belgian Farms in Winfred, South Dakota, convinced him to look Joe up. “He’ll do a whale of a job for you if he’s available," Walt told him. "Joe has the experience and expertise with horses, and he’s also a good businessman with great people skills and a rock-solid work ethic.”

Schaefer continued, “I’ve known Joe since he was a baby. He and my son grew up with one another and have continued to be good friends. He’s a natural when it comes to horses. He always wanted a team of his own, saving his money and buying a pair of 2-year-olds when he was in seventh grade. He then sold them at the Waverly Midwest Horse Sale with the guidance of his dad, and then continued buying, training and selling other teams throughout high school. During those years he developed a talent for driving and began showing multiple hitches at the age of 17. All that certainly helped hone his horsemanship skills, but it also helped develop a keen sense for business and dealing with people. Joe has always been years ahead of his age. You’ll see for yourself once the two of you meet, so go ahead and give him a call!”

That was in 2010. Listening to Walt and all the others was good advice; Joe Biren was the best person for the job even though at their first meeting he tried to talk Houston out of the idea of buying Shires. “Why not consider a team of Belgians or Percherons?” he suggested. “They’re more readily available. You’ll find that Shires, especially those that are registered, are somewhat difficult to find here in North America.”

Joe waited for a response, hoping his advice and experience with work horses might persuade Houston to reconsider the idea of purchasing such scarce animals, but the retired businessman stood his ground. He was set on Shires, and nothing was going to change his mind.

Once that was settled, the two men began talking about the future and working together. Walt was right when mentioning Joe’s availability; hopefully he had the time to devote to buying, training and exhibiting Houston’s Shires. At 38 years of age, he and his wife, Missy, have four children, a busy farm operation involving showing and selling his own Belgian geldings. He’s actively involved with various equine and youth associations and enjoys speaking engagements in the area.

During the week he’s a full-time Vocational Agriculture teacher and FFA advisor in Slayton, Minnesota, at Murray County Central Schools for grades eight through 12. Some of the classes he teaches are welding, electricity, plumbing, small engine maintenance and repair, animal science, farm business management, beginning Ag shop, Ag construction, animal nutrition and equine science.

“I’ve been a teacher for 15 years,” explains Joe. “What I really like about it is the real life situations that my students get to experience. It’s more than textbook learning; we’re out in the field with our boots on, tending to animals, mending fences and working on equipment. No day is ever the same. It’s really great watching young kids develop unique interests, following their passion into careers that make a difference.”

There’s a saying that if you want a job done right, ask a busy person. Joe was definitely the one to ask. He’s been able to fit an extremely busy schedule into his calendar, developing a fine team of Shires and taking them all on a journey that has gone far beyond any dream Houston could have imagined.

Joe’s first task was finding and purchasing quality horses at reasonable prices. “I took my time with the research and talking with breeders and eventually found some good leads directly from private owners in New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Wyoming, Ohio and up in Canada," he recounts. "It took us over a year-and-a-half in the process of selecting and transporting the horses to my farm to begin conditioning and training. Working with horses is a lot like a football team; you’re always looking for that next player to add.”

Today, there are 14 Shires at the farm. It’s a labor of love getting each one ready for travel and competitions. Joe is up before dawn every morning working with the team before heading off to school, and then back at the barn every evening. He uses a free-flow walker for the horses to develop their aerobic conditioning and they also get used to pulling loads to build up muscle, along with individual time working on animation and motion. There’s also plenty of free time to simply be a horse, enjoying the outdoors with the herd.

“We started looking at different shows, starting off slowly that first season and building the number of events each year” Joe explains. “Nowadays there are hundreds of venues throughout the United States. We participated in ten each year, but now we’re looking into at least 14 or 15 locations in 2016. We do multiple classes at the shows: ladies and men’s carts, team, junior driver team, unicorn, four, six and eight-horse hitches. The [main event] is the six-horse hitch. Everyone wants to win that one!”

Houston and Joe should be proud and happy with their team accumulating points and qualifying back-to-back two years in a row in the North American Six-Horse Hitch Classic Series. They’re on their way, hoping to continue to do well across the country. Imagine the grin on Houston’s face when he reminds Joe about staying with Shires.

Experienced volunteers from The Enchanged Florist help decorate the Dakota Thunder wagon with yellow roses. Joe Biren, at right, clearly had plenty of advice to lend.

California Dreamin’
There’s something to be said about having a bucket list. In Houston’s case, two very important items have been checked off: 1) Owning a hitch of Shires; 2) Taking them to Pasadena to be part of the Tournament of Roses Parade. He’s still on cloud nine remembering how it happened and what an impact the experience made on everyone involved with the Dakota Thunder Shires.

“Wishing is one thing,” Houston says, “but applying, auditioning and getting on the roster is a major accomplishment. We couldn’t have done it without the help and encouragement from our friend and colleague, Pam Minick, co-host of the popular draft horse television show, 'Gentle Giants' on RFD-TV. She’s a delight and a real professional in everything she does. She also has a very generous heart, often shooting and saving video footage of our horses at different events each year. That gift of time and kindness helped us enormously with our application by putting together a beautiful video with music. She volunteered to do this for us, taking care of all the details and mailing it to the tournament committee.”

Obviously, the video clinched the deal; soon afterwards Houston received a phone call with the good news. They were in the parade! Now they really had their work cut out for them, training and getting ready for an entirely different experience that involved walking on pavement for six miles with cheering crowds, noisemakers, popping balloons floating by, airplanes flying above and helicopters hovering about. Joe realized he would need to take the team out daily, building up mileage and stamina to be ready for Colorado Boulevard.

Preparing for the parade involved a lot more than training and getting the horses fit. They’ve traveled as far as Denver and Oklahoma City, but the trek to California was much farther in distance. Coordinating all the logistics took lots of time and phone calls for Joe, planning on where to stay each night on the road with seven horses. He had to be sure the semi-truck and other vehicles were stocked and ready to go with all their supplies, harnesses, equipment and feed. He also needed to line up all the family and crew so they’d be ready to travel.

“Our boys were very concerned about Christmas,” Joe explained. “How would Santa Claus find them so far away from home? Missy and I assured them that no matter where we might be, Santa would be there. All we had to do was put out some milk and cookies and also leave some hay for the reindeer. Sure enough, the stockings were filled and presents stacked high in the motor home where we were parked for the night in Texas. I really think the boys were more impressed about Santa’s accomplishments than anything else. Oh sure, they loved the parade, but they’ll be talking about Santa in Texas for a long time.”

Traveling with a caravan of trucks, trailers, motor homes and cars was quite a sight and a feat in itself with frequent stops to rest and move about for people and horses. They encountered all sorts of weather, including snow and some unnerving wind and dust storms. One of the highlights en route was catching a glimpse of their first cactus–not a familiar sight back in Minnesota and South Dakota. Thanks to Joe’s sister-in-law, Carol Biren, there’s a day-by-day blog that describes the entire journey with photos online: dakotathunderrosebowl.blogspot.com There’s also lots of great memories from the trip on their Facebook page: Dakota Thunder Shires.

A Warm Welcome
Pulling into the Los Angeles Equestrian Center located in Burbank was a relief for everyone, especially being greeted so warmly by everyone. Joe and the crew felt as if they were long-lost relatives, “What a great facility with such a helpful and friendly staff. We got settled immediately and felt right at home. It’s an amazing place smack-dab in the middle of suburbia. We learned that horses have the right-of-way in the city, so you’ll see people on horseback all the time.”

The Rose Parade itself is only part of the expereince. Above, visitors admire the horses at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, where the hitch was housed during their stay in California.

They also received a warm welcome from Ellen Swagerty, this year’s equestrian chair for the Tournament of Roses. She and all the other volunteers were so helpful, making sure everyone was comfortable and ready for the fun that included a lot more than the actual parade on January 1. She handed Joe a packet of information with daily agendas, invitations to a banquet for the equestrian units, contact list and phone numbers, and updated instructions about participating in the big ticketed event, Equestfest by Wells Fargo, taking place on December 29. This is a special occasion for the public to see the different equestrian groups strut their stuff in a two-hour performance at the 3,000-seat arena and also an opportunity for the participants to meet everyone and see what others are doing with their horses and mules.

Joe and Houston agreed that being at Equestfest was as thrilling as the parade. They enjoyed visiting with the other equestrian outfits and mingling with the crowd. It’s always a treat to talk about draft horses and their history, especially Shires.

Pam Minick was there covering the event that was broadcast on RFD-TV on December 31. It can be viewed online at the network’s web site: www.rfdtv.com. Just type in Equestfest 2015 to see more of the photos and the video that also includes a behind-the-scenes look of the performances.

In-between caring for and getting the horses ready, Joe was busy with something new and different–coordinating the beautiful yellow roses that would adorn the team’s shiny black wagon. He was impressed and very grateful with help from the folks at The Enchanted Florist, a local floral design shop with many years’ experience helping participants look their best.

He also had the pleasure of meeting and visiting with local volunteer, Ada Gates, a retired and well- respected farrier with 20 years under her belt with the Tournament of Roses. Her sole responsibility is the safety of the horses and equestrian participants, making sure every animal has the proper shoes for walking on pavement.

“Every year I write and send out the specifications needed for traction,” Ada explains. The last thing we want is having a horse stumble or fall. I’m available by phone and e-mail year-round to answer questions and give suggestions that ensure safety. I bring along a farrier to be of assistance before the events begin, so everyone can be in compliance. People understand I’m there to help and they appreciate how the Tournament of Roses cares about the welfare of their animals. It’s been a wonderful experience, especially making new friends in the equine world.”

Ada is definitely a dedicated volunteer, getting up and out on the boulevard by 4 a.m. to begin the process of spot-checking the many animals lining up for the parade. She grew up and worked with lighter breeds, becoming the first licensed woman to shoe Thoroughbred racehorses, but she has a soft spot in her heart for draft horses, thanks to her late husband, Harry Holiday Patton. He was raised dry farming with drafts and mules in San Jacinto County, Texas. Together they owned and operated Harry Patton Horseshoeing Supplies in Monrovia, California, which she has carried on since Harry’s passing.

People respect Ada, especially when learning more about her background and experience, including serving as the farrier liaison for the 1984 Olympic Games and receiving the Edward Martin Humanitarian Award at the American Farrier’s Association convention in Lexington, Kentucky. She recently served on the farrier committee for the World Equestrian Games and was inducted into the American Farriers Hall of Fame. How fortunate for the Tournament of Roses that Ada lives nearby and loves to volunteer.

The Big Day
Sleep deprivation seems to be part of participating in the parade. It’s a mixture of excitement, anticipation and being ready for the lineup. The team soon learned that seasoned folks ignore the instructions about getting in place by 4 a.m. They know the ropes and how to maneuver their horses and mules in line with time to spare. Joe already has made notes that if they return, he can catch a few more winks before waking up and setting out from Burbank to Pasadena in the middle of the night.

He was also a bit nervous, wondering how the horses would react to the long trek and all the people. He soon learned they were troupers every step of the way, waiting patiently in line all those hours, starting off and making that big turn down Colorado Boulevard. Nothing seemed to faze them. In fact, all six of them were high-spirited with great energy the entire route. They probably could have turned around and returned back to the starting point with great ease, but not Joe. His fingers were numb from holding on so tightly to the lines. It’s a wonderful experience that he’ll savor forever, but it’s also an emotional time making sure everyone is in sync and doing their best. He was already thinking about the journey back home, making notes in his mind and lining up the calendar for the months ahead.

“Everyone keeps telling me this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Joe. “That’s for sure; it was unbelievable in every sense, but I hope at my age of being just 38, there will be more exciting adventures down the road. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead, especially working for Houston and being able to care for these amazing animals. I’m so glad he didn’t listen to me when I suggested purchasing other breeds.”

Dreams can come true if you believe and do your homework. Just ask Houston Haugo.

So, what’s on your bucket list?

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