Thursday, 29 August 2013 09:03


Written by  Lynn Telleen
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"A bunch of us were sitting around trying to figure out how we could get together–just for fun–before the show season started. Then someone mentioned 'maybe we could have a show' and we went from there." That, according to LeRoy Biren of Iona, Minnesota, is how the Murray County Classic Draft Horse Show came to be, seven years ago.

LeRoy and his wife, JoAnn, got their start in the draft horse business in 1969 when they purchased a pair of grade Belgian mares, both of which were bred. Two years later, they sold the mares along with the mares' offspring. LeRoy recalls, "We had enough money to purchase our first team of registered Belgians, from Walt Schaefer." They used their horses where they could on the family's farm, then started participating in wagon trains, plowing matches, threshing bees and other heavy horse events. Each activity led to another. As the whole family became involved, the urge to show a six-horse hitch was eventually realized ... which, of course, leads to organizing a show.

LeRoy Biren gets extra credit for not only serving on the show committee, but also showing his family's six.
Centered around the six-horse hitch as the main event, the Classic takes place the second weekend in July, at the otherwise vacant county fairgrounds in Slayton, Minnesota (population: 2,100). The timing is conducive to any exhibitor with state fairs and other "big" shows on their schedule for late summer. Also conducive is the fact that there are no carnivals, concessions and other livestock to work around, no traffic jams, nor overwhelming crowds–which is a rarity for hitch venues these days (short of breed world shows, Britt, and just a few others). It is, by all accounts by the exhibitors that come, a relaxed atmosphere that allows them to ease into "show-shape," with both green horses and/or crew members at a pace that is palatable to all.

Nor does it hurt that it's a qualifying show for the North American Six-Horse Hitch Classic Series (NASHHCS), especially since the six hooks both days, providing for two sets of those coveted points. "Hooking [the six] twice is a definite plus for our mares this early in the season," says Dr. Chad Zubrod of Guthrie, Oklahoma. "Another perk is that everybody gets paid the same."

Getting back to that "bunch" LeRoy was referring to when the show was started, it included LeRoy's sons Joe, Pat and John, his daughters Sara and Kathy, in addition to Daryl Boots, Todd Knorr, Judy Samuelson (with a lot of support from her husband, Jerry), Scott Filzen, Gaylen Jensen, Jim and Barb Suprenant and Luther Tostengard (who stepped down after the first year). Since the first show, Travis Spartz and Mike Kirchner have joined the show committee.

"We are the parents of seven children," says LeRoy. "All of them help with the show–so do their friends–from updating our web site to making posters, sending out pre-show info, contacting hitches, transporting bleachers, setting up stalls, securing sponsors to hauling manure. They do it all–no job is too big or too small. If they are big enough to carry a sheet of plywood or push a broom, they help out–we also have 17 grandchildren. Some of our kids are able to get home more often than others and we are thankful for whatever they contribute. It takes many hands to make this work. I can't emphasize enough that it isn't just our family–the entire committee puts in a lot of time, effort and downright hard work to pull this off every year."

LeRoy's son, Joe Biren, who is a vo-ag instructor with the Murray County Central School District, recalls, "The first year was tough to get the hitches to commit. Five or six were interested, but very few wanted to gamble on a new show. I was getting exhibitors saying 'if so-and-so shows up, I will be there.' Then I'd call so-and-so and they would say the same. So I told one hitch that we had those hitches (even though we hadn't). They said 'yes.' Then I turned around and called the hitches I said we already had and told them I got commitments from the others and they said 'sign me up.' I got on the phone and in an afternoon, we filled up with hitches–kind of got lucky with that."

Freeman Yoder reverses the Young Living Farms' mens cart entry from Mona, UT, in front of ringman Jeff Kiewatt, LeSueur, MN.

As everyone in this business knows, nothing with showing horses is certain. "We had 12 [hitches] signed up to come," he continues. "One had truck problems and couldn't make it, and another had horse health issues (from the heat), so we ended up with 10 in the ring our first year. After that we have had hitches calling trying to get in."

The show committee currently limits the number of six-up exhibitors to an even dozen. "We had 14," recalls LeRoy, "but it gets crowded in our stalling area. Two years ago we dropped down to 12, and it made it more show-friendly." Now that it's established, LeRoy concedes, "We have a waiting list of exhibitors who want to come. If we can come up with the room, it would be nice to go back to 14." Of course, more funding would have to be acquired for that to happen, too.

As a vo-ag teacher and FFA advisor, Joe has been involved in multiple fund-raisers, organizing annual FFA banquets, working with and directing groups. "As far as organizing this show," he recalls, "it was a lot like a teacher's first year. The second year was much easier." As an exhibitor himself, he says, "it was nice to be knowledgeable to say 'this works' or 'we could do without'."

Driver Gary Miller, accompanied by Jared Hanson, take their victory lap with the Shining Stars Percherons, who've won the six two years in a row. The outfit is owned by Mitch and Dianna Marquardt, Altoona, IA.
That personal experience was a big factor in the committee's decision to become a member of the NASHHCS program. There are hitches chasing those points at every venue, along with those who are not. More qualifying venues obviously means more opportunities for the former. For the latter, Joe reasons that it also reinforces confidence in show management. "A show willing to be a member of the Classic Series is a show that respects its exhibitors."

Nothing about this event is one-sided. The sponsorships come from local businesses, such as the Pepsi Bottling Company of Pipestone, Ralco Animal Nutrition of Marshall and Johnson Publishing in Slayton ... and the show committee gives back in ways beyond bringing a considerable heavy horse hitch show to town. Each year, they, and any number of volunteers, work at improving the Murray County Fairgrounds. One year, it was the construction of a new horse barn–one that gets plenty of use during the county fair.

Sponsorships are then used to pay each hitch travel money in lieu of premiums–everybody receives the same amount regardless of the placings. Everyone seems to like this convention, as it keeps the atmosphere relaxed, as does the treatment the exhibitors receive. Exhibitor Freeman Yoder clarifies: "When we go to any show, we go to compete, but it's just more fun when you go where the show management understands what you need and want. The people that run Slayton are great–you barely get parked and they come greet you and ask if you need anything. It's just a great atmosphere, super people and good facilities."

Miron Carney, Mayor of Slayton, who actually grew up using Belgian horses on a local farm, says the show is a favorite of his, along with many others. "Members of the community have shared with me their appreciation of the event, impressed a show of this caliber is held right here in Slayton.

"The ancillary efforts of the community have built a synergy that is a complement to the weekend," he continues. "As the event has evolved, so has the community support."

Further to the point of their community-mindedness, the show committee also designates a local honoree–something they felt strongly about doing from the very first show. "It started with Chris Samuelson, the son of Judy and Jerry, who lost his life in a car accident," recalls LeRoy. "He had helped Joe with his horses and he was also a football player for the local school. This was a way for the Samuelsons to give back to their community, and they liked the idea of honoring a young person, thus the winning junior driver receives a special award. I guess if we think someone has played a strong role in the horse community, we've tried to pay tribute to them–sometimes after the fact."

Bob Erickson's mammoth donkeys seem made for the task in the feed team race. Bob came all the way from Westby, WI.
The late Bill Sauer, former Murray County Commissioner, township clerk, township board member and community supporter was the show's honoree this year. Last year, it was Don Haubrich, President and General Manager of the nearby Pepsi Bottling Company.

Besides the hitch performances, the show offered a farm team class along with an obstacle course in the very first show. One of the entrants from that initial event was local plumbing contractor Travis Spartz of Slayton. "I exhibited in the farm team class, then I volunteered to organize horse-farming demonstrations for the second year." Some of the equipment is privately owned, such as the 1918 Case stationary baler owned by Travis' grandfather, Vince Crowley of Slayton. Other items were on loan from the Murray County Historical Museum (with which Vince is quite active).

These "extracurricular" activities have proven not just popular with participants (some coming great distances), but also with spectators. "We have lots of teamsters–from Wisconsin, Iowa, as well as here in Minnesota–that want to come, just because it's a unique opportunity for them to do their thing," notes Travis. "There's not a lot of places where you can participate in yesterday's farming practices." Consequently, both the farm classes and the demonstrations have grown each year. Eleven teamsters competed in the obstacle course this year. A feed team race, added three years ago, is a crowd favorite. It involved ten entries this year.

"I believe that the larger involvement of the farm classes has helped grow this show," concurs show announcer Keith Tongen of Brownton, Minnesota. A third generation horseman, Keith has been buying and selling horses since he was 12. Well-acquainted with what takes place in the ring, he has been announcing shows for the past quarter century.

Organizer Travis Spartz feeds hay into the 1918 Case stationary baler, provided courtesy of his grandfather, Vince Crowley, Slayton, MN, and run by a horsepower.
Though the farm classes are a hit, not everything the show committee has tried works. "Three years ago a ranch rodeo was held early in the day" recalls Keith, "but ranch rodeos and draft horses seem to draw different followings. It didn't go well. This was the second year of horse-drawn farm equipment and demonstrations–it was lots better this year than last, and seems to be on the grow."

While the setting and the timing are important, it's obvious that the people are what makes this event stand out. "I have really come to enjoy the draft horse show and even more, the people involved," says Keith. "The Biren Family is a vital part of the success of this show, along with committee members, sponsors, exhibitors and spectators," he adds. "This committee is so selfless and truly committed to making this as good of an experience for ALL (exhibitors, spectators, vendors and sponsors) as they can."

Faithful exhibitor Travis Shaw has brought the Ames Percheron Hitch since the start in 2007. "It's a good warm-up for us before Jordan (the Scott County Fair), plus it brings good competition," he says. "It's just a great experience and we're treated very well here."

"It's just a lot more laid back and relaxing than most other shows," says judge Roy Miller, Hubbard, Iowa, who also showed here in 2010.

On the flip side, Joe Biren says the most rewarding aspect for him is the appreciation he receives from exhibitors and spectators. "It is the most sincere appreciation," he acknowledges.

For Travis Spartz, it's visiting and working with the farm teamsters, hearing about their equipment, where it came from and how much was required to get it ready to bring.

It obviously takes not only teamwork, but a team of go-getters with varying talents and interests.

For anyone considering organizing a show, LeRoy advises, "Choose your location wisely so you have a large pool of people–from workers to spectators–to draw from each year." And although he didn't say it out loud, never lose sight of the fact that there's nothing wrong with doing things "just for fun."

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