Tuesday, 17 August 2010 08:34

National Western Celebrates 25 Years of Heavy Horse Shows

Written by  Dennis & Jean Kuehl
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It is a cold January night in Denver. Imagine there are over 5,000 people in the event center who paid for their seat, the crowd is definitely excited and standing on their feet cheering and the music is modern and upbeat. So it must be the Avalanche or the Nuggets entering to make a guest appearance? No. Could it be a Broncos rally for the AFC Championship? Nope. This is hard to imagine!

The crowd has just seen a feed team race and watched mules race through the poles at the National Western Stock Show [NWSS]. The music gets a little louder and the thunder rolls! Wow! Here comes a six-horse-hitch into the arena, followed by five more. The crowd gets louder and picks out their favorites for the show. The drivers tell me the hair is standing on the backs of their necks from the enthusiasm in the stands and their horses even pick up on the excitement. WOW! Three heats, the electricity takes one's breath away and now they all return to the ring for the results. Each hitch receives a fanfare of applause as they enter and leave, with the final hitch receiving a standing ovation and the spotlight for their special victory lap.

OK, it’s over, time to leave? Not on your life! It's hard to believe, but the ring is quickly filling with the finest pulling horses in the country. That’s right-we are going to have a horse pull. This is one of only a couple venues in the entire country where horse enthusiasts can enjoy great hitch competition and horse pulling in the same place, same evening. This is one of those exceptional situations where hitches and pullers come from all over the country to participate. In their unique network, they hear how others are doing in their particular area, but this is the one of the few places where exhibitors from coast-to-coast come to compete against each other.

It is hard to believe that this has been going on for 25 years. You may say, ‘Yeah, right!’ Well, believe it! Go back to your DHJ issues in the spring of 1981, 1982 and 1983 to see how Maury Telleen described it. In the Spring 1981 issue of The Draft Horse Journal, Maury wrote, ‘I have attended fairs and livestock shows literally all of my life. NEVER, EVER, have I seen so much enthusiasm for a livestock event.’ He also added this comment: ‘With the interest and satisfaction expressed by the sponsors, the support of the public and the groundswell of 'putting horses back in harness' by the ranchers of the Rocky Mountain States, I would hazard a prediction that not only are the big horses back at Denver, but they are back to stay, and this January event will become an important annual event in this industry.’ You may wonder, could this prediction come true in January in Denver? And what does it look like for the future?

Before l981, the last draft horse show at the National Western, which was in 1939, included group classes for Belgians and Percherons. In reviewing the 1940 Percheron News, there were Percheron stallions placed, but the Belgian Review showed no results. Not until 1979 did someone from the draft horse club in Colorado think that maybe it was time to bring the drafts back to the Stock Show. Harold Tonn (a Kansas resident) and I (as a draft horse club representative) were sent to Chuck Sylvester, then manager of the NWSS, to pursue the issue. After much consideration, Sylvester put a plan into motion. He said, ‘Since the NWSS had a sponsorship from Coors, I suggest that we have Dick Sparrow and Dave Adams come out a week early and do a series of hitch promotions at shopping centers along the Front Range.’ Sparrow, whose family already had experience with exhibiting a ‘40-horse-hitch’ of Belgians and Adams, an Iowa farmer who was successfully showing a Percheron hitch at that time, agreed to do the exhibitions. The show was well on its way, but you can tell by Maury’s commentary that it took a little time to work the kinks out. Jim Kennedy, who was successfully hitching Clydesdales as well as farming, also took a chance in 1981 to show in the cold of Denver with Adams and Sparrow. They found people standing in lines to see six horses drive and watch pulling at its best. The next year, as far as the six-horse-hitches go, there were five entries; the following year, seven hitches exhibited; then nine and it has since escalated to as many as sixteen. Pulling horse exhibitors found this a perfect place to compete when they did their first NWSS pull in 1981. In the l983 spring Draft Horse Journal, Maury adds another note to the results of the show and I quote, ‘The Draft Horse Division of the National Western Stock Show has made great strides in the last three years É’

Sorry about quoting the great prophet again, but Maury has one more comment that needs to be included: ‘It takes organization on the part of management and some dedicated local horsemen doing the necessary chores to get the job done.’ Barney Cosner, then Livestock Manager for the NWSS, visited with Dick Sparrow for some direction in maintaining the momentum of the show. Evidently, Dick and Maury had been visiting, because Dick thought there had to be a local person who could do what Maury suggested. Dick said, ‘There is one guy who can do the job and that is Dennis Kuehl.’ So my first year as the Superintendent of the Draft Horse Show was 1983 and since that time, I have been asked each year to continue in that role. In a quarter century, we have shown the hitches in three different rings, stalled horses in three different areas and had a variety of driving plans to enter the ring. The draft horse show has always been the last weekend of the show and requires an intensively structured plan to get each horse into a stall. Draft horse show Assistant Superintendents, Tom Ferriter, Jim Grumbles, and the late Lyle McCabe, and I have burned a lot of midnight oil planning how to get this done. Harold Schumacher, who has shown a six-horse-hitch at the Stock Show almost every year since 1983, described best what we tried to accomplish: ‘My first show at Denver ... when I arrived at the gate, Bud Walsh, an assistant, met me at the entrance, took me to my stalls, showed me where to park the truck and found someone to assist me in unloading! I could not believe it!’

By 1983, with the help of a sponsorship from Coors, the show was well on the way. At that time, horses were shown in what is called the stadium arena, which is close and personal. There are 4,000 seats, but a walkway exists between the seating area and the arena. Spectators would line up on the rail to ‘feel the ground shake’ as the horses drove on. During those early years, Barb Meyer, Secretary of the Canadian Belgian Horse Association, provided halter and hitch information for spectators while Lynn Meyer, rancher and puller from Maxwell, Nebraska, (and no relation to Barb) did the same for the pull. Why would Barb come all the way to Denver to announce? She says, ‘I had heard about the wonderful cattle show at the NWSS and so, when I was invited to announce the draft horse show, I thought why not. I have announced across Canada and in the U.S. from Florida to Michigan to Denver. The support and enthusiasm from the NWSS draft horse spectators are like none other anywhere else in Canada or the United States. It really surprised me the first year.’ Lynn had already shown horses at Denver before he judged and announced, so he also recalled being impressed by all the people there to watch. "I felt honored to judge and announce the horse pulling, simply because of that crowd,’ he says.

By 1986, spectators were arriving early and staying to the end so that they would not lose their seats. Occasionally there would be a squabble over a seat. So how valuable were the seats? Well, I recall one year when a spectator was having a bit of a heart attack and a paramedic treating him requested that we stop the show so an ambulance could be brought in. That did not happen because the spectator was not willing to give up his seat! He looked me and the paramedic square in the eye and said, ‘Get this show on the road-I am not leaving!’

Along with the growing crowd, came the question of safety while watching the show. On one occasion, a fireman came to me to stop the show. When I asked why, he pointed to a cowboy with a black ten gallon hat who was standing in a walkway far up in the stands and said, ‘See that guy up there? Tell me if he can move.’ It was obvious that the cowboy could not move, but it appeared to me that he and a lot of others were not willing to move. We actually had to stop the show in the arena while the announcer and the firemen got the walkways cleared. Harold Schumacher says, ‘Certain things you remember, one of which occurred in l983. As I drove the hitch into the old stadium arena, I was received by the crowd like I had just won the Super Bowl.’ A little of this intimacy was lost in 1995 when the draft horse show was moved from the Stadium Arena to the new Events Center. The Events Center provides an indoor paddock arena for staging, making it safer for the spectators and exhibitors alike. And, you can still bet on a healthy reception!

You may ask, does that cold weather really affect the show? The answer is ‘NO!’ As you might guess, some of the exhibitors travel early, as the weather allows and find a place to stay prior to the show. I recall one year at one of these layover stops, I found the usual crowd near a group of six-horse-hitches staged to move to Denver. It was a bit on the cold side so they had taken one of the tack stalls and stocked it with the usual libations, a heater in the center and a lot of feed bags for insulation. What a deal and what a gathering, but everyone was ready to get to Denver. Joy Sparrow, respected horsewoman and straight-from-the-shoulder wife of Dick Sparrow, noted, ‘It was colder-n hell that first year we were promoting the show.’ Certainly there are countless stories about incidents on I-80 regarding the weather. I believe Gene Hilty, who drove the Van Axel Hitch from California for many years, is the only person who can share a story of a serious accident which resulted in the loss of a horse. Exhibitors are often surprised that the January weather also brings many warm days, as high as 65 degrees.

Another tradition that has developed because of stalling issues is a rendezvous that can only be described as unbelievable. Joe Freund, Horse Pull Superintendent and owner of Running Creek Ranch at Elizabeth, Colorado, has quite a bit of barn space, so the ranch hosts the horse pullers who arrive as good weather allows. The pulling horses are weighed at his ranch before they leave for Denver, and as you might guess, having two or more pulling teams in the same place leads to lots of friendly competition. Joey (Joe’s son) will say, ‘It looks like a circus around here, however, with all the help we get our chores done a lot faster and the food is great, not to mention the parties.’

Into the show arena they come-some of them have the opportunity to receive the red carpet treatment and all the standing ovations. First, there was a Belgian hitch that had the crowd in awe and then a Percheron hitch caught their eye. For a few years, it was obvious that the blacks were in, but then the crowd found a Clydesdale hitch they liked, so they had their moment. People also enjoyed a Shire hitch, partly popular because it was from Colorado. Whatever their breed, there are a lot of exhibitors who just come to ‘make the cut;’ they all know the first ten places pay. In the 25 years since the draft horse show was reintroduced, we’ve been very fortunate with our safety record. Sure, we’ve had a few cart horses get away (but never into the crowd), a unicorn with a broken singletree and a lead horse moving steadily away from the rest of the unit. The most serious six-horse-hitch incident occurred when a wagon hub caught the arena gate post and broke the tongue. During the eight-horse-hitch class, we have seen an occasional change in drivers-done so smoothly that even the judge sometimes has not seen it. Ohhh yeah, one year, a birthday party was held in the ring for one of the ring men, Tom Ferriter. A cowboy cross-dressed as a ‘floozy’ entered the ring and did everything he could to embarrass Tom. The crowd sang a resounding ‘Happy Birthday’ to him after all the fun. Tom, who still assists in the ring occasionally, does everything he can to low-key his birthday.

Since the return of draft horse shows at Denver, there have been a host of transitions and economic changes for the draft horse industry in Colorado. The ladies cart class has caught the eye of many women. Being the class most participated in at the show, many trips have been made to find the perfect horse to win it. There is even an opportunity to find that horse at the Colorado Draft Horse and Equipment sale, which is partially a product of the popularity of the draft horse events at the NWSS. Many of the other shows in Colorado have their roots in that popularity. One of the efforts of the NWSS is to ensure that the working teams are a big part of the show. Draft horses are popularly used by many local residents for fun, for pulling, and by entrepreneurs for bobsledding in the ski areas and feeding cattle in the high country. There has always been a class for that type of team at the NWSS, but lately the Feed Team Race has become very popular. The race consists of moving six bales of hay from a stack to three locations with one turn of the ring. Two teams-usually one mule team and one horse team-run the same course on each side of the arena, except that they have to both go through one gate on the return. Teamsters, swampers who load and unload the hay, and spectators get very excited when the hat drops to start the race. The current announcers for the draft show, Paul Gingerich, and the mule show, Kathy Herrin, keep a running commentary on each of the races because they have a bet on the winning team. You see, if a draft horse team wins, Kathy gets to kiss a draft horse and if a mule team wins, Paul gets to kiss a mule (Paul has had to kiss a few mules).

This down-home type of entertainment clearly has a place and the NWSS is a perfect setting for it. The tradition includes the excitement of the spectators and the exhibition of the best horses in the United States. There is a ‘National’ in the name National Western Stock Show and a deliberate effort is made to keep it countrywide, but it can truly be described as an international event with an attendance of over 600,000 during the first two full weeks in January. Beginning the first weekend of the month, the schedule includes seven major horse shows, a series of rodeos, a variety of cattle shows, other livestock competitions and special events. With vendors galore, there are a lot of reasons for people to attend, including the draft horse and mule show, which always closes the show on the third weekend.

For the first time, the National Western Stock Show will host the North American Classic Series Six-Horse-Hitch Finals on January 18, 19 and 20 of 2007, giving us a new opportunity to build our future. Jim Westbrook, manager and trainer for Ames Percherons and committee chairman for the Classic Series says, ‘The North American Classic Series Six-Horse-Hitch Championships coming to the National Western Stock Show will take the best winter competition to an even higher level. Bringing hitches from the West Coast, Midwest, East Coast and Canada can only make for a tremendous show. It should be quite an exciting event.’ Three opportunities to watch the same six-horse-hitches compete will provide an exceptional experience for both our spectators and exhibitors.

After his first time exhibiting at the NWSS in 2006, Rod Kohler, manager and driver of the Oak Haven Belgian six-horse mare hitch from Fremont, Ohio, said, ‘The National Western Stock Show is the only place I have gone to show horses where the crowd is willing to pay to see the show and then makes you feel very special while you are in the ring.’ Management at the National Western has continued to promote this show with financial and marketing aggressiveness. The future success of the National Western Stock Show’s draft horse show will be poised around the unique tradition of spectator enthusiasm and exhibitors' eagerness to be a part of a distinctive event so early in the year. I would bet Maury Telleen would predict continued success if he were to write an editorial about this show just as he did back in l983!

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