Students and instructors with their teams on the day the class is introduced to their horses.
Imagine a typical class schedule at college-accounting, chemistry, English lit., medieval history and logistics. Just the thought conjures up memories of boring morning sessions half asleep in my chair, followed by tedious afternoons listening to a quirky professor ramble on about his obsessive compulsive disorder.
Fortunately, there were plenty of other courses that sparked my imagination, taught by dedicated individuals who brought their subjects to life. But none compares to what’s being taught these days at Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho...”Draft Horses-For Work and Pleasure,” a two-credit class offered through the Animal Science Department. It’s a sure bet no one is bored or dozing off over there. Where do I sign up?
Students and instructors with their teams on the day the class is introduced to their horses.
It all began three years ago when faculty member Rudy Puzey came up with an idea. “Our school owns a team of Clydesdales that are used to give students wagon rides on the weekends plus other activities throughout the year,” he says. “No one on campus had extensive driving experience. Many of the students were raised on ranches and knew about roping and riding, but getting up on that wagon was an entirely different story.
“Why not start a class that would teach students about draft horses and driving? The idea made sense, but I knew I wasn’t qualified. I grew up with horses and mules, having some of my own today, but that wasn’t enough. This was going to have to be a team effort, so I started making calls.”
One of the first persons Rudy contacted was Jim Thomas at Bar-T-Five Ranch on the other side of the Teton Mountains. Jim’s operation is a popular destination in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where folks have been enjoying western adventure for 31 summers, stepping back in time, boarding covered wagons pulled by 14 teams of draft horses (Belgians, Percherons and Shires) for a journey up through the woods to Cache Creek Canyon. There, they enjoy a mouth-watering roast beef dinner with all the fixins’ in the outdoor dining room overlooking a rambling mountain creek, gearing up for a fun evening of cowboy music, entertainment, laughter and happy memories. During the winter months, Jim and his crew also provide educational and memory-making sleigh rides with the teams of horses out to the elk refuge.
This is a man who knows draft horses and how to operate all sorts of wagons, carts, stoneboats and other types of equipment. He knows what it takes to hold the lines and connect oneself with the horsepower out in front. He’s also a good friend who Rudy respects and trusts, so it was a given that Jim would be part of the dream.
The two buddies sat down and mapped out a plan before approaching the university, “We knew we needed a bigger team.” Rudy explained, “We needed experts who could share their knowledge and love of draft horses. Within a few moments, we both had the same names jotted down on a tablet-dedicated teamsters in the area who live and breathe the life of working with these mighty animals. We started making calls and the rest is history. Everything fell into place with such ease-creating the course outline, arranging for classroom and field work through the Animal Science Department and coordinating all the logistics with the school. All we needed then was to get it listed in the catalog and see if any students showed up.”
Not only did they show up, they lined up with great gusto. Right from the start it’s been a popular class that has a waiting list of eager students hoping to get in. At first it was all boys with just one girl on the roster, but nowadays 80% of the class is female.
Rudy and the teamsters chuckle a bit, saying the girls are more enthusiastic students, focusing all their time and attention on the horses. The boys, however, tend to be a bit more focused on the girls. But, they’re also great students, always eager to learn and thrilled that this opportunity is available.
The class runs for eight weeks on Fridays, beginning each January during the winter semester, with five to seven teams of horses, and four to six “old-timers” helping and working with the students. There are weekly classroom lectures plus actual working experience with the horses, including free lab time on Thursday evenings. Many of the teamsters bring their own teams over for the winter, stabling them in the University’s barn. Students are graded by the point system from a total of 400 possible: 100 points each for attendance; midterm exam; written final exam; and performance exam.
Jackson Elk Refuge
“We’ve discovered this is much more than students learning to properly work with draft horses,” believes Rudy and the boys, “It’s the bringing together of the young and old-the new beginner and the wise sage. It’s sharing a love of the earth and making a connection with mighty animals full of power and gentleness.
“It’s really something to watch these students stay after class, listening in complete awe, as these dedicated men talk about the old days on the farm and out on the trail. They watch intently as withered hands tenderly stroke a horse’s shoulder and muzzle, moving about with complete ease as they explain a bit more about collars, or share another story. These are the moments where textbooks and lesson plans can’t compare. These are the moments that touch the heart and inspire the soul”
Becky Millar agrees, “Taking this class gave me new direction in life, and since then, I’ve changed my major to health sciences. I’m going into my master’s program as an occupational therapist, with a goal of working in hippotherapy, helping others improve their mobility, balance and function. Working with horses in this way is so exciting, and I’m so grateful to Rudy and everyone who gave their all for us. I’ve been working as a driver for the Equitation Department with our outdoors activity program at school, driving the wagons on weekends. I just love it!”
Another student, Eric Grover is just as enthusiastic, “I was raised on a cattle ranch where horses were a big part of my life, but not these big guys. What a thrill to be able to learn more about them, and be able to sit up on that seat with the lines in my hand. The feeling of that power is indescribable.
“Getting to meet old-timers like Dell and Leland Barney, two cousins who know volumes about draft horses is truly an unbelievable experience. They’ve been so generous with their time and knowledge, and this is what makes the class so great. It’s real life, and has certainly made a lasting impression on me. It’s fun to go back and see what’s going on each year, especially visiting with these fellows. There’s always something new to learn.”
Even students who know draft horses agree the class is unique. Nick Barney, Leland’s grandson, grew up surrounded by Clydesdales and Shires. “Working with horses is in my blood,” he admits, “but this course gave me a new perspective, helping me hone my skills and gain new knowledge. It was great fun being around my relatives, discovering they have a special talent for teaching.
“It was also an honor to learn more about harness from Monte Piquet. What a craftsman. He’s amazing! He’s also been around horses all his life, but told us he developed more skills for harness making about 11 years ago when he retired. He specializes in making Yankee Britchen harness. Word has spread about his talents and keen sense for detail, so folks all over the country are buying from him, even Lloyd Ferguson, head driver for Anheuser-Busch’s West Coast hitch. He orders many sets of lines from Monte.
“It’s so interesting when Monte comes in to teach the class the third week. He explains things so well, and teaches us the right way to properly fit the collars and harness. He has such patience, and gives us a unique insight to the subject. He’s truly a master at what he does, and I know all of us feel privileged to have this opportunity to learn from him.”
That’s what really makes the class–it’s a collection of experts sharing their knowledge and love of draft horses. Bud Price and Mitch Jacobs are two others who come by, helping each and every student. They just love the fact the gals today are so enthused about learning, politely helping them with two-step stools so they can reach up and take the harness on and off.
Jim Thomas is also extremely happy with the success of the project. He enjoys meeting and working with the students, and hand-selects many each semester to work for his operation. “All our employees need to know how to drive a wagon, so I’m especially happy when our students are hired. They have the knowledge and the passion, and I know they’ll do a great job. Other operators are also hiring from our pool of students. I feel as if we’re really fulfilling a need and inspiring young people to share the love of working with draft horses. It’s just great!”
It’s like a big happy family with Rudy at the helm. It’s obvious he’s thrilled about the success of the class, but also very touched that it’s providing more than just knowledge and job security at various dude ranches and ranching operations around the country. He’s humbled by the fact so many connections have been made, both human and horse. His wife, LeeAnn, is just as proud. She’s a big part of the success of the program, helping the girls gain confidence, planning Dutch-oven suppers out on the trail, and filling with pride as each student learns something new, especially overcoming any fears they might have at first.
“This continues to be an exciting adventure,” says Rudy, whose main job at the university is teaching building construction management. “This is truly a passion, and I’m delighted the original idea we had years ago has grown and blossomed. It’s truly a win-win situation for everyone.”
Puzey says such a class is a bit unusual at the university level, but he knows of similar courses at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls and at Michigan State University. Who knows, maybe more curriculums will sprout up in other areas. It’s obvious there’s a need.