Fifty years ago it was important that draft exhibitors had hitch horses that placed well when shown on halter, if they expected their hitch horses to place when shown in harness. It was important an exhibitor had one, better two, even three hitch horses, which could lift blue or red ribbons in the halter classes offered. If an exhibitor had a grand or reserve grand champion gelding, in particular, this was icing on the cake. The exhibitor was well positioned to win the hitch classes. The performance classes always followed the halter classes. Teams were the turnouts first shown, then the four-horse hitches. The six and eight-horse hitches were the last turnouts shown at an exhibition.
A red or blue ribbon in a light and/or heavy draft team class, found at Canadian exhibitions and at Chicago’s celebrated International Livestock Exposition, increased the draft horse exhibitor’s chances of standing first, second or third with his four, six and eight-horse hitch. Cart and unicorn hitch classes were seldom offered fifty years ago. However, a number of the state fairs in America had a class for Three Abreast.
The individual excellence of the hitch horses shown on halter ensured a turnout was well placed, when a stable’s horses came before the judge in a team, four, six-horse and eight-horse hitch.
Have our draft horse judges moved from this extreme to another extreme over the past fifty years?
Many exhibitors today show few, if any, hitch horses on halter. I suspect many of their hitch horses, which remain in their stall during the halter classes, are structurally incorrect or still worse, unsound. Today’s judge sees few hitch horses campaigned by a stable, until they perform centre-ring for him in harness. This compounds the judge’s task.
Most exhibitions and state fairs have judging schedules today, which lack the order employed at the same events fifty years ago. Hitch classes are often judged today before the horses harnessed are shown on halter.
Headset, motion and height receive greater weight than structural correctness, conformation and soundness, when teams and hitches are shown before many draft horse judges today. Several of these judges seem to forget they are judging conformation teams and hitch classes, not driving competitions, although they should never forget that a winning turnout must be able to tramp. The side glance judges give harnessed horses, as they walk by a turnout drawn into line, is hardly an inspection of those horses found in the turnout, which were never trotted forth on halter.
The draft horse hitches shown today are exciting to watch. Turned out in immaculate condition, beautifully decorated, properly shod hitch horses, wearing harness that is well appointed, are a draft horse show’s most popular attraction. Each drive is spectacular. This I applaud.
However, many horses in conformation hitch classes today, while full of presence, style and step, lack the structural correctness, substance and underpinning, so important to the continued success of these massive athletes. Too often, pharmaceutical corporations, veterinary surgeons and equine physiotherapists are being rewarded, instead of the serious draft horse breeder. This I deplore.
Those hitch horses exhibiting traits judges once emphasized, combined with traits contemporary judges give prominence to, are the hitch horses the draft horse industry needs to reward. Better hitch horses than individuals of this kind have never been seen in the draft horse world. However, we need more of them!
At least this is how I see it!