One evening in the middle of February I received a phone call from Craig Perry, Urbana, Iowa. I had never met Craig–he was very up front and to the point. He wanted to know if I was interested in going to the Louisiana Purchase Zoo and Gardens located in Monroe, Louisiana, in March to train people who would be driving two 25-passenger people haulers and running a giant "pony" ride. All the horses would be Percherons originating from Iowa.
Now, where we live in Northwest Iowa, you really don't need too much of a reason to go 950 miles south in March. It is still too muddy to haul manure, the mares aren't due to foal yet, and in the past few years working with Doc Neumann in our Neumann & Mouw Draft Horse Schools, I've found out that I really enjoy teaching. So within a ten minute phone conversation, the deal was struck, pending approval by the zoo management, which came the next morning. My wife, Shirley, and I left on March 10, following two snow storms the previous week which accumulated a total of 20 inches of the white stuff. The horses were loaded on semis at the Kalona (Iowa) sale barn. From there, it was a 16-hour drive to the zoo. The Zoo
The city of Monroe is located in the northeastern corner of Louisiana. It was founded in the mid-1700s by the Spanish. To the south and east of the city is a very flat river basin that has been farmed for centuries. Cotton was king for many years, although they now also raise corn and soybeans. To the north and west the land is more rolling with a lot of grassland and timber. Monroe is home to approximately 60,000 people.
The zoo is an 82-acre zoological park featuring well over 500 animal and some 700 plant species. The gardens feature landscape areas, waterways, picnic areas, a gift shop and concession area. Visitors can take rides on boats and now horse-drawn wagons through the park to see all of the flora and fauna in its natural (more or less) habitat. The Horses
Although it's a bit of a stretch, the breed chosen can be considered appropriate since Louisiana is known as "Cajun Country," thus a French connection.
Craig accumulated the 16 black Percherons with the help of Paul T. Miller, an Amish farmer and horse trainer from Kalona, Iowa. Most came from Amish farms in eastern Iowa. There were ten mares and six geldings. Four of the mares were of working age and in foal, as young animals in the zoo are a real drawing card. The remaining are coming 2-year-olds which will be used in the breeding program and also on the trolleys and the giant horse wheel as they mature. All the mares are registered and of good quality, and the geldings are really good work stock. Paul and his boys made sure each horse was trained to ride as well as hitch on either side of the tongue.
Most of the equipment also originated in Iowa. The harness and all related horse tack came from Ed's Nylon Shop in Independence, Iowa. The harness is a bio-plastic, three-strap britchin show harness with all stainless steel hardware. This harness is very easy to care for and light to handle. The collars came from the Brodhead Collar Shop at Bloomfield, Iowa.
Terry Pierce of Belgian Hill Farm, Oakland, Iowa, built the two people haulers and the shoeing stock, as well as the giant horse wheel and the ride platform from which the riders mount the 18 hh Percherons. The 42' wheel holds eight horses and is similar to the pony rides everyone has seen at fairs or at the circus–only ten times bigger and heavier and was all built to Craig's specifications, which included a one-ton brake. The wheel is situated under an open-air pavilion to keep horses, riders and operators in the shade. The "Guinness Book of World Records" has been contacted to find out if this qualifies as the biggest horse wheel in the world.
The saddles for the horse ride were designed by Craig and are unique. They have two seats with cantles on each saddle. This was done to add income per horse while providing a secure seat for the second rider. This system allows very small children to ride with a parent on the same horse. The End Result
We arrived in Monroe on Sunday afternoon and immediately went to the zoo to meet Craig and get a feel for things before starting instruction on Monday. Craig has been in the zoo business for many years, and currently has one of the largest petting zoos and traveling carnivals in the country. He is no stranger to animals. He has handled big cats, elephants and a multitude of scary creatures that a Northwest Iowa horse farmer would have nothing to do with. Paul Miller had written me and had given me a little background on each horse so I didn't have to start completely in the dark. We found the horses all easy to catch and get along with.
On Monday we met Everett Harris, the director of the zoo, and other key people at the facility. I met the class shortly thereafter and found all eager and ready to learn. Some of the people had limited knowledge of the harness horse and others had never had their hands on a horse before. After going over the horses, fitting collars and harness, we started hitching and driving. By the end of the day, all students had driven the team on the trolley. After the natural progression of the week, all were confident and competent for the Friday dress rehearsal and the Saturday Grand Opening. It's always amazing how people who are reluctant to get close to these two-thousand-pound creatures on Monday can be completely at ease to hitch and drive them four days later.
On Thursday, the farrier came to shoe the horses we would need on the trolleys on Friday and Saturday. The zoo was very lucky to find a close-by, extremely competent farrier in Dick Richards. Although Dick doesn't do a lot of draft horses, he has been shoeing since 1981 and is very knowledgeable on how draft horses need to be shod.
Friday was the first day for the giant horse wheel and dress rehearsal. Having never been around such a piece of equipment, I was a little apprehensive to say the least. However, Craig and his crew have been doing this with ponies, camels and elephants for a long time. I had selected horses which I thought would work best on the wheel and, after a short time, we were giving rides. The smiles on the kids' faces made it all worthwhile.
Saturday was the grand opening for the giant horse wheel, as well as the horse-drawn trolley rides in the zoo. The weather was perfect with sunshine and as predicted, seventy degrees. Horses were harnessed and saddled for the day with anticipation by all involved. Things progressed without a hitch and there was a continuous line for both the wheel and trolley rides. By the end of the day everyone needed a little relaxation. There couldn't be a better place to celebrate St. Patrick's Day than in a Scotch/Irish town. They even allowed a Dutchman from Northwest Iowa to horn in a little. (I had never played the bagpipes before.)
On behalf of Craig Perry and his crew, I would like to thank LeRoy and Carolyn Gray of Fairbank, Iowa, who played a huge role in putting the deal together; Paul T. Miller, who was instrumental in the acquisition of the horses; and all those who took part in this project. Without their help and talent this project would have been much more difficult. I would especially like to thank Craig for this opportunity as well as Everett Harris, the employees at The Louisiana Purchase Zoo & Gardens, Gary Meier (city spokesman for Monroe) who did all the promotional work and the City of Monroe.
Anything that exposes the public to the draft horse is good for our industry. We really need to do more of this type of thing to promote what the draft horse business is about. Craig says that attendance at the zoo has already increased dramatically since the addition of the Percherons. His hopes are that other zoos around the country will look to Monroe as a model. "Since all zoos include educational programs, it's a natural tie-in," he says, "and it's a great way to demonstrate the importance (and appeal) of heavy horses to the public."
If you are ever in the area, stop in. It's just off Interstate 20 and Highway 165. It's a really nice place and the people are wonderful.