Little captures the public eye like Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron or Shire horses properly turned out performing in harness. Sadly, few fairs, exhibitions and horse shows across North America employ key individuals possessing a draft horse background. All too many have never witnessed what a public draw draft horses can be when shown in a proper facility. However, the popularity of the equine giants will continue to grow as the years pass, for the paying public has ever less occasion to see them. Given the right showcase, quality Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron and Shire turnouts offer excitement. Given due publicity and a proper facility to perform in, experience has shown the crowds that attend a draft horse performance show will grow in an exponential manner.
An increasing number of fair, exhibition and horse show officials lack vision. They offer little incentive, they provide ever less financial support for enthusiasts, who have the knowledge and the desire to build a heavy horse show–one that will win public interest. In part, this is why there are fewer fairs, exhibitions and horse shows operating each year. For more than a century the flagship of most was draft horses shown in harness. In America the Dixie Classic Fair at Winston-Salem, North Carolina; the American Royal in Kansas City, Missouri; the Clinton County Fair in Willington, Ohio; and the Michigan State Fair in Detroit, are history, as is Expo Quebec in Eastern Canada. The Canadian Western Agribition in Regina, no longer stages a draft horse show, neither does the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.
We live in a world dominated by entertainment. Hence, the public that attends a fair, exhibition or horse show must be entertained. Otherwise, the paying public's support will be lost. But how can this be done?
This year, the 150th Anniversary of Eastern Ontario's Carp Fair was a roaring success. Draft horse breeders fielded 25 six-horse hitches. A total of 150 harnessed Belgians, Percherons and Clydesdales were centre-ring–a horse for each year this agricultural fair has been in operation. Widely advertised, some 16,000 spectators witnessed the colourful spectacle. Members of Carp's aggressive fair board were over the moon.
Members of Calgary's Philharmonic Orchestra have provided rousing background music for the Calgary Stampede's Heavy Horse Show for over a decade. Each year, since the musicians and horsemen combined their talents, the Saddledome crowd has grown. The action, the colour and the music are infectious. Horses move to the beat centre-ring; as the crowd claps with the beat. Spectators are offered an adrenalin rush like no other. Today, the Stampede's Heavy Horse Show is a signature event.
The recent World Percheron Congress held at Des Moines was a roaring success. More than a winner, it was a watershed, for the Iowa State Fair dropped its draft horse classification years past. Promoted in the press, on radio and T.V., the newly constructed arena facilitated the memorable event. Ringside enthusiasm was evident. Class after class was shown with no program break. Percheron feed teams raced. They kept the crowd entertained when turnout exhibitors needed a program break. Spectators roared their approval. Next year's Congress will feature barrel racing and a celebrity drive-off! This brand of innovation is a win-win situation.
Costume classes always win attention. They, too, can be used to fill a gap in the show program. So, too, can a draft horse race at an outdoor show. In 1938, the Los Angeles County Fair held a Percheron Derby. What a race it was! Seven tons of horseflesh thundered down the track to the applause of 20,000 spectators. Purportedly, it was raining horseshoes.
We can't just do what we have always done. Likewise, if a heavy horse show is drawing bumper crowds year after year, there is no reason for change, for nothing succeeds as does success. However, it is important that officials with vision keep their finger on the public's pulse.
The compulsory figures at a figure skating competition are much the same as halter classes at a draft horse show. For a show's continued success, they are a must, for they set the standard for breed excellence. While fair officials often question their purpose, draft horses of both sexes and various ages found in these classes, are usually stabled in stalls that are well decorated. This interests spectators. In its heyday, the Horse Palace at Toronto's Royal Agricultural Winter Fair was always crowded with spectators. It was a beehive of activity. Those who traveled to the Royal always visited the Horse Palace for a close-up of the gentle giants. Unlike the ponies, gaited horses and jumpers, the draft horses were seldom under wraps. For most spectators, a visit to the Horse Palace was more important than watching The Royal Horse Show, where tickets for a seat were costly and difficult to obtain. Given the absence of the draft horse in daily life, today's spectator, more than ever, is fascinated by the activities seen in the stables. Routine acts of bathing, grooming, shoeing, decorating and harnessing draft horses captures public interest. No exhibition in Canada knows this better than the Calgary Stampede, where every effort was made to have the draft horse exhibit stabled following the flood of 2013.
Exhibitors in the most visible stables at a fair are pressed to answer the countless questions members of the public ask. Heavy horses shown on halter can also capture public interest. In its heyday, the show ring located in the Horse Palace at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair was always packed when draft horses were shown on halter. Excitement and interest was always manifest. Crowd favourites were always applauded. When a stallion or foal acted up, a ripple of excitement would circle the show ring. Exhibitors who then took the time to interact with the awed public in the Horse Palace did much to ensure the heavy horse remained a public favourite.
Well-promoted and well-run, a draft horse show, housed in a proper facility, will draw spectators. This as never before, for today's public is in awe of the disposition, the size and great weight of a heavy horse. The ring of their steel shoes on a paved surface is an echo of the past that captures the public's attention. It is little heard elsewhere. Today's gentle giants can continue to fascinate a fair's paying public as never before if properly showcased.
At least this is how I see it.