Draft Horses Go to College at Michigan State University
article and photos by Cecil E. Darnell of Mason, MI
Cara O’Conner heads up the Michigan State University (MSU-East Lansing, MI) Draft Horse Program. She has been doing this for several years, picking up where Russ Erickson left off. Mentioning Russ, he was the right guy at the right time. He was ready to retire from 30 years of teaching in the Dairy program at MSU, but he could remember how to harness a draft horse from his days of growing up on the family farm.
Instead of retiring, Russ moved to the MSU Draft Horse Program when MSU accepted a team of Belgians back in 1999. These Belgians were the first drafts on campus since 1963, when everyone knew that they were no longer needed in our society. What wisdom!
As this is being crafted, the last day of the Michigan Great Lakes International Draft Horse Show (MGLI) is winding down for the 30th time. MGLI started 30 years ago and moved to E. Lansing (from the Michigan State Fair Grounds in Detroit where it began) in the mid-1990’s. It boasts 800 to 1000 drafts each year, and it collects an eclectic audience watching as well as handling the lines.
This people/draft horse collection may be the most interesting mix because it reflects the big hitch folks as well as the horsepullers, who often look at things a bit differently (this writer can say that since being named to the Michigan Horsepuller’s Hall of Fame in 2005). What was going on at MGLI yesterday? Cara and her MSU students were showing off their new focus… Percherons!
For those who study such things, when MSU (and other universities) were studying and developing good breeding programs (prior to 1963 at MSU), MSU had some well-known horses and leaders in the breeding programs that provided guidance to the farmers who worked with the animals in the fields. MSU and the neighboring communities have really grown closer together since the draft horses have returned to campus. The walking plow that was presented to MSU by one of the county organizations at the MGLI is a prime example of this relationship.
One of the photos that is not a part of this presentation is a team of draft horses, harnessed and hitched to a surrey plow, standing in front of the MSU sign. The photo hasn’t been taken as yet, but Ed Martin, from nearby St. Johns, would help with such a project. He doesn’t want his draft horses to feel inferior because they haven’t spent more time at college, but we just didn’t get the photo taken. He was participating in the various competitions, that includes plowing and such, that is a part of the MGLI program.
Ed was also one of those invited to participate in the Horse Progress Days at Clare (MI) earlier this year. Mike and Lynn Loveland, who classify plowing together quality time, were also at Clare and MSU, (and almost every plow-day that doesn’t conflict with another one) and they are also a part of the Eaton County Horse & Pony Club that donated a walking plow to MSU during the MGLI.
Since the Belgians came, and the Percherons joined them at MSU, what is coming next? We will see. Cara and her students are hitching four now; Belgians on the “going side” and Percherons when they are coming. Creative stuff; those college folks and horses can adjust. Now don’t get the idea that the MSU drafts are snooty. They don’t have enough barn space, their harnesses may have some brasses that have MSC (Michigan State College) still on them from before 1930.
And, a lot of the draft classes are held outside. This is Michigan. Sometimes outside classes in January and February are discouraging to the meek. One student’s dad commented, “My daughter has been working with our Tennessee Walking Horses since she was a baby. She has won ribbons, trophies, and acclaim in the industry. Now I learn that we are paying tuition at MSU and she is taking this draft horse class. What we consider progress changes constantly.”
Another draft horse senior, after chatting with Cara for a time noted, “She really knows what she is talking about.” At the moment, Cara is bustling around and making plans for next year when MSU celebrates 100 years. She now heads up the young Plowday Program that has been held on the MSU campus for the past three years. When the MSU draft students visit the MGLI there is a lot of excitement that bounces around the Pavilion between the students and the more mature.
Yesterday, as the MSU Spartans performed miracles with their Northwestern football win, a MSU Pep Band paid a visit to the MGLI and tooted up some excitement. Tuba players have spent so much parade time walking in parades behind horses and elephants that playing from the bleachers is a clean shoe treat for them.
In the midst of all this upbeat stuff, please be advised that Michigan weather wasn’t encouraging any real serious plowing this year. Some suggested that the ground had enough puddles for fishing rather than plowing. Don Banks, who was plowing with a big pair of Belgians, took them, along with his helpers, to the wash rack inside the Pavilion and gave the whole collection a wash down before unharnessing. Some years are like that, but those who depend on the Almighty and the weather for their livelihood may be bigger gamblers than can be found in any casino.
A while back, a neighbor to MSU noted; “In 1963 the last draft horse left MSU. It wasn’t until 1999 that MSU again had a draft horse on the 16,000 acres that fall under the MSU banner in East Lansing, Michigan. The draft horse industry was written off by many in the late 1930s and early 1940s as tractors began providing power to the Family farm.”
In those days, draft horses were used for glue, dog food, and fertilizer, if any buyer could be found at all. There was no use, no market, and no need for the loyal companions that once struggled alongside farm families who worked the soil. Horses required food, caring for, and had to be replaced as they aged.
Mechanical power sources didn’t have such continual needs. Tractors didn’t use gas when they were idle. The decisions made were economical decisions only, yet there was a subtle emotional factor buried deep within the heart of the farmer. This inner human feeling can nudge folks to have a horse or two around just to watch in the pasture. Is it cheaper than a shrink? Opinions differ…
One old farmer noted, “I kept three horses on the farm for four years after they were of any practical use. I just couldn’t imagine watching them go from where they had served so loyally. Keeping another three feeder calves would have been wiser, but I couldn’t make that decision and act on it.”
The Stewart Family, (Fowlerville, MI) working in consort with Dr. John Shelle, who heads the MSU Horse Unit, changed things at Michigan State University. In April of 1999, the Stewarts donated a team of Belgians to MSU. Dr. John Shelle accepted them. (He is still encouraging this rebirth and gave the nod to the Percherons that recently came to MSU from the Dave Beck Farm near Charlotte, MI.)
Just because there were no draft horses around, don’t get the idea that there weren’t horses on campus. The MSU Arabian Horse Program was started originally with a donation of horses from the W.K. Kellogg Company Ranch in California. The Ranch is now owned by the Cal Poly Tech at Pomona. Dr. Shelle of MSU serves on that Cal Poly Board and learned about an antique horse wagon that still existed on the ranch property.
This wagon came to E. Lansing on a loan program and is now a part of the new MSU draft horse activities. The addition of this wagon that was originally used by W.K. Kellogg himself, is a thread running from the old to the new.
When Russ Erickson originally began checking with trucking companies, seeking someone to haul the old wagon from California to Michigan, he learned that if he needed the wagon in a hurry it would cost $700 for shipping. Russ decided he wasn’t in any hurry to get the wagon moved. The trucking company donated the transportation when they learned it wasn’t needed in E. Lansing until fall. That is the wagon that Cara and her students rode into the arena yesterday as they waved and smiled at the responsive spectators at MGLI, following the MSU Pep Band speaking out musically.
The wagon’s undercarriage is 100 years old and was made by the Concord Company in New Hampshire. One of the history books makes mention of the Percherons at the W.K. Kellogg Farm also mentions the American Express Wagon, so the Percherons at MSU are really a part of that historical past.
Russ Erickson is still taking an interest in the lead on the MSU program. He grew up in Northern Minnesota farming with horses, so he had some first hand contact with the drafts. While feeling a little punky, he was at the MGLI this week, keeping an eye on things.
For those who are seeking more information about these happenings can go to the new MGLI web site at www.MGLI.org for event results. Even the winners of the plowing competition are listed.