That’s a Dandy Team!
by Virginia Bennett of Winthrop, WA
As people on the street of a tourist town pass a team or single horse and buggy, they may be transported back in time and experience a twinge of history as they gaze admiringly at the fancy horses. They may not realize that the horses themselves have a rich history, a past and a story to tell. This is the tale of one such team called Bobbi and Beauty.
I was working on a ranch near Twisp, Washington and part of my job was harnessing, hitching up and driving a team, thus transporting guests around the ranch and down to a log gazebo where breakfast or lunch was prepared for them. The team I was driving was mismatched. Indeed, the term “team” didn’t seem to suit them at all. Lady, a leggy, registered Percheron mare had been trained by the Amish in the mid-West. She was half of a nice team of matching mares. The other half, Lassie, had died at the age of five, a victim of sand colic.
When Lassie passed away in 1994, I needed to find a replacement horse. That was when I found Norton, a part Percheron gelding, who had been broke to ride when he was younger and smaller in stature. However, Norton didn’t quit growing until he stood taller than our full Percheron mare, Lady. He outgrew his saddle, and had then been used one winter pulling a feedsled where his strength was appreciated when breaking those runners free from the ice.
I felt that Norton was as close a match in size and color to Lady as I was likely to find in our valley, so I bought him. At first, whenever I quietly asked him to step out, he lunged into the collar as he’d learned in his winter of feedsled work. Quickly, though, he settled to the task and became a good, dependable draft horse.
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Norton, and it wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Lady. Individually, they were both good horses. Together, though, was another story. The problem, as all teamsters know, was one of gait. Norton walked faster than Lady. So, Lady would start to trot to keep up with his pace. Her trot, however, out paced his walk, so then he’d trot. I’d end up with two, competitive, trotting horses, when what I wanted was a nice, slow walk. So I’d pull them back in, and then release the pressure on the lines. Of course, in about ten paces, they were trotting again. I felt like they were pulling the wagon not with the tugs, but with my arms!
The boss said it was okay to look for another team, and I was told about a team of black mares about a three hour drive away. It seemed the owner’s father had gone to the big Sandpoint, Idaho, draft horse sale with the intention of buying the best team that was sold that year. He said he wanted to teach his grandchildren how to drive a team before he died.
He purchased Bobbi and Beauty, though, sadly, he passed away before he ever had the chance to harness them up. His son held onto the pretty black mares, allowing them to graze his irrigated pastures for two years before he came to the realization that he did not have a job for them to do, and he decided, hard as it was, to part with the team. He told a friend of his decision, and the friend passed the news along to me.
I hooked up the old gooseneck trailer to the ranch pickup, took my teenage son with me for support, and drove down to look at them. A pair of full sisters, they were a farm-chunk team, an easier size for me, at 5’6″, to harness. Though they hadn’t been used in two years, they acted like ladies as the owner drove them about his fields for me to see.
I agonized, however, over spending that much of someone else’s money. I don’t consider myself a teamster by any stretch of the imagination. That term is one I save for those people who have made a living driving teams and have years of experience with all types of horses and situations. Like my Dad. He would have been the one to counsel me, if only he could. But Dad had passed away six months before. I missed his wisdom and advice when it came to many things including driving teams.
Lost in my thoughts and indecision, I refocused on the beautiful team of mares as they were driven past me down the farm lane. Right then, I heard my father’s audible voice over my shoulder, saying, “My, that’s a dandy team!”
I bought the mares, and we loaded them up in the old red trailer and headed for home. That’s what you do when you hear a voice like that. No questions asked, no doubts or fears. This is the right thing to do.
And it was. Bobbi and Beauty worked for me for three years, and never got me into trouble. I drove them through several parades, and took many passengers on the wagon, including mothers with newborn babes in their arms, and paraplegic guests with wheelchairs. I always trusted them, and knew that buying them was a good decision.
The fall of 2000, we were told the ranch was being sold, and that our job there was through. The last chores we were given was to sell most of the horses and all of the cattle. It was a hard thing to do. The owners wanted to keep a few old, dependable saddle horses, but anything young or requiring special skills, like Bobbi and Beauty, had to go. I knew that selling those girls would be hard for me to do.
I advertised them in the papers, but the calls I got were not the kinds of homes I wanted for them. People wanting to split them up, break them for riding and to take hunting, or to pack dudes. I held out, hoping for a better option. One day, my husband, Pete, and I were walking down the wooden boardwalk of the old-West town of Winthrop nearby. I said hello to a man I sort-of-knew named Al Whitworth, who had been giving buggy and wagon rides to tourists that summer. I mentioned to him that I had a team of horses for sale.
A few days later, Al dropped in to see the team. We hitched them up and drove them around the ranch, Al experimenting with what they knew. The white marks on their shoulders proved they’d seen hard work. I’d heard they’d been farmed by the Amish in Montana before they went through that fateful sale in Sandpoint. Al asked them to back and he fanned them left and right. I was impressed with his skills as a teamster, which he truly was.
He made an offer, and the corporate office for the ranch owner took it. Al came back with a trailer and Bobbi and Beauty were gone. The corral looked empty.
But they weren’t gone from my life forever. Al immediately put the girls into his string of draft horses, all black Percherons, working in Winthrop. It’s easy duty for any horse. He works them up to three hours, and they travel at a walk on level pavement all day. Al takes excellent care of all of his horses, which he takes great pride in. They are well fed, groomed, shod and nice to handle. They have to be, as they meet thousands of strangers on the streets in town.
Al invited me up for a ride in his buggy, and he hitched up Bobbi and Beauty, who he had rechristened Susie because the names of his two granddaughters are Bobbi and Susie. He allowed me to drive them into town, and invited me to come drive them in the summer, taking guests for a spin around town, past the old buildings with signs that read Three Fingered Jacks, the Palace, and the Last Trading Post. Al says he likes all breeds of horses, but is staying with blacks because he wants to put together a six-horse hitch. He plans to enter a big plowing bee in March with them.
I noticed that day how visitors are drawn to the big horses as they stand by the boardwalk awaiting eager passengers. Wives stand timidly next to their heads while husbands take snapshots of them to show back home. After all, a horse adds a lot to a picture! Children flock to the gentle horses and ask for kisses. What team and wagon add to a town full of tourists is immeasurable. They add living history, and a reminder that we all grew up loving horses.