The Buzz of the Crowd: HORSE PROGRESS DAYS 2022
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
photos by Jerry and Paul Hunter
Most quiet country people have been humbled and quieted by this pandemic. Yet the greening of a third year may harbor hope disguised as impatience, with most folks wary but set to return to the company of others, determined to get on with the occasionally generous and usually predictable business of living.
And there we were, in open rolling country a few miles shy of Montgomery, Indiana, approaching Dinky’s Auction Center, the host for this year’s Horse Progress Days. This is the 28th year for the event, missing only 2020, that is rotated through the Amish communities in five states – Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – usually taking place on two days, before the 4th of July. It is an event to showcase the modern utility of animal power in farming, featuring the latest equipment and the best in animal training and performance. On the corner two blocks from the hayfield parking the first modest yellow sign appeared, its black letters tacked up ankle-high. Then up ahead the first horse droppings appeared on the gravel.
A few minutes later two young women and a young man on horseback smiled down at us and showed us where to park. Across the road were maybe a hundred plain brown horses unhitched from their carriages. The first thing to notice was that less that half the people-movers were of the closed and private sort, those traditional black boxes on wheels, with their sliding side doors. Some of the open carriages had umbrellas, some had canopies. But easily half were open on all four sides—as were the hundred bicycles touching both ground and sky.
We walked the road with the others trickling in, and got to a table where we paid our $10 admission, for which each of us got a key chain and a sturdy blue plastic bag with a free personal water bottle inside. Children under 13 were free. The water bottles could be filled from any of the three four-wheeled tank wagons, one just inside the main gate, with big signs that announced ‘Free Ice Water’ and a row of taps along each side.
Watching folks filling their complimentary water bottles all day long, I saw how deftly and quietly a mood can be set. The water bottles had been tried last year, and were a hit. Everyone there knew right away that the occasion meant to carry on and keep cool without creating a mountain of garbage. That we all might want to feel like part of the solution, not the problem. From the first the sun in southwestern Indiana was blazing hot, and there was a crowd gathered in the tent shading its round pen, with various presenters scheduled to offer topics that included Starting a Colt, Basic Horse Shoeing, Collar Fitting, Conformation on Pulling, Hitch, and Driving Horses, and Horse Dentistry. Though I would double back and check on those presentations over the long hours, the crowd never seemed to slacken or dissipate. Whether in the round pen or outside where the sheepherder was deftly working a flock with his pair of dogs, separating the ones with red scarves from the plain ones, folks seemed alert and engaged with whatever was being offered.
The Official Preview on its cover boasted ‘Something for Everyone,’ but the theme of the event often seemed to be trying to merge both ‘go large’ and ‘go small.’ There were sturdy four-wheeled forecarts on a scale I hadn’t seen before, with double axles and four-cylinder diesel engines upwards of 70 horsepower driving their power take-offs. But there were also small manure-spreaders with shafts, meant to be pulled by a single animal. There was a big yellow no-till drill drawn by eight horses, with its operations mostly powered by a small one-cylinder gas engine, and a splendid and massive logging wagon pulled by another eight-horse hitch, but nearby also a small farm wagon meant to be pulled by a team of miniature horses or a single larger one. Scale here was a relative matter, depending on who was farming and where.
The field demonstrations as usual drew large crowds, with thousands of viewers in the sunshine watching logging, plowing and haying, as well as spraying, tedding and cultimulching, all demonstrated in action. I didn’t see the traditional opening event for this 28th year, which used to be manure spreading. Six logs had been planted upright in a row, to show the felling skills of loggers, who competed in dropping these 30 to 40 foot logs closest to the mark. The demonstrating loggers were clearly specialists, wearing fiberglass chaps and hard hats, with pockets for ax and wedges on their belts. Holding pride of place for the logging demonstrations was a beautiful new red logging wagon holding three massive hardwood logs, set on four axles with six-inch-wide steel-tired wooden wheels without brakes. When the wagon eventually moved it was pulled by two rows of four horses each, with the horses providing the braking action for the two teamsters mounted atop the load, each holding a handful of reins to coax them along or hold them back.
After a break for lunch there was a pulling competition between teams alternately hitched to a steel sled filled with concrete blocks. With a hitch on either end, the sled was pulled back and forth on a level, sandy patch as the weight mounted. It was cheering to see the teamsters stir their horses to give their best efforts without shouting or whipping them, as I have occasionally seen outside Amish country.
An unexpectedly comforting element of this year’s event was its handling of emergencies. On the first day there were several children lost, and the announcements that came from the Information Center broadcast around the grounds were clear, informed and cheery, and the youngsters were quickly reunited with parents. One visitor lost her purse, that was promptly turned in and announced on the PA. The handling of such minor distractions lent the whole event a quiet air of competence matched by the teamsters and their horses of all sizes and ages. This event seemed to also have an unusual number of babies, which had been anticipated in the well-furnished and attended nursery that was located in the large main auction building, out of the way of the booths with their rows of ingenious offerings.
There was one further thing to note, maybe something in the air, something open, even genial in the way folks greeted and welcomed each other. It was somehow not surprising when unexpected conversations sprung up among strangers around the grounds, occasioned but not limited by the varied offerings on display. Whether in the tents, the greenhouse with its tour of lush market gardens, or in the open air of the fields, it was something beyond salesmanship, something perhaps counter to the natural reserve of country people used to keeping their own counsel. But for the moment it seemed necessary to speak and reach out past silence, to share and make others feel welcome.
Over lunch we talked with an Amish man who spoke at length of his favorite auctions, and where in the surrounding three or four states he went to bid on things he could never get otherwise. He was intimately familiar with the Dinky Auction Center and its events that were conducted at this location over the years. He made a joke of my cowboy hat, asking what kind of cattle there was in Seattle, but that was as rough as it got, and no one was bothered. Then later I met an Amish woman with her two young children playing in the dirt in the shade of the logging wagon before it was hitched and towed. She told me that she and her husband hadn’t been able to find land to start farming, with local prices averaging over $8,000 an acre. So he had been making a living as a contractor building and remodeling houses, and otherwise trying to keep their farming dream alive by window-shopping at this year’s HPD offerings.
And indeed there were small signs of hardship and strain: ‘For Sale’ signs pinned to the harness of a few good draft horses pulling demonstrations in the fields and people-movers around the grounds. I’d never seen this before in three other visits to Horse Progress Days. Yet these folks remain versatile and adaptable, alert to change. The main display building was abuzz like a vast beehive. Whole families to the third and fourth generation attended, with their well-mannered and wide-eyed children, while the horses and teamsters watched their step. I spotted a troop of youngsters slipping under the fence to get in, led by one intrepid boy. Then I remembered that those under 13 were free anyhow, and it just might feel good to sneak in.
Late in the day old loggers and young loggers, Amish and English, were chatting in the shade of a fenceline grove that might have been spared for just such a purpose, as they watched tree-felling contests and sawmills make quick work of logs turned in a thrice into lumber. One large blue mill that had traveled across the state was the most expensive item on hand, at $103,000. Luckily its size and price were not the only ways one might measure hope. The shade also drew teams of horses in after their turns in the sun, and as naturally as blossoms draw bees, the children who studied the horses mouthing and tossing loose hay on the back of a wagon, in an excess of spirits playing with their food.