When grand marshal Richard Bailey rides through downtown Hotchkiss in the Delta County Fair parade this Aug. 12, he'll ride in a carriage pulled by a team of Brabant red roan draft horses.
They're not what some would consider a show breed, said Eunice Ward of the Brabants. They were bred for their strength.
Ward and husband Steve own the horses and the carriage that will carry Bailey. They are also members of the Delta County Harness Club.
Heads turn when they parade by, their horses' huge hooves clop-clopping in rhythm, their heads held tall, the wooden wagon wheels rolling across the pavement. Muscular, majestic and massive, draft horses played a big part in the country's rich agricultural and industrial history. Despite their size, "They are not as big and scary as some might think," said Ward. In general, the bigger the draft horse, the more calm its demeanor.
Harness Club members own some very rare horse breeds, said Ward. Among them, Gypsy Vanners, Brabants and Percherons, Morgans and quarter horses. One member also owns miniature draft horses.
But the club isn't just about horses. Harness Club members love anything that can be hitched up to a wagon, cart or plow, including donkeys, mules, ox and goats.
Ward was raised on horses and was a competitive barrel racer. She and Steve, who operate S&E Ward's Landscape Management in Cedaredge, got involved in draft horses because it was something they could do together, said Ward. Since Steve didn't ride, "We sunk our teeth into driving."
Along with other Harness Club members, they travel to shows, competitions and parades throughout the state and the region, including Craig, Chaffee County and Gunnison. They love the tradition, said Ward. "We enjoy doing it, and it's fun to share with other people."
It's also a lot of work. Like all horses, draft horses require a lot of maintenance and expense. Their big hooves require big shoes, and their bigger bodies need bigger trailers to haul them and bigger bits and bridles and saddles than the smaller breeds.
They also eat more, said Ward.
The carts and wagons they pull also represent a rich history of westward expansion and hard work. The carriage Bailey will ride was built in the early 1900s in Canada for a theater group, said Delta craftsman Mike Twamley. He restored it and converted it into a people mover, a craft he learned from his mentor and master carriage builder from Delta, the late Art Chaffee.
For decades the theater group traveled by caravan along the coast between British Columbia and San Francisco, performing in towns and cities along the way. The story, said Twamley, is that a millionaire left the theater group two million dollars in the 1940s. Members used the money to build a ship, which they now sail along the coast and use as their stage.
In the late 1990s he discovered the carriage in a dilapidated condition at a carriage auction. It had good running gear, and its brake system was from a 1960s American-made automobile, said Twamley. "It was solid."
Now it travels with the Harness Club and is seen by thousands of people. The organization has reached a lot of people, said Ward, and always welcomes new and interested members. She said she would love to see more young people get involved. "It's kind of a dying tradition," said Ward, and one that the club would like to see passed on to future generations.