In the Pennsylvania Countryside, Joseph “Sonny” Miller and his son Victor train two of their Haflinger draft horses.
There was a time not so long ago when draft horses — those glorious, humongous creatures you occasionally see hitched to a plow in Amish country — were present in droves at the Washington County, Pennsylvania Agricultural Fair.
And to be sure, there’s still a good showing of these gentle giants in a variety of halter, hitch and pulling classes at this annual family event taking place in August.
Yet if you ask Joseph “Sonny” Miller, who’s been attending the fair for more than 40 years, the past 13 with his son Victor, it ain’t like it used to be.
Whereas 15 or 20 years ago you might have seen upwards of 60 draft horses in various events over the course of the eight-day fair, he said those numbers have dropped anywhere from 25 to 50 percent.
Some of the decline can be attributed to the high cost of fuel, said Mr. Miller, who serves as a horse superintendent and is also one of seven fair board directors. It’s increasingly expensive to haul animals that can weigh a ton or more in a trailer from place to place.
But it also has something to do with the fact that the showing of draft horses, some of which can stand 68 inches or more at the shoulder, is more of a man’s hobby than a family hobby.
“It’s their size,” said Mr. Miller, 53. “Draft horses are extremely large animals.”
And when those men get older, it isn’t as easy for them to throw a heavy harness or saddle on these hulking horses, or handle them when they’re hooked up to a cart or wagon.
That’s why the South Franklin resident, like a small but growing number of horsemen, has downsized. Literally.
Mr. Miller is among a handful of horsemen in Washington County who raise Haflingers, a breed of draft horse that originated in the southern Tyrol region of the Austrian Alps.
Known for their sweet yet fearless dispositions and strong athleticism, these equines stand between 54 and 60 inches at the withers, which technically makes them a pony. (By definition, ponies measure less or equal to 14.2 hands, or 58 inches, at the highest part of the back).
A truck driver, Mr. Miller purchased his first Haflinger about eight years ago. And before he knew it, “we were into it,” he said. Today, he boasts 31 registered Haflingers on his 124-acre farm.
He and his son will be taking about seven or so to the fair to show in the draft horse halter, matched team and cart classes. Victor will also show his favorite pair, 9-year-old Mikey and 4-year-old Stateman, in several 4-H classes.
Their more diminutive stature is an obvious advantage, said Mr. Miller, who is on the short side himself. But he also likes that the horses — which range in color from a light gold to a golden chestnut with a white or flaxen mane and tail — are so darn affectionate.
“They love attention,” he said, adding, “but they do get jealous of each other.”
Case in point: As Mr. Miller took some visitors on a tour of his pasture fronting Route 221, where most of the horses run year round, several of the ponies immediately fell in line behind him. And when he stopped to point out a mare that originally came from Canada, they zoom in for a nuzzle.
“Big babies,” he good-naturedly complains, as he shoos them away.
Mr. Miller and his son use their Haflingers primarily for harness and combined driving. But they also make excellent trail and show ring horses, for both English and Western style. Increasingly, the breed is also being used for dressage.
Linda Thoms, president of the Pennsylvania Draft Horse & Mule Association, agrees that Haflingers have come on in popularity in the past 10 years as more people discover the breed. (They didn’t arrive in the U.S. until the late 1950s).
No doubt that they’re sweet. But what many people also find so appealing, she said, is that they can be mischievous.
They’re just like kids,” Mr. Miller agrees with a laugh. “They’ll mess with you.”
Yet while the number of registered Haflingers is steadily climbing (the American Haflinger Registry represents more than 20,000 horses), the breed has a long way to go before it catches up with the big guys.
The most numerous of all draft breeds is the Belgian, Mrs. Thoms said, followed by the Percheron, the type of horse that made up the now-defunct Heinz Hitch, and the Clydesdale, the breed made famous by the Budweiser beer company.
In readying Mikey and Stateman for the fair, Victor, who belongs to the Golden Hoofs 4-H Club – and his father have been working the horses on rural Cracraft Road, pulling a stripped-down, utilitarian version of the elegant cherry-red wagon with white axles they’ll be hitched to in the grandstand.
Up and down they go on a quarter-mile stretch of road, again and again, until both are dripping with sweat. Relatively new to the game, Stateman has a hard time settling down and is apt to let Mikey do most of the work.
But Mr. Miller is nothing if not patient, occasionally tapping Stateman’s hind quarters with a crop when he lags behind, and pulling ever so gently on the reins to keep his head positioned forward.
Most horses are broken to cart when they’re about 2, in a process that takes a matter of just a few weeks, he explained. Victor, who’s been driving since he was about 7, is typically at the reins. It takes many more months, though, for them to work as a unified force.
“Just because you have two horses doesn’t mean you have a team,” notes Mr. Miller. “Some will step a little faster than the other no matter how much you work them, while another will lay back. But you want them to work together.”
The horses’ physical similarity with regard to color, shape and size is important, of course, along with the appearance of the wagons and harnesses.
But judges will also be looking at how well the two animals work together. “From the side, they should see only one horse,” said Mr. Miller.
Though technically ponies, these gentle giants are know for their sweet dispositions and athleticism.
“It’s an animal that almost anyone can ride,” says Mr. Miller. “And it also appeals to older folks who can’t ride but can drive.”
Story Link: News Story – Haflinger Teams
Earlier Post: Famed Heinz Hitch Now History