By Dan Rodricks, Contact Reporter for The Baltimore Sun
Now here’s something I did not know (nor think much about) until a recent trip to a farm in Central Maryland, self-prescribed as a break from the daily distress of Donald Trump tweets and Baltimore crime: Those big-shouldered horses that pull wedding carriages and beer wagons, those brawny drafts that pull plows and harrows across Amish farm fields — some of them get a nice retirement.
They are put out to pasture. Or they take a little part-time work. Or they develop second careers.
Clydesdales, Percherons, Belgians and other wide-body breeds are known mostly for hauling rigs of pleasure and industry. But in their retirement, they can serve as mounts. People ride them. Who knew?
“Oh, yes,” insists Christine Hajek. “Drafts are sought-after for trail riding. They’re calm. They just plod along. You get a comfy, cushy slow ride. It’s like riding your couch.”
Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue to expand with help of memorial gift
Hajek counts on the aftermarket demand for wide rides because she is the founder and president of a horse rescue that specializes in saving drafts from slaughter and finding them new homes. She claims more than 500 adoptions since establishing her operation 11 years ago, and many of the new owners acquired their drafts for trail riding, some for jumper competition.
Well, some knew.
Ross Peddicord, a long-time horseman who serves as executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, points out that the Baltimore Police Department’s mounted unit uses drafts or draft crosses. “People do use them for trail riding,” says Peddicord, a former Evening Sun reporter, “even fox hunting with the slower hunts.”
Snowman, the legendary show jumper of the late 1950s who was minutes away from the slaughterhouse before a New York riding instructor rescued him and turned him into a champion, had a previous life as a plow horse.
Harry de Leyer famously paid $80 for Snowman at the century-old livestock auction at New Holland, Pa., the same place Hajek goes to picks up horses for her rescue operation in Howard County.
Her operation is called Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue, and it sits on a 139-acre farm at the end of a long, tree-lined lane off Old Frederick Road in Mount Airy. A donation from the Gretchen B. Mobberley Family Trust led to the recent purchase of another farm six miles away, in Woodbine, providing Gentle Giants with an additional 105 acres for a sanctuary — a long-term retirement home for drafts unlikely to be adopted.
The nonprofit’s mission is based in a belief that no horse should be slaughtered for the international meat market. Hajek watches constantly for drafts on the block at New Holland in the hopes of saving them from bidders who intend to have them butchered. She’ll even make an effort to acquire a horse in poor health.
“We’d rather have them euthanized on the farm than see them go to slaughter,” she says.
Many of the drafts come from Amish or Mennonite farms after a hard life of pulling plows. Hajek buys them, then she gets them to the farm, where her staff of 13 hands and numerous volunteers clean, feed and evaluate the horses, then place them in a paddock for new arrivals. A veterinarian and blacksmith visit each Tuesday.
At any given time, Hajek says, there are more than 100 horses on the farm. There were 112 in residence on Friday. Thirty-four of them are sanctuary horses, the remainder in pastures or stables, awaiting adoption. Sixty percent to 70 percent of the Gentle Giant horses come from New Holland, Hajek says. The remainder come from individual owners who, for various reasons, need to give them up. The actor Charles “Roc” Dutton, who has a farm in Howard County and once owned 12 Clydesdales, gave Gentle Giants a Gypsy Cob named Sainte.
Gentle Giants occasionally takes in abused or neglected drafts rescued by humane societies or animal control units.
And over the years, several have come from the carriage trade, including the one in New York City. The horse-drawn carriages of New York became a hot issue in the 2013 mayoral election, with an animal rights group calling for the trade’s abolition and throwing its support behind Bill de Blasio, the ultimate winner. De Blasio had promised a ban on the carriages, but the New York City Council and the public pushed back hard. The abolitionists gave up their crusade this summer, according to the Daily News.
Hajek is opposed to horses being slaughtered, but she’s not opposed to horses working.
“If they don’t work, they don’t exist,” she says. “I think most carriage horses get treated well by their owners. When they’re ready to retire them, they contact us or another rescue. The carriage horses are great to have in your barn. They are really well-behaved.”
And, Hajek says, many of them are still capable of a “lighter career” in retirement, pulling a cart or wagon maybe once a week — you know, a little part-time work.