Driving a team of draft horses for a short ride or a 20-minute parade route entails an entire day of preparation for the members of the DeKalb County Horsemen’s Association.
With their “dance card” full through the end of the year with appearances throughout northeast Indiana, the group is gearing up for a challenge they love.
Next weekend, they will be in Garrett for the annual Christmas parade on Saturday, Nov. 23. It is the only all-lighted horse parade on their schedule, with at least 19 decorated wagons already sponsored by local businesses and organizations, according to association member Stu Harshman. At that event, judges award specialty prizes for the wagon with the best decorations, team, music and all-around effect, among others. The following week, 15 or more wagons will parade through Hamilton.
The DeKalb County Horsemen’s Association has 13 ride wagons, including two handicapped-accessible wagons added to the fleet in the past few years. The wagons are housed at the association’s Draft Animal Museum south of Auburn. Each accessible wagon holds seven or eight wheelchairs, with bench seating along the sides for companions or aides to ride alongside them. These wagons often escort residents from nursing homes on jaunts to an ice cream parlor on a warm afternoon or just a ride around the neighborhood. Each is numbered and has a graphic of a Looney Tunes or Disney cartoon character. Outdoorsy scenes can be found on the handicapped-accessible ride wagons.
The association also has several specialty wagons such as a caisson wagon for funerals, a hearse wagon, surrey, mini-wagons, a popcorn wagon, a working chuck wagon and a Bicentennial wagon painted with the Indiana state flag on one side and the state seal on the other. Wagons are transported to parade and event sites in 8-foot covered trailers, on single and double open trailers or pulled behind a vehicle. Wagons with spoked wheels must be conveyed to the sites on trailers, Harshman added.
With nowhere to plug in a trailer wiring harness in a horse-drawn parade, each wagon is equipped with a deep-cell battery to power turn signals, brake lights and other necessary electrical systems. The batteries are charged up at the draft horse museum and taken to the parade site in a separate vehicle. Each wagon also has a slow-moving vehicle sign attached.
The group next checks the lights, switches and rope lights to make sure all are in operating order. Inverters to convert 12-volt to 120-AC are added to power decorations and other options.
The chairman of the parade and a member of the association meet in advance to organize the order of entries in the parade. In Garrett, for example, the mayor rides in the first wagon driven by Bill Knott, with Santa arriving on the final wagon, followed by the manure sweepers.
The day of the parade, members deliver wagons to the staging site between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., where crew members unhook and back them into their assigned order. Tractor tongues replace horse tongues, double trees that hitch horses to wagons and neck yokes are put into place.
During this time, the associations or sponsors have the time to decorate the wagons at the staging site and organizers compile information to give to the parade announcer describing the team and driver, sponsor and the group riding in the various wagons.
Those who decorate use zip ties to attach banners and other decor, as nails and staples damage the wood siding of the wagons. The cost to sponsor a wagon and a team of horses at the Garrett parade is $125.
By 4:30-5 p.m., the horse teams are trailered in. Some horses come already harnessed, while others are bridled on site. Teams range in size from miniature horses to Percherons and Belgians weighing in at 2,000 pounds apiece.
The teams are not hooked to the wagons until a few minutes prior to “go time,” when the lead driver begins the slow pace toward the parade route and picks up a police car escort. Another member of the group, often Mark Carunchia, is staged down the street to space the horses and wagons appropriately, about 25-30 feet apart.
Many times the streetlights along the route are turned off for spectators to enjoy the decorated wagons and to allow a serene vision of the slow-moving horses with the sound of hooves clomping in unison along the street.
Driving the team comes with its own set of “hitches.” Harshman said horses fear manhole covers, so the driver must look ahead to be sure the team is either split or moved over to avoid them completely. Kids also love horses and want to sit in the box where the driver leads the team.
During many events, the children of all ages are allowed to climb up to have photos taken in the box while the wagon is idle, but it is a safety concern if the wagon is in motion. At the staging area, people want to touch or pet the animals, but Harshman cautions to only come in front of the horse so not to spook it before making contact.
Often during parades, riders choose to throw candy and other items to the crowd, which attracts children along the route to run into the street, sometimes coming dangerously close to the 2,000-pound draft horses. The best-case scenario is to have additional people walk beside the wagon throw the candy to ensure safety of the spectators, Harshman said.
When the wagons return to the staging area, the scene can become chaotic. Riders want to begin removing decorations and get into cars while some of the teams are still coming down the pathway, he said. Once the horses are back in the trailers and the wagons are ready to roll back to the barn, it can take more than an hour or more, he added.
During the past year, the group has made appearances at dozens of festivals, fairs, parades and educational events in Albion, Ligonier, LaGrange, Topeka, Butler, Edgerton and New Haven.
With such a busy schedule, ferrying the wagons and horses from town-to-town becomes a scheduling challenge, but Harshman said the group has it down to a science.
Building a fleet of wagons is an in-house enterprise for the association.
“We will buy the running gear, have the sills made, that’s what the wagon sits on the frame, then we get the sills cut, and we go out and order the lumber, paint the boards and saw them, and then put the wagons together, make the steps and weld them on, we can do everything here,” said Harshman.
Harshman, who leads Draft Horse 101 sessions for audiences of one or more, said there are 10 breeds of draft horses from minis to the gentle giants such as Percherons and Belgians. The horses were first seen in the Fort Wayne area about 1833. He describes horses as “the bottom of the food chain,” since people don’t eat them, so once they are too old for work, they are either traded to others or left to grow old and die.
With the advent of tractors and the beginning of World War II, the local group organized in 1941 to promote breeding of draft horses. The men-only club met every other month at the home of one of the 15-20 members, some of whom still farmed with horses. Much of the time was spent socializing, he added.
In the 1960s and 1970s, area pony-pull clubs, the Noble County Horsemen and the Northeast Indiana Draft Horse and Mule Association merged with the DeKalb County group to boost its membership. Currently, the nonprofit association has 111 dues-paying members, of which only 50% actually own horses, Harshman said.
For more information about the association, people can go to dekalbhorsemen.com