They’re the heavyweights of horses, but their beauty and their brawn has kept them relevant in the ever-changing world around them.
Draft horses, whose value was recognized by even Julius Caesar, continue to turn heads and generate business opportunities in the 21st century.
A young central Alberta couple is among those farmers who see a future in breeding the gentle giants. And they’re feeling a bit like ‘conquerers’ after scoring some high-profile victories at a recent world-class event.
Kevin and Tammy Pelonero breed, raise, and train Clydesdale and Percheron draft horses at Calico Clydesdales near Huxley. They take pride in the fact their horses are versatile enough to do farm chores and command attention in the show ring.
The family is still riding high after a successful run at this fall’s prestigious World Clydesdale Show in London, Ontario. Their four-year-old stallion Calico Iggy was named Reserve Champion Stallion, as well as best Canadian Bred Stallion. And a mare they raised, Calico Isobel, now owned by Illinois breeders, won best Canadian Bred Mare at the show.
“We were small farmers, small breeders and were very pleased with the success of a home-raised horse,” said Kevin Pelonero.
“It’s probably something we’ll remember forever. It’s a rush that, even today, you talk about it and all of a sudden you start getting wound up and almost feel that you’re there again. It was an unbelievable experience.”
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Iggy was actually sick with clover poisoning, and just about missed the big event, which attracted 569 elite horses from across North America and as far away as Germany.
“He was off feed for a good 10 days — it was only about four days prior to leaving that he started back on full feed,” said Pelonero. “We were actually thinking of scratching him (from the show) because he meant more to us as a breeding horse. But once he went back on feed, I knew he was good.”
The prizewinning stallion attracted a lot of interest from potential buyers, but he’s going to remain a foundation sire at the farm.
The couple, who started their operation when they married 10 years ago, are both first-generation breeders. Kevin started working on a Belgian hitch in California right out of high school, while Tammy was doing the same with Jim Bryden’s UFA Clydesdale Hitch from Calgary. They met, naturally, at a horse show.
Despite 20 years of combined experience, they’re still considered relative newcomers.
“That’s why being able to compete at the World Show and be as successful as we were, was a huge (victory) for us,” said Pelonero. “We were kind of shocked and just overwhelmed.”
While they’re making a name in the Clydesdale world, they’re still building their business.
“On the farm, we have to do everything we can to make (ends) meet. My wife is a flight attendant; I do construction in the winter, shoe horses, and break and train colts as well. So we kind of do a little bit of everything. For us, it’s a little more than just a hobby, but not full time.”
But it can be done — and Brian Coleman is proof.
He trains heavy horses, judges all over the world, is the reigning six-time World Champion teamster (including picking up two more championships in London), and has a Percheron breeding program with wife Colleen at Eaglesfield Percherons near Didsbury.
The market is good for top horses, and the industry is moving forward, he said.
“We’re starting to see draft horses more recognized, as they’re being shown. The tie to the past has more appeal now. We’re seeing the horses presented in a more professional manner, with the level of polish and finish rising with more competitions.”
While the famous Budweiser Clydesdales have long been a branding tool for the beer company, other businesses are also using hitches for marketing and an American cable company has developed a show on draft horses called Gentle Giants.
A desire to return to ‘back to nature’ farming is also a factor, said Pelonero.
“There’s a big demand for small chore teams,” he said. “I think some of these older farmers are retiring, have more time on their hands, and want to get back to what they did. Instead of firing a tractor up, just go out and drive a team. It’s actually pretty relaxing (and) therapeutic.”