Planning and preparation make for a good road trip — especially if your mode of transportation is 30 horses pulling eight wagons.
Neil Dimmock needed porta-potties, campers, dozens of volunteers (and enough food to keep them happy), generous landowners and sponsors, a stack of permits, hundreds of gallons of water, tons of hay and oats, the right horses, a lot of determination, and the skill to pull it off.
In all the “Big Hitch” travelled over 50 kilometres between July 2 and 6th before trailering in for the Stampede Parade on July 8.
The venture was a partial realization of a long-held dream: Do what famed horseman Slim Moorehouse had done in 1925 when he drove 36 Percherons and 10 wagons with 1,477 bushels of grain from Gleichen for the Stampede Parade. Dimmock was just 16 years old when he saw a picture of Moorehouse’s hitch in a restaurant in Gleichen.
“It covered the whole wall,” Dimmock remembered. “When I got back I was talking to Grandfather about it, and I said, ‘Someday I’ll redo that.’”
Draft horses are in Dimmock’s blood, and he has worked with them his entire life. Some of his Percherons can be traced back to the 200 mares, geldings, and studs his family started with in the 1860s. He and wife Kim, along with their children, live in Mundare and operate Hitch Masters Percherons. They farm with their horses, have a wagon ride business, and train horses and drivers.
Dimmock’s had hoped to not only recreate Moorehouse’s 1925 accomplishment, but also break the world record for the most Percherons in one hitch. A combination of the passing of a gentleman who was going to loan several of his horses, and difficulties in getting horses across the U.S. border, put that plan on hold this year.
The entire rig ran about 290 feet long. It takes exceptionally good lead horses for this.
“They’re about 175 feet away from me and I need to be able to steer them with just a light pull on the line,” Dimmock said. “That’s like driving your car standing at the back of the trunk with two strings on the steering wheel.”
Dimmock has only two sets of lines, one to the leaders and one to the wheel horses, which are closest to the wagons. Turning a 90-degree corner isn’t a simple feat.
“We need to keep the wagons going straight while the horses start turning the corner,” Kim Dimmock explained at a demonstration in Strathmore along the way.
To accomplish this, they unhook two horses from midway along the hitch, and have them pull toward the outside of the corner. This keeps the wagons tracking in a straight line while the horses are moving around the corner.
“Once Neil determines that it’s gone far enough, he will have the horses come back in,” she said.
Her husband then demonstrated this turning technique by manoeuvring the horses and wagons into almost a full circle in the arena.
Excellent communication and teamwork are key. On the evening of the first day, a wagon caught a soft spot at the edge of the road and slid down into the ditch, pulling some of the other wagons along with it. Dimmock quickly assessed the situation and worked with his crew of volunteers to get the horses in the right position to pull the wagon up and out of the ditch. Perhaps more than anything else along the way, it showcased just how well this team works together.
“I’m one of probably four or five guys in North America who can do this sort of thing,” Dimmock said. “The knowledge isn’t there anymore. I really had to dig and hunt and look for old books. I visited for hours with old people on the phone, and sat down to buy them dinner, just to glean what information I could find. Most of those guys are gone now.”
And things have changed.
Volunteer Bill Engman logged long hours getting permits, arranging highway crossings, and finding places where the team could rest or camp for the night.
Thousands of people of all ages came out to see this wonderful display make its way across the Prairies. Many shared stories of farming with horses when they were young, their voices animated as they spoke of the bonds with their horses, accomplishments, and even a little fear when they were first handed the reins of a team of big horses to harrow the fields at the age of 12.
Ivy Bogstie, 99 years young, came to the Canada Day celebrations in Gleichen to see the hitch. Her father-in-law sold wagons to Moorehouse through his Massey Ferguson dealership and she has a dim memory of that long-ago event.
“I just remember seeing a long line of horses going down the road,” she recalled.
Moorehouse’s daughter, Joan Riise, came from Williams Lake, B.C. to be an outrider after a friend spotted the event on a website and told her, “Did you know there’s some guy about to do something like your dad did?” Joan was glad to join them in this tribute to her father.
If they can gather enough sponsorships, the Big Hitch group will try again next year and aim for the world record.
They repeatedly expressed appreciation for the many people and organizations who contributed to this year’s effort. Anyone who is interested in helping out next year with anything from horses to hay to money can contact them through myevent.com/thebighitch or [email protected]