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Horse Prairie, Montana

Cowboy ways: Training Draft Horses
By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard


It's early, and gray clouds hang low over the mountains surrounding Horse Prairie. Four years of drought makes a person take notice of anything that might mean a bit of precipitation, and this morning is no different. 

As he edges his way behind the two towering black Percherons, Jim Grube looks up at the sky and mutters "it's just fog. Ain't going to amount to much.'' Just in front of him, the draft horse's hooves -- each the size of a basketball -- clunk against the hard frozen ground inside the corrals. 

Neither of the pair appears too excited to participate in this morning's class. 

It's the second day of a 30-day education for the horses, and their teacher has brought with him years of experience handling the huge horses that can top the scale at a ton apiece. Just a few months short of 70, Grube has been working with draft horses since he can remember. 

Growing up in Ashton, Idaho, horses were a way of life on his family's ranch. Back then, it wasn't unusual for his father to have close to a 100 head of the large work horses ready for haying or other chores around the place. 

"I can remember when he got his first tractor. He traded three or four teams for it,'' says Grube. "That was back in the early '40s, but he kept them around the place, right up to the end.'' 

This day, Grube is starting the pair of Percherons for a man from White Sulphur Springs. Over the past few years, a few ranchers and others have sought him out to give their work horses a lesson or two. 

These days there aren't many left who even know how to harness a draft horse, much less train them. 

"People don't use them too much any more," Grube says as he closes the gate behind the two horses that tower over him. "They're a lot of work, and they eat plenty. They're just getting pretty scarce." 

He ties one of the mares between two poles notched into the corral fence. He then ambles over to a nearby shed, where the harness and bridles are stored. 

With a bridle in hand, Grube walks back outside to the horse. It's standing there, with its ears laid back on its head. 

"They don't care too much for these bits," he says, climbing up on a chunk of wood that teeters a bit on the uneven ground. The horse stands nearly two feet taller than he, and Grube needs an advantage. There's a bit of a struggle, but Grube finally gains the upper hand. 

Then there's the second trip to the shed to gather up the rest of the gear. With a bit of a grimace, he pulls a set of harnesses onto his back and hikes back to the waiting mare. Hoisting the harness on its back, Grube says " sometimes I wonder why I'm still doing this. It can make down South look good. Maybe I should just take up golf, then again, I wouldn't have any idea of what to do with a golf club. 

" They tell me they do that for exercise, but I see them driving around there in those golf carts, and they only get out to hit the ball. It doesn't seem like much exercise to me." 

After getting the harnesses arranged just so, Grube leads one of the Percherons out to a waiting wagon. An older and experienced Belgian draft horse stands waiting for this morning's lesson. 

With care, he moves the two horses on either side of the weather-beaten, wooden tongue. In between a lot of " whoas," he hooks the pair to the wagon's tongue and finally to the metal tugs near the front of the wagon. 

This day, he's using a wagon with runners on the front and wheels on the back. He'd removed a huge tractor tire that had been attached the day before as a bit of insurance that the new horses wouldn't run away with him. 

"It was a bit too heavy," he says. "It did slow them down in a hurry though." 

This day, his daughter, Kim Hirschy, is there to lend a helping hand. She listens as he talks about some of the horses he's known and what's worked to make them change a bad habit or two. 

"This has been something special for all of us," Hirschy says. "Having him out here, we've learned so much. And not just about horses, he's taught us a lot about the land and how to take care of it." 

Grube climbs aboard and takes hold of the reins. With a quick step, Hirschy lets go of the Belgian's bridle and jumps on the wagon beside him. They both hang on as the Percheron steps out, its hooves flying high. The sound of the steel tugs and hooves striking the hard ground fill the cool mountain air. The wagon bounces along, its speed slowing dramatically. Before long the younger horse falls in step with its elder. 

"What they really need is a good job to do," Grube says. "That's what makes a horse, there just isn't much left for them to do. So we just go around and around in circles." 

Copyright Perry Backus and the Montana Standard, reproduced by permission.

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