Focus on Fostoria - Aug_31_03

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Fostoria Focus - August 31, 2003

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Horsin' Around at Oak Haven Lets GSH
Residents Learn About Belgians
By Leonard Skonecki

"I just love horses."

That's what Martha Noggle says. That's why she and 12 residents, volunteers and staff from Good Shepherd Home went on an outing to the Oak Haven horse Form at the intersection of SR 12 and 53 near Fremont.

Established in 1988, Oak Haven is owned by Dr. Michael Stone, an Oak Harbor veterinarian.

Brad Robbins, a Piqua native, is the farm's assistant manager.

"We raise and show Belgian draft horses. We show a Belgian six (three rows of two horses each) all driven by one person on a wagon," Brad said.

At any time Oak Haven has 55-65 head on its 23 acres. It changes daily with horses being bought and sold and foals being born.

Dr. Stone got into the Belgian horse business through his veterinary practice. He made a call on Kellys Island. A fellow had a Belgian mare with a cut. The owner couldn't pay the bill, but offered the horse in trade.

Oak Haven shows its horses all over this part of the country. Their first show this year was in Hilliard, near Columbus. They participate in big shows at state fairs in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana as well as smaller ones like the Huron (Oak Harbor) fair for home town reasons.

A big show each year takes place in Jordan, Minn., near Minneapolis.

"All the big boys are there,"Brad said. "all the top hitches. Then we can see if all our practice and work all winter and spring has paid off."

A show has several aspects. Horses are judged on their individual traits – cleanness of legs, big- footedness and up-headedness.

Then a single horse is hitched to a cart or wagon. Then they're hitched in various combinations – a team of two, a unicorn (team of two with a third in front), a team of four and the big one, a team of six.

"What really matters," said Brad, "is who won the six because if you can get six of the to do it all at once that's what we want."

If the six horses are in step with animation, prancing high, heads up, moving easily, that's "finesse." Owners and trainers get excited when their horses can do that.

It's that finesse, the animation, spunk, fire and heart, that judges look for, too.

Training Belgians is part conditioning and part psychology.

"We'll put a harness on them, hook them to a wagon and condition them ... We do that to get their endurance built up, but they have to have the heart to do it, Brad said. "If they just don't have the will, they're not going to do it. That's the biggest part of it."

Seven of the nine horses in the "hitch" had babies this spring. One of the tough points of training is to get them ready to show after an 11-month gestation period and two months of nursing their young.

Belgians are no more difficult to train then other breeds of draft horse such as Clydesdales. Clydesdales aren't especially bigger than Belgians. Belgians are also used in horse pulls though Oak Haven doesn't compete in those.

When the horses are taken on the road for a show, they travel in a trailer with a capacity of nine horses. Each horse has its own fan and the trailer has windows for plenty of breeze.

Belgians on the road need equipment and food – eight show harnesses, a wagon, a cart, 70 bags of shavings, 25 bales of hay, 1,000 pounds of oats, tack, brushes and combs.

The Belgian is a large horse. A stallion can weigh 2,500 pounds, hitch mares around 2,000 and lead mares about 1,700. A stallion might be 18 hands or around 6-2 at the withers (top of the shoulders).

Brad said everyone gets stepped on or kicked now and then.

"The best thing about draft horses is that they don't know their own strength," he said.

Maintaining that size and strength requires health food for horses, an eight gallon bucket of oats and a barrel of alfalfa daily, a diet high in protein and energy.

Of course, there is a business side to Oak Haven. The sale of horses is where the income is earned. A yearling stud colt can be bought for $300.

Or you can go to Illinois where the top-selling draft horse recently went for $35,000. At that show, 28 horses brought $10,000 or more.

Oak Haven has sold a mare for $35,000. She won the grand reserve champion mare of show in Columbus in 2000 at the National Belgian Championship, the Olympics of Belgian draft horses.

It's held every four years and rotates between Canada and the United States. Oak Haven also won the Belgian Mare six there, a major achievement.

Even if a horse doesn't pan out as a show horse, it may still have value.

A buyer may like its genetics and breeding. Oak Haven may keep it as a brood mare. Amish sometimes buy them for work horses. Maybe someone just like the horse.

So everyone learned something about Belgian draft horses. For some residents, it rekindled old memories of days on the farm.

Florence Smith used to drive her dad's team on the farm. George Earl could say the same.

Besides, like Martha said, how can you not love horses?

(You can visit the Oak Haven Horse Farm Web site at www.oakhavenbelgians.com. Residents who visited Oak Haven were Jewell Browning, George and Ila Fay Earl, Janet Heaston, Martha Noggle, Florence Smith, and Doris Bolen. Staff and volunteers were Cindy Swartz, Don Lee, Cathy Theis, Linda Guiterriez, Lois Dearsman and some guy who writes.)