Driving draft horses and mules was a way of life to move freight and work the ground until agricultural technology advanced. Now, hobbyists carry on and preserve the tradition of training the large animals for exhibit and competition at the 39th Annual Idaho State Draft Horse and Mule International.
“The show is unique to North Idaho, and it’s the longest running show in the Northwest,” said Dick Blakley, president of the North Idaho Draft Horse and Mule Association that organizes the event. “This is to show the methods of the past. The show was started to promote the use of draft horses – how they were used and demonstrate how our forefathers used them before technology.”
The event was first organized in the Draft Horse Show & Pull in 1974 by Lloyd Jones and Sy Thompson. Thompson passed away earlier this summer and Jones several years ago. The event at North Idaho Fair today focuses on barn exhibits and a pull show where the animals pull a weight of up to 2,000 pounds in the competition.
Two years later, in 1976, Tony Keil, with the help of Thompson, began the show in Sandpoint. Later, the North Idaho Draft Horse and Mule Association took over, and the show formed to what it is today.
“The whole idea of the show was to bring together working stock form the local area for them to show and have fun. Sy said that having fun was the mains stay.… The big barn and stalls were filled with horses and per Sy when you walked in the barns all you saw were ‘rows of ears,’” Blakley said.
Annually, the show attracts more than 3,000 people and approximately 25 exhibitors, some of which are families competing against or working together. Exhibitors come from Northern Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana and Canada. Overall, the show is more about entertaining and educating the public about the draft horses and mules endearingly referred to as the “gentle giants.”
“Draft animals remain an exciting, living testament to our heritage, and the history of our area,” Blakley wrote in a letter as president about the event to vendors.
In fact, draft animals weren’t always used for agriculture – mule hitchesIn fact, draft animals weren’t always used for agriculture – mule hitches were used during World War I to haul ammunition and machine guns. Today, draft animals are often used by the Forest Service to work in the back country campgrounds. Some people may also hire teamsters to do small-scale logging to avoid the impact of contemporary machinery.
Exhibitors at the event compete for prize money, jackets and rosettes. The money is mainly to cover the costs of participation because driving draft horses and mules is “not a money-making hobby,” Blakley said.
The event, to be held September 24 through the 27, at the Bonner County Fairgrounds, starts off Thursday with a free night to view a log skidding competition where a driver leads a team to pull a 16-foot log and weave through a line of cones in this timed event. It is a test more of skill than of the animal’s ability to pull weight and is reminiscent of how loggers had to pull their loads through obstacles.
Other competitions include pulling contests, halter classes, farm team driving, hitch team and cart driving exhibitions. There are also competitions of various horse formations, such as the unicorn, tandem and four-, six and eight-up formations where the respective number of horses are hitched together in pairs or abreast. Categories include teams plus Men’s, Women’s, Junior and Pee Wee (ages 5 to 7 years) competitions. Historically, the formations were to draw a particular amount of horsepower, depending on the task at hand.
For example, the unicorn formation is when there is a single horse leading two hitched side-by-side behind pulling the wagon. This formation was used for hilly areas where more power was needed. When horses are hitched in tandem, one behind the other, it was to transport goods through narrow streets, explained Steffani Lippert, Blakley’s companion and partner in driving mules for their team, S&D Mules.
In addition to demonstrating and competing, education is another big part of the event. The North Idaho Draft Horse and Mule Association’s Youth Committee runs a driving clinic at the event for youth and children. Marcia Harrison, well known in the field, will be giving a demonstration of cowboy dressage. The classes and demonstrations will take place before and after the main performances and competitions. There also will be a mini clinic on equine hoof care.
“People are welcome to talk to the teamsters in between category competitions,” Lippert said.
There also will be a Raffle Colt to raise money for the association’s youth program. Each year, they hold a driving clinic for youth at the event in part to generate interest in the tradition of driving draft horses and mules. Lastly, there will be a silent auction and a “Wagons Ho Art and Gear” show in addition to numerous vendors.
Lippert and Blakley have been driving mules together for the past seven years since they each turned 60 years old. Lippert had long had an interest in driving and both wanted to do a hobby together.
“We’ve been active on driving whatever we can drive – up to a six-up hitch,” she said.
As to why they drive mules over horses – “that’s just the way the coin fell,” Blakley said. “It’s just how we got started. They have a different attitude and disposition, and they just take care of us,” he said. Draft mules are traditionally known to be calmer and have a better temperament than horses.
Lippert manages a construction company and Blakley has a background in logging and also works in construction. Both have learned how to drive mules mainly through the generosity of other exhibitors.
“It’s a big family – everyone is nice and helpful,” Lippert said of the draft horse and mule community. “People helped us learn and in turn we are passing on what we’ve learned.” Now, as a more experienced driver, Lippert has helped her two granddaughters drive mules. One granddaughter, age 8, has been driving in the Pee Wee Team Driving competitions and this year will move on to the junior category. The other granddaughter competes in the Pee Wee category.
“Everyone helps everyone – that’s the beauty of the whole thing,” Lippert said.
“We all camp together and eat together – it’s great family fun,” Blakley added.
If You Go:
The Idaho State Draft Horse and Mule International will be September 24 through the 27 at the Bonner County Fairgrounds. The Thursday competitions start at 5pm, Friday at 12pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 9am. Thursday night is free. Tickets for the other days are sold separately or as a season pass for the weekend. Adults, students and seniors are $10. Children 6 and younger are free. Friday is Senior Day when tickets are 2 for 1. Attendees can camp by the fairgrounds – for more information call 208.691.4365 or 509.721.0436. For general information, call 208.699.0816.