Bienvenido a los Americanos (Welcome Americans)
In 1988, my parents ventured to Colombia, South America, in the company of Doc Neumann, Mrs. Neumann and Ralph House. The latter had been hired to judge the country's second national draft horse show, and the trio of men had been secured to inspect horses for admittance into the fledgling Asociadores Tiro Pesado (ATP), or Colombian Draft Horse Association stud books–as part of their grading up program. Those stud books had been organized just a few short years earlier with the help of Fred Polinder of Lynden, Washington, while there to judge their first national show.
This July, I was fortunate enough to travel to Colombia myself, for an altogether different reason than my sire. My excursion to this beautiful Latin American country was in the company of Andrea Detweiler, Robert Sparrow and Robert's wife, Lisa, as part of the Percheron Horse Association of America's (PHAoA) involvement in the United States Genetic Livestock Export, Inc. (USGLE). The USGLE is a non-profit organization charged with managing and administering United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) funds allocated towards promoting American livestock genetics around the world. As a member, the PHAoA gains access to this funding. Our mission was to strengthen ties with Colombian breeders, build relationships and evaluate areas where our association can benefit theirs.
In 2015, the PHAoA Marketing Committee, chaired by Andrea Detweiler, identified a short list of regions where opportunities to export Percheron genetics and build Association-level partnerships exist. The top three locations identified were France, Australia and South America. PHAoA representatives visited France in September of 2015 and Australia in July of 2016–thus, our trip south this year.
Many things have changed in the 29 years since Mom and Dad visited Colombia. The population of Bogotá was six million in 1988; today, it's nine million. Based on our commutes, we estimated that approximately nine million vehicles were in use. Bottom line: I'm glad I did not have to drive, as the city's infrastructure has been unable to keep up with the number of cars. We did learn that privately-owned vehicles were only allowed on the streets every other day, so creativity and flexibility were requisites to operating in the country's capital. We were advised to hire a driver, which was extremely easy advice to follow. Oddly enough, and in spite of the chaotic and unending traffic and low number of traffic lights, we never once witnessed an incidence of road rage. I believe that can only be explained by the fact that Colombians, in general, are more content people than, say, North Americans, and are more accepting to just rolling with the punches. Believe it or not, a poll conducted by WIN/Gallup International Association concluded that via the "Global Barometer of Hope and Happiness," (involving 54 countries) Colombia took first place.
A wee bit about the happy country itself, Colombia is located on the north end of South America. It borders Ecuador and Peru to its south, Brazil and Venezuela to its east, and Panama to its northwest. It has coastline on both the Caribbean Sea (to its north/northeast) and the Pacific Ocean (on its west). The Darien jungle flanks its west, and the Amazon is to its east. One of the most biodiverse countries, Colombia is home to about 10% of the species found on Earth, including over 1,900 species of birds. Its diverse climates vary from tropical rainforest to desert to mountains.
Caballos, por supuesto (Horses, of course)
Bogotá is located on the Andean plateau, just four degrees north of the Equator, or approximately 319 miles. Consequently, seasons are not experienced–at least not anything like we are accustomed, though our hosts told us they do have a "rainy season" and a "dry season." At an elevation of 8,500 feet, temperatures in Bogotá range from 44° to 66° F, rarely getting over 70. Given this constant mild climate and relatively steady amount of daylight, flora grows non-stop throughout the year, and mares cycle perpetually, with little variance. Foals are subsequently born at all times of the year, which is reflected in the format and composition of the halter classes at the national show, as we later learned.
Colombia's official language is Spanish, which was imposed during the colonial period. All Colombians speak it except some of the indigenous populations in the Amazonian basin (over 200 indigenous languages and dialects are also used). English, too, is spoken to some extent in the larger cities, but it is not commonly understood. Many of the younger generation we encountered spoke English and were eager to practice it. The ATP, however, made sure that a translator was near at hand during our entire stay.
Though Colombia's human culture is older than ours, her draft horse industry, the focus of our trip, can't make the same claim. That is not to say that the two didn't start at roughly the same period. During the early part of the 20th Century, European exports of heavy horses were, indeed, sent to South America. The great Percheron stallion Carnot, nearly went to Argentina in 1906 or '07. Fortunately for American breeders, J. Crouch & Son of Lafayette, Indiana, won out. Sugar Grove Farms, Aurora, Illinois, exported a number of Belgians to Chile in the 1930s and '40s. Ernest Bell of New Jersey sent several Percherons to Colombia and Venezuela after WW II ended. Since that time, however, South America's heavy horse industry has been hindered, somewhat, from political and economic upheavals that tempered its development. Still, genetic infusions have continued right along.
Established in 1980, the Colombian Draft Horse Association currently registers 50 to 60 foals each year, which includes an average of 21 Belgians, 20 Percherons, two Clydes, one Shire, one Pinto (Spotted Draft) and two Gypsy Vanners (and five Friesians, which also fall under the ATP). Many of these animals are the products of American or Canadian imports.
Influence has also been received in other forms. Since its inception in the 1980s, a growing list of American and Canadian breeders have been privileged with judging Colombia's national show–besides Ralph House and Dr. Neumann (who actually judged it twice), Fred Polinder, Jr., Eli J.C. Yoder, Walt Shaefer, Corbly Orndorff, Ralph Coddington, Marion Young, Robert Sparrow and Chad Cole have assumed the role. This year, Randy Robertson, manager at Stoney Lake Belgians, Lakefield, Ontario, had the honors. As is customary, he was asked to provide oral reasons for each class (which he did himself in English, and then it was translated in Spanish). This is done, we were told, because many of the horse owners do speak English and regardless of language, they are all keen to understand.
Randy, accompanied by his wife Nancy, admits, "We were both pleasantly surprised with our trip to Colombia. Before going, we had some qualms about it–safety, health, etc.–but once in Bogotá, we couldn't have felt more comfortable and at ease. The stereotype of the country was not what we saw or felt.
"Those in the heavy horse industry in Colombia want to better themselves and overall, we found a great thirst for education with little or no ego attached. Like any place in the world, they are as impatient as the rest of us to better their breeds and themselves. While improvement is happening, we would stress to them not to skip an important step along the way. For every action the Colombians take, there should be a positive assessment of why they are doing it."
Alan Freitag, who judged the two other local shows (Exposición Regional de Caballos de Tiro Pesado show in Susa, in 2015 and Exposición Nacional de Caballos de Tiro Pesado–Expocolonias in Bogotá, in 2016), also sees progress. "On my first trip," he says, "the horses were better than I expected. By the time I came to judge again last year, their show preparation had improved. They clearly like the North American-style of horse, and I think they will continue trying to improve their stock by breeding the best that they have available, as importation costs are prohibitive for most."
Having judged their 2013 national show, this was Robert Sparrow's triumphant return trip. He agrees that many aspects are advancing. "Things have changed," he says. "When I was there the first time, I would say less than half of the horses were shod, and all had plates; no Scotch bottoms. This time, I would say 70% or more were shod. Shoes were spread, balanced, a few even had Scotch bottoms. Most of the horses' feet were blacked. Ears were not clipped in 2013. Four years later, most had their ears clipped, some had their legs clipped (some well done, others not so good, but they are trying).
"In 2013, I showed the Colombians how we want our draft horses shown (as did Randy Robertson this year). Then, the horses were not entirely under control, they were allowed to circle on long ropes, trotting out six or seven feet from their handlers. In 2017, the horses were under control, presented to the judge in an orderly controlled manner–except for two young stallions, that is (just ask Randy).
"The horses were much better [quality] than four years ago. There are many more modern-type horses with better legs and feet. Randy did a great job of judging this important show and providing oral reasons. Nancy, too, did a great job of explaining to Randy when she didn't agree with his decisions!
"The mare I made Champion four years ago, this time stood second behind her daughter, Zarina De Potosi, in the aged mare class. The younger mare then ended up Grand Champion. Both mares are on the cart almost every day hauling milk. This a very big part of what draft horses do in Colombia.
"The one thing that had not changed in the past four years is that the Colombian people treated us great."
Nuestra visita (Our visit)
President of the Colombian Draft Horse Association for the past four years, José Restrepo was kind enough to invite us to not only his farm and home our first day in the country, but also to his business: Eclipse Flowers, located just 35 miles northeast of Bogotá. In the family for 27 years, Eclipse is one of the largest suppliers of carnations to both the U.S. and Japan. They also ship fresh cut flowers to Canada, Eastern and Western Europe and Asia. To that end, he has 30 hectares (or 74 acres) under plastic cover and in production of flowers. Under the "Pride" label, he also grows roses on a somewhat smaller scale for these same markets.
The Restrepo family is also in the grass-fed dairy business (they are among Colombia's top three milk producers in the 160 or fewer-cow herd category). We were able to see first-hand the portable milking parlors that I'd heard so much about while admiring José's cows. The cows are continuously rotated, sometimes twice a day, to fresh pasture. Since the milking is done in the pasture and not in a barn as it is here, the parlors are light, simple and mobile. Though José's operation involves moving the parlor with a tractor, many of Colombia's draft horses are employed at this very task.
In addition to breeding Percherons and Belgians, José also has two jacks which he breeds to draft mares to produce mules. Given the local terrain, the mules are used extensively and, therefore, are in high demand. Between his flower, dairy, horse and beef cattle operations, José directly employs over 450 people.
Caballos, por supuesto (Horses, of course)
We also visited the farm of Jose Antonio Lloreda, near Sopó, a municipality 30 minutes from Bogotá. Mr. Lloreda is a retired attorney, though he still owns one of the most prestigious law firms in Colombia. Jose's affinity for horses stems from the fact that his father was a breeder of racehorses. When he acquired his own farm nearly two decades ago, use of its three tractors didn't make sense to him, hence his search for draft horses began. In the process, he met Ivan Gomez, one of few draft horse farriers in the country, who advised him to buy a Percheron stallion in order to produce usable crossbreds. To that end, he found Maquare Goliat (a grandson of both South Valley Showmaster & Daleview Chief).
Today, he has four purebred and 14 Percheron-cross mares, which are used extensively in his dairy operation, transporting milk, moving the milking parlors and for pasture management.
While discussing their need for a new Percheron stallion, Jose's son Felipe pointed out that the average height of the farm's employees was just over five feet, so an 18 hh horse is not practical. This was confirmation that a "one size fits all" solution was not feasible. As here at home, some people want big flashy show horses, others want them easy to harness and use.
Caballos, por supuesto (Horses, of course)
Our final two days in Colombia were spent at the all-breed national show (officially "XVI Exposición Nacional"), of which, the breeding halter classes are the core. Though there are some driving and riding exhibitions, there are no performance competitions except for a horsepull for single horses. Crossbreds are shown the first day, along with purebreds under the age of four. Aged horses are then shown the second day, and the pull takes place on the third and final day. One of our interpreters, Fidel Londoño Stipanovic (whose mother is the ATP's registrar) tells me that either a feed or farm supply company always sponsors the pull, and that the winner receives all the feed that his horse can pull! He also notes that the pull draws the largest crowd. "People just love to see the horses working and giving their best," he says.
Each breed represented (Belgians, Percherons, Clydesdales, Shires, Spotted Drafts, Gypsy Vanners and Friesians) was shown in its respective divisions, totaling around 120 head at this year's show.
According to Fidel, the entry was down (from as high as 180 head) for several reasons: "Due to fairgrounds construction, the horse show was moved to an alternate location. Owners expected a lower attendance because of it, and therefore fewer buyers and business opportunities. Second, increased livestock transportation restrictions due to Foot and Mouth Disease made owners more reluctant to participate this year. And lastly, the Colombian economy, the fourth largest in Latin America, is in a state of decline, therefore more people are averse to the expenses involved in showing."
While the ATP's national show had previously been held at various venues and in varying frequencies, Fidel tells me that in 1999, they realized it was more effective to hold it every-other-year in connection with AgroExpo, which is the most important agricultural exposition in Colombia. This decision involved both an absence of rental fees and an enormous potential for spectators, which spells "win-win" in any language.
Even to an outsider, it's clear that this show is the single most important and prestigious event for the country's draft horse breeders. I have no idea if those in the stands were well-acquainted with the stables, or merely enjoyed a good horse show, but they definitely did not hold back with their enthusiasm for the class winners.
The pedigrees of several of the Belgians, Percherons and Clydes being shown involved a surprising amount of American and Canadian breeding. Among the most active importers of American stock is past president of the ATP, Edgar Portilla Segovia and his family. Their farm, Sumatambo, is responsible for the import of 18 head of Percherons thus far.
Edgar's daughter Paola recalls, "The first horse we imported from the U.S. was the stallion Douglas Lyn's Chet and two mares. I was nine years old and my dad wanted a carriage for my first communion. A Colombian veterinarian named Jaime Plata helped him.
"Four years later, we traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, to visit Albert Cleve. We bought two grey mares and a red hitch wagon from him. We also bought the stallion Graystone Dragano Desertstorm from Larry Honsberger on that trip.
"Five years later, we visited Pennwoods Percherons and bought two mares and the stallion Kirby Farms Shocky. We later came to the Indiana State Fair and bought two more mares from Pennwoods, along with two from Pat Cole. While there, I met Doyle Dingman of Belle View Percherons and told him I was looking for a grey stallion. A few months later, he sent me an e-mail describing High Calibre Pay-Per-View. I fell in love with him and my dad went to extreme effort to import him (along with a show cart from Shipshewana, Indiana).
"Then, in 2014, we visited 12 different farms (recommended by the PHAoA), and we bought two grey mares from Jim Kerwin and two black mares from Dingmans, both of which were in foal to Belle View Crown Royal."
The Segovias' dedication to improving their stock is paying off. Of the 14 head they exhibited at the AgroExpo, they claimed Sr. and Grand Champion Percheron Stallion, Jr. and Reserve Grand Champion Stallion, Jr. and Reserve Champion Mare, Reserve Sr. Champion Mare, the winning Get of Sire, Best Breeders and Best Exhibitors (akin to Premier Exhibitor here).
"We are really excited over our successes this year," states Paola, "which are the result of 30 years of hard work, raising Percheron horses. It means a lot to my family that Victor Mesnil, a young man from France (see the sidebar above), came to visit because of his interest in our breeding program. Your (the PHAoA) trip here to better understand the Colombian Percheron market also makes us very happy."
Caballos, por supuesto (Horses, of course)
Al futuro (To the future)
All of Colombia's gorgeous scenery is merely a convenient backdrop to the best thing about the country–its warm, accommodating people. Colombians have an innate knack for making visitors feel welcome. Their hospitality is world-class. I'm positive that everyone that's had the opportunity to visit will agree on that point. They are genuinely interested in our horses and what we do with them. They are as eager to learn as they are to please. The uses for their stock may not be as varied as our own, yet tastes and preferences seem to be just as diverse. Some want to improve their working stock; others have contracted the show bug and covet the next National Champion. Regardless of use, they are intent on improving–and they are clearly doing so at a rapid rate.
The country's heavy horse breeders should be quite proud. In spite of their isolation from other breeding stock populations, they've come far in a relatively short period. Given the size of most properites, coupled with the high cost of tractors and the fact that environmental concerns are precipitating more restrictions on machinery, the potential for work horses is significant. The country's industy appears on the verge of expansion and its breeders have every reason to be optimistic, as genetics and know-how from the U.S. and Canada are helping to shape their future. As Randy Robertson concludes, "Both the show itself and the horses exceeded our expectations. As a developing industry, they are on the right track."
"The biggest takeaway we had," he continues, "is realizing how lucky we are to have had brilliant forefathers before us. For many years we have been able to work with many men and women, who have made it easy for us to form our opinions of what is good and what isn't. By just watching the development of the draft horse in North America, those questions we ask ourselves daily are more easily answered than are those of our new friends in Colombia, who have to rely on an idea in their head, rather than years of history and experience at their feet."
One observation that we, as a group, had is that labor in Colombia is both abundant and comparatively cheap. So with many stables represented, there are the horse owners, and then there are their employees that handle and care for the horses. Educating both is the challenge, yet it is being met, at least in part, by the frequent hiring of experienced American and Canadian judges. Trips by Colombians to the U.S. and Canada also aid in that endeavor.
Three decades after my father's visit, I departed Colombia feeling his same optimism that more American and Canadian exports are likely. Based on what I experienced on this trip, I very much look forward to seeing the advancements they make on my next visit to Colombia. Their next national show, by the way, is slated for July of 2019.