The World’s Foremost Heavy Horse & Mule Publication
The World’s Foremost Heavy Horse & Mule Publication
The World’s Foremost
Heavy Horse & Mule Publication

Return of The Draft Horse: 2018 Minnesota Draft Horse Expo

by Ronnie Hartman

Mike Berthiaume wows spectators with 12 horses on a homemade 4-bottom plow.

Three years after the success of their first show in 2015, the Northern Minnesota Draft Horse Association and the Minnesota Horse Breeders Association, joined by the North Star Draft Horse Association, marshaled their forces once more to bring big horses and a variety of horse-drawn equipment to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds for the 2018 Horse Expo. All four of their presentations were standing room only at the Ag Star Arena.

Working equines are actually latecomers to the Horse Expo, which was born in 1982 as the brainchild of the Minnesota Horse Council. Founded in 1935, the Council's mission is to champion the state's horse industry. Its members conceived of the Expo as a way to bring horse, mule and donkey aficionados together with breeders, trainers and purveyors of every conceivable kind of horse equipment, all in one place–a veritable orgy of “equinimity,” if you will.

Mid-America being neither the Wild Wild West, nor the heart of Hunt Country, it may be surprising to learn that the Twin Cities metro area, which consists of a seven-county area anchored by Minneapolis and St. Paul, actually boasts one of the highest rates of horse ownership in the U.S. Accordingly, our Horse Expo is one of the largest in the country–a fact that is reflected in the amount of money it raises annually. The Council uses the income to fund the development of horse trails, to educate elected officials on both state and local levels about laws and rules that affect horse owners, to provide scholarships for students in horse-related occupations, to provide care for horses displaced by natural disasters, to certify stables, rescue and retirement facilities, to promote breed education, to sponsor horse shows and to lead efforts to reduce the numbers of unwanted horses in Minnesota.

The Expo entertains and educates visitors with a full schedule of attractions that includes clinics, speakers and demonstrations, as well as hundreds of trade show booths that fill multiple buildings and line the fairground's avenues.

Prior to 2015, the Expo's draft horse component consisted of show horses that graced a few aisles in the fairground's Horse Barn, put on thrilling six-horse hitch demonstrations in the Coliseum, took part in the daily Parade of Breeds and pulled people-haulers full of visitors. Their job was to look beautiful and to impress visitors with their gentle demeanor. Horse-drawn equipment used for logging, farming and road-building was not featured, so visitors to the Expo were left mostly in the dark as to the role of draft horses in building the nation.

In 2015, however, after several years of discussions, Horse Council President Glen Eaton, Council staff member Kathy Juhl and the Minnesota Breeders Association's Mike Berthiaume succeeded in organizing what turned out to be a highly popular presentation by 22 teamsters using 39 big horses, two mules and 28 kinds of farm and road-building equipment. While the event proved its worth to the Expo, it was not until this year that organizers and participants had the time to recreate the working draft horse show, which utilized some of the same pieces of equipment and some that had not previously been to the Expo.

As before, the Fairground's 16,000-square-foot AgStar Arena and barn (built, appropriately enough, by Ames Construction of Ames Percherons fame) served as the venue, with equipment parked along the barn's outside edges for viewing by the public when not in use.

With the 2015 experience under their belts, this year's participants actually organized not one, but two different events, on both Friday, April 27 and on Saturday, April 28. All told, 21 drivers presented 20 horse-drawn implements using Shires, Percherons, Belgians and mules.

The first daily event featured a demonstration of horse logging techniques and equipment. It was narrated by Ed Nelson of Hibbing, who for many years worked in the woods performing custom thinning and selective harvesting for customers. (Ed and his wife Gayle still operate a 160-acre educational farm–“Mr. Ed's Farm”–that caters to field trips for school children learning about farm animals.) The purpose of the demonstration was to remind viewers not just how draft animals were used historically to harvest building materials, but to show that horses play an environmentally important role in managing our woodlands today.

Lisa Ringer rides Mike Berthiaume's logging arch, which is being pulled by her Shires.

The second event presented road-building, logging and farm implements, and was narrated by Jamie Nelson Bergh, Ed's daughter.

Farmer/teamster Ken Thies led off the show, with his Percherons pulling a Cockshutt Kid No. 2 Plow with two 8-inch bottoms that was manufactured in Brantford, Ontario. Used for busting sod and for general plowing, this collector's item was brought to the Expo by owner Don Copa of Little Falls.

A step up from a walking plow was the sulky plow, which, although it required more horsepower, allowed the operator to ride. To demonstrate that type of implement, Harlan Gekeler hooked his Belgians to his Oliver 26A sulky plow with two 14” bottoms. As an article in the Autumn 2003 issue of The DHJ documented, a team pulling a plow of this size would walk a total of 282 miles to plow a 40-acre field.

Next up was the Hansmann sulky plow to which Belgian owner Bob Johnson had hooked Gus and Frank. Longtime trainers of light horses, Bob and his wife Ginger operate a hobby farm near Sauk Rapids and participate in plenty of field day-type demonstrations, which in 2018 will include the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag.

The Hansmann plow–also owned by Don Copa and designed by Paul Hansmann of Long Prairie around 1920–is unique in that it is mounted on the plow frame in a fashion that allows not just for raising and lowering, but for swinging sideways–thus preventing rocks from becoming wedged between the plow and the moldboard. Eliminating rock strikes also reduces the danger of the operator being tossed from the seat in a sudden collision with a large buried boulder.

The Rockdodger, as it was affectionately nicknamed, must have been welcome in the areas of Minnesota that are strewn with “erratics” (boulders dropped by glaciers). Although farmers have historically used horse-drawn “stoneboats” to remove these geologic nuisances from their fields, the heaving caused by constant freezing and thawing regularly results in the birth of new crops of rocks.

Mel Klein's Percherons, visiting St. Paul from his Clearwater farm, entered the arena next, pulling a John Deere No. 4 Reversible Plow manufactured in 1904. Owned by Kent Lindblad, it was used on the Lindblad family farm in South Dakota. The plow's unusual setup consists of an angled 24-inch disc that is circular and concave in shape and that resembles a satellite TV dish. It was a kick to watch Mel in action as he finished each row in the arena floor and then stopped his team, moved them around the plow, and then took off in the opposite direction. Because the plow never comes out of the ground, there is no ridge and no dead furrow left behind. According to Mel, the plow was used for all types of plowing.

Jamie explained to the crowd that after plowing and discing, fields were smoothed prior to planting, using implements like Mike Berthiaume's two-section drag that was hooked to his Pioneer forecart–which was, in turn, driven by Josh Grunzke and pulled by two of Josh's Belgians, Rose and Roxy. (He currently has 13 on the family farm near Wells.)

While wooden forecarts–possibly jury-rigged farm wagon parts–are pictured in photos from the 1920s, they are now manufactured–often, as in this case, by the Amish. Onlookers not familiar with horse farming could easily see how the cart could be attached to any piece of equipment and could be outfitted with diesel motors (or batteries) and hydraulics to pull PTO equipment on Amish farms.

As for the drag (harrow)–which is used to bust up the clods left by plowing and discing so as to provide a smooth seedbed for planting–the rule of thumb, Jamie explained, was to use one section per horse.

Roger Pittman followed Josh into the arena driving four of his black Percherons put to a brightly painted eight-foot culti-mulcher made by Jeff Witt of Blooming Prairie. This outfit features two rollers that are eight feet wide and 14 inches in diameter, one in the front and one in the back, with a set of teeth behind the front roller. Dirt clumps are attacked by the first roller, while the teeth dig six inches into the ground to unearth more clumps, which are then broken up by the rear roller. The machine combines discing and dragging, cutting in half the time needed to prepare the field for planting. A mechanical lift system keeps the unit suspended for transport to and from the field. Jeff says it is best pulled with six horses.

While Roger's horses could have been hooked four-abreast, in this case they were hooked four-up using the McKinnon rope and pulley system that permits each horse to pull an equal amount from just one evener behind the wheel team.

Following the presentation on farming with horses, Expo crowds were treated to some history on horse-drawn road-building equipment.

Dan Christensen of Milaca entered the arena with partner Lori Stewart's Belgians, Johnny and Cash, pulling a Russell Fresno Scraper. These scrapers were initially made by Richard Russell and Charles Stockland in Stephen, Minnesota. The company relocated to Minneapolis in 1906 and was acquired in 1928 by Caterpillar, which provided the tractors with which Russell blade graders were frequently paired. This particular “elevator grader” was, of course, horse-drawn. It features a handle that allows the operator to dig into the ground with the cutting edge, to raise the cutting edge so as to move the load to a dump spot and to tilt the load for dumping. A wooden bar determines how much material is unloaded.

The next item was a No. 2 Standard Wheeled Scraper owned by Don Copa and pulled by Belgians Ellie and Sarah, who were driven by owner John Kath of Waseca. This Standard Scraper was built in Aurora, Illinois, in 1877 by the Western Wheeled Scraper Company, the leaders in their field. It was used for land leveling, ditch digging and road or railroad construction. Its wheels permitted the operator to move the dirt as far as necessary and it could move more material than the previously-viewed grader.

More dirt equals more weight, so a “snatch team” was needed once the scraper began to fill up. Josh Grunzke of Wells returned to the arena to add his team's pulling power to the work at hand. Since a snatch team is used for a limited period of time, lines are not changed. Each team is driven separately, requiring two teamsters.

A Case Road Drag was the next unit in the ring. Owned by Mel Klein, it was pulled by Percherons Duke and Doc, who were driven by Wes Nelson of Milaca. Case Road Drags came in three sizes: 10' by 33”, 8' by 42” and 8' by 33”. They ranged in weight from 350 to 425 lbs. and were constructed with an angle-iron frame, braces, a footboard for the operator and reversible high carbon steel blades. They could be adjusted to provide the drag with a grading action and a hitch-link could be placed at any location on the draw chain to smooth a road. Since farmers in many rural areas had to take care of their own roads, they would use a drag, or alternatively a grader, to level the way and to smooth ruts.

A Russell Road Grader was the next implement demonstrated. This machine started out as the proud possession of the City of Eden Prairie and was acquired by Long Lake resident Tom Turnham when the city went horse-free. It then passed to Lisa Ringer, who needed it for her lengthy dirt driveway and for providing her four Shires with honest work. Mike Berthiaume restored it for Lisa and on this occasion the grader was pulled by Lisa's Shires, Max and Pete, along with Mike's Shires, Beauty and Ali, who were hooked four abreast with Mike on the lines.

Jeff Witt's fabrication skills were apparent yet again when Ken Thies of Buffalo drove into the arena with Percherons Captain and Excel hooked to a shiny new training sled. Ken and wife Mary feed six Percherons on their 40-acre farm and provide rides for events in the West Metro area of Minneapolis, as well as entering county fairs and field days.

The training sled (or breaking sled, if you prefer) is a great way to hook a youngster with a seasoned horse for teaching and conditioning purposes. They are also used in “feed races,” timed events in which they are loaded with hay bales, grain, water barrels or whatever, driven on a course in an arena, and unloaded as quickly as possible.

Jeff's sled is about four feet wide and eight feet long, and weighs in at about 500 lbs. It employs special runners made from square tubing with chromium carbide wear strips for longevity, and the pole or tongue can be rigid or unpinned to pivot. I'm sure that Jeff, who fabricated a pole that can be swapped out with shafts for my two-piece Curry Cart and who has agreed to make me a three-mini evener, could whip one up for you.

As indicated above, this year's draft horse show also provided viewers with a short course on horse logging. The logging presentation began with a couple of basic logging set-ups: John Kath's Belgians skidded (“snigged”, if you're from Britain or one of her former colonies) a log that was wrapped with a chain that was passed through a hook on an evener, and a log gripped by a set of tongs was pulled by Josh Grunzke's Belgians.

Rudy Loxtercamp's john mules pulled a log on a “Go Devil” that raises the butt off the ground and cuts down significantly on drag–which not only makes it easier for the draft animals, but also on the land.

Mike Berthiaume's logging arch followed, pulled by Lisa Ringer's Shires, which were driven by Ed Nelson of Hibbing. The arch allows for even more of the log's mass to be raised off the ground and for the skidder to ride instead of struggling through forest growth while trying to stay out of the log's way.

Logs are being cross-loaded onto Mel Klein's bobsled, which is being pulled by Bob Johnson's Belgians.

A bobsled owned by Mel Klein of Clearwater and pulled by Bob Johnson's Belgians featured a chain reach between the front and rear bolsters instead of the normal solid reach. The chains make turning easier by allowing the rear bolster to travel in the tracks made by the front bolster, and they can also be adjusted in length to match the length of the logs being carried on the sled.

The bobsled can be loaded in two different ways, both of which were demonstrated for Expo fans. One way is to secure longer logs lengthwise on the outside of the platform, with four-foot lengths of firewood or pulp wood positioned at right angles. Another way is to “crossload” the logs on the sled. This is done by creating a ramp out of two logs laid perpendicular to the sled, with one end on the ground and the other on the sled. Logs positioned parallel to the sled are then started up the ramp by men (or women) using peaveys or cant hooks. Ropes are passed around the logs–one on each end–and fastened to a team of horses standing at right angles to, and facing away from, the sled. At the teamster's signal, the horses step forward slowly until the first log is rolled up the ramp into position. This procedure is repeated until the load is complete, at which point it is secured with chains that are ratcheted down while the horses are brought around and hooked to the front of the sled for the trip out of the woods.

The crowd also heard the explanation for those old images of two or four horses standing in front of a sled or a sleigh piled high with logs that tower over their heads: Many of the old sleds had cast iron runners that pull easier on ice roads than does steel, while the horses' shoes had cleats to provide traction. In hilly areas, straw and ashes were tossed on the trail to keep the loads from running over the horses on downhill stretches. It took fewer horses, accordingly, to move the load than one might expect.

Operator Duane Barrows demonstrates how to load logs onto a forwarder owned by Ed Nelson. The two used to work together in the woods.

A really impressive piece of relatively modern horse-drawn equipment was the forwarder being driven by Duane Barrows of Grand Rapids. Duane partnered with Ed Nelson in their horse logging business and although Ed owns the forwarder, Duane was its primary operator. It was quite a sight to see him run the hydraulic boom (powered by a gas motor) with the claim that it picked logs up, swung them overhead and settled them onto the bed.

These forwarders normally carry 12 to 14-foot logs and hold a cord of wood–which is somewhere between 3,600 and 4,600 lbs. in weight. As with the sleigh or bobsled used in logging camps, this load is usually pulled by a team, although a third horse can be added in hilly country.

Lori Stewart hooked her Belgians to show off Mel Klein's snowroller.

Another hit was Mel Klein's brightly-colored snow roller, which was pulled into the arena by Lori Stewart's Belgians. Snow rollers were used from the late 1800s to pack snow so that sleds and wheeled vehicles could travel winter roads. Some were 12 feet wide and eight feet high and required six-to-eight horses. Some featured boxes in which heavy materials could be placed to provide extra weight for better packing. With boards across the front to act like road grader blades, the driver could also move the snow sideways to fill in holes. Packing the snow also caused it to melt more slowly in the spring so that the snow road could be used longer. Today, they create nice trails through woodlands and fields for winter pleasure driving.

If you chose to remove the snow instead, you could get yourself one of the snowplows that Jeff Witt makes in his welding and fabrication shop. Jeff and Diane used two of their 20 Percherons (which they breed, show, and haul to all kinds of fairs, field days, threshings and plowdays), to pull this outfit. Unlike a regular plow that just pushes the snow to the side, the box on this one will pick up the snow so that it can be moved to wherever the operator chooses to dump it. It can also be used to scrape and clean barnyards and to grade driveways.

Two of Jeff & Diane Witt's Percherons are pulling one of the snowplows that Jeff makes in his shop.

Much like a fancy draft horse show that leaves the crowd agog over a class full of six-horse hitches, Horse Expo 2018 had its own grand finale: Mike Berthiaume driving a 12-horse hitch using ropes and pulleys to pull a four-bottom plow.

To assemble this outfit, Mike used three Percherons owned by Adbhish Bhausar of Medina, together with nine Shires–some of his own and some belonging to Lisa Ringer.

The four-bottom plow is one of just two in Minnesota and of only four in the whole country. All are homemade.

To demonstrate it, Mike and his helpers first pulled the plow into the arena under their own power. They then drove in four abreast as the wheel team–the same four that were used on the Russell Grader–and hooked them before bringing in four more for the swing and another four as the leaders.

All 12 horses were hooked using the rope and pulley system that was originally invented by John Deere in 1910. Although it seems that it would have far surpassed the chain-and-rod system being used by farmers at the time–a system that did not equalize the pull on the horses–it did not catch on until Amish farmers picked up on it in the 1960s and 1970s. The system, which can be used with any combination of horses, is now marketed by both the White Horse Machine Company of Gap, Pennsylvania, and by the Pioneer Equipment Company of Dalton, Ohio.

The four-bottom plow being pulled by the horses was made by cutting apart two 3-bottom plows (the largest plows ever manufactured), extending the frame and cutting apart two beams before welding them together and adding them to the first three beams to make a fourth. It was made by Leonard Christenson of Carpenter, South Dakota.

The plow is a “4-14” (as is one of the other four-bottom plows in existence), which means that it consists of four 14” bottoms that each turn over 14” of sod, for a combined cut that's 56” wide and seven inches (half the width of the bottom) deep.

Driving 12 horses as three sets of four abreast requires lines that are 22 feet long in the case of the wheelers, 32 feet long for the swing team and 40 feet long to reach the leaders.

For each set of four horses, Mike uses double cross-lines that connect each outside horse (the near horse in the case of the left line and the off horse in the case of the right line) with the two middle horses, together with two short “stub” lines–one running from the right side of the near horse's bit to the left hame ring of the horse to his right, and one running from the left side of the off horse's bit to the right hame ring of the horse to his left. Thus, all three sets of horses positioned in the middle have direct lines running to both sides of their bits, while the three sets of outside horses have direct lines on the outside and stub lines on the inside. (Some folks use “monkey sticks or jockey sticks,” but they can be tough on the horses' mouths if their heads aren't moving in unison.)

As Mike and his helpers hooked the horses and ran the lines, Jamie explained the process in detail.

After Mike drove the hitch several times around the arena, the outfit headed out the door in a cloud of dust, a fitting conclusion to another successful presentation of gentle giants. A lot of hard work went into producing the show and all three draft horse associations deserve a great deal of credit.

For information about the 2019 Minnesota Horse Expo, visit


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