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Note:  This article was written for The Farmer's Exchange about a national draft horse show in Northern Indiana's Amish country. 


by Darrell Boone

Back to the future? 
Typically the thought of farming with horses is more likely to conjure up images of Little House on the Prairie than modern agriculture.  But at the eleventh annual Horse Progress Days, held July 1st and 2nd at the Floyd Bontrager farm south of Middlebury, many of the ideas and demonstrations presented were nothing short of cutting edge. As it turns out, many of the current hot topics in agriculture, like entrepreneurism, agritourism, environmental stewardship, and innovative technology fit very nicely into the world of the draft horse.  In addition, there was considerable evidence that among the legions of baby boomers who will be retiring in the next few years, many of their plans include draft horses.
Any first time visitors who expected Horse Progress Days to be anything less than a major farm show were quickly separated from that notion. Cars in the parking lot from Canada, buses arriving from Iowa, and trailers bringing spotted draft horses from New Mexico served notice that this was a significant event.
And this also was not just a farm show for the Amish.  While the Amish, who do not use tractors or electricity in their farming methods, were certainly well represented, close to half of the large crowd consisted of non-Amish who were interested in draft horses for a number of reasons.
Cedric and Dolly Kleinhans, retirees from Tulare, California do educational pioneer tours for school children and other groups on their farm.  They have draft mules and traveled across the countrywith their camper, “just to keep learning more about draft animals.”  Gerry Stratelak, from Wheaton, Illinois, is currently a product manager for Lucent Technologies, and plans to retire in four years.  When he does, he wants to operate a small, diversified farm with some livestock and an orchard.  He lists “romance” as being one of his main reasons for wanting to use horse power in his future plans.  “Some people can fall in love with their tractors, but I haven’t been able to do that.  I love draft horses, and want to see if I can use them in some practical ways on my farm.”
As the show opened up, host Bontrager said that the show was “about ideas, about everybody putting their ideas together for the benefit of horse farmers.” He also added that he was “amazed at how much the machinery had changed since the first show, both in terms of features and safety.”
There were a variety of demonstrations, including manure hauling, plowing, various types of tillage equipment, including a motorized tiller and a no-till planter.  Other demonstrations included produce farming, lawn mowing, logging (with a portable sawmill), and haying. 
The manure hauling demonstrations included a varied assortment of types and sizes of spreaders for differing applications.  Some of the manufacturers offered their spreaders in a choice of Ford blue, International red, or John Deere green, “to match the motif of your farm.” 
One of the highlights of the show occurred during the tillage portion of the demonstrations. Host Floyd Bontrager gave a demonstration featuring a twelve horse hitch pulling a four bottom plow.  “Frankly, it’s not real practical,” stated Bontrager, “but it is kind of fun.”   Practical or not, the crowd was impressed by the spectacle.
Another highlight was the produce farming demonstration.  As farmers search for new ways to develop niche markets, which can hopefully increase their profitability, and some cases enable them to stay in farming, produce farming is one of more promising options, and has really taken off across North America.  It was stated that a leading business magazine had described produce farming as an example of “extreme entrepreneurism, capable of generating thousands of dollars per acre.” One demonstration featured machines that formed a raised bed, laid plastic mulch, and applied a dripline, all in one pass.  After this a water wheel transplanter followed, with people on the rear of the machine transplanting zucchini.
Throughout the day, an item that was of obvious importance to horse farming was the forecart.  Coming in either two or four-wheel models, the forecart is the “link” that  connects the horse(s) to the machinery.  The forecart allows the operator to either sit or stand as they drive the horse or team and operate the machine.  Some of them are very basic models, while others have been equipped with motors, engines, or power-takeoffs to power the machinery that follows.  Some of the forecarts are pretty impressive in their own right, and when linked with the machinery (especially the haying equipment), enable the horse farmer to conduct virtually the same operations as a farmer with a tractor. As a brand new feature at this year’s show, “some of them are now equipped with cupholders.” 
  In addition to machinery demonstrations, there were four different clinics offered on various topics including horse training, reproduction in horses, conformational differences between pulling, hitch and farm horses, and safety in hitching horses.  The last of these was conducted by Bontrager, who in addition to safety tips, also offered some practical tips regarding farming with horses. He noted that it is important to rest one’s horses regularly during the day, even in the morning when they are at peak energy. He said that by giving them a five-minute break every half hour early in the day, they last a lot longer. “The same works for people,” he added. 
Throughout the day, it was obvious that despite all the hard work and preparations, Bontrager obviously enjoyed hosting the show. When asked what he liked most about it, he answered “Just the satisfaction of being able to look at people’s faces and see that they’re either enjoying the show or are learning some things that are helpful to them.  That makes it all worthwhile, makes you feel like you want to do it again.”
On both days, the show was closed with a parade of the various draft breeds.

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