A block-long fragment of old cement highway lay in the shade between the freeway and a grove of trees. Coarse ditch grasses grow to the very edge of the old road and a thin green ribbon of weeds divides the narrow lanes that once ran over a thousand miles between Michigan and the heart of Montana.
On this brisk and sunny October afternoon, with the leaves of the trees turning the colors of fall, this piece of once great highway carries a slice of history even older than itself. Trucks and trailers rumble carefully from the remnant of road onto a grassy field, the drivers mindful of their precious cargo. Tailgates lower and out roll handsome carts, wagons and buggies. The horses come next powerful quarter horses and sleek Arabians. Tough, experienced hands sort tangles of leather into harness, bridle and reins. The horses become eager, for they too look forward to an afternoon at the jobs for which they are trained.
This bit of yesteryear is the Red River Harness Driving Club. Founder Gary Griffeth began the club in 1984 by taking out a newspaper ad seeking others whom shared his love of horse and rig. But unlike the crumbling highway, this is no vanishing remnant of the past. Even though no longer needed for transportation or plow, the number of horses in the region is greater than ever.
It’s unbelievable, says club president Wally Nelson. People sitting in town wouldn’t really believe how many horses there are in the area.
Statewide, the number of horses on farms grew from 24,914 in 1992 to more than 35,000 in 1997. That’s one horse for every 18 people, and that doesn’t count horses kept at non-farm stables.
The horse industry is a well-kept secret, says Gary. It’s a large industry.
The Red River Harness Driving Club has about 60 members drawn from a region stretching from South Dakota to Canada and from Bismarck to Detroit Lakes in Minnesota. While they share a love of horses, many also share a love for the rigs. Today Ken Johnson brought his antique surrey, shiny black with red wheels and red fringe on top. Wally brought his two-seat, two-wheel Meadowbrook cart, handcrafted in red oak by the Amish in Minnesota. Gary has a fine wagon with newly added hydraulic brakes. And making sure there’s plenty of room for the 12 people who came today is Clayton Brennon’s hay wagon drawn by a handsome salt and pepper team.
The hobby is particularly fun for people who enjoy fixing and building the rigs and trailers. Some members have quite a collection. Wally has six rigs, including a surrey, a doctor’s buggy and two sleighs. He built two of the rigs himself.
As we board Wally’s cart, Stompin’ Lena almost starts without us. The big Belgian quarter mare is eager to follow Gary’s team of fine Arabians that has already set off down the trail. Once we’re seated, the 1,400-pound mare’s long strides quickly make up the distance.
The rattling rigs fall in line, chains clinking in rhythm to the beat of the hooves, the horses heads bobbing time. The sounds of the trail soon replace the noise of the freeway we leave behind.
I don’t know of anything more relaxing, coming off a tough day at work, says Wally. My wife and I hook up our horse and just head down the road.
Gary agrees. I find that the weekends away with the horses are just a complete change. It’s really a welcome recreation for the family and me.
The family friendly nature of the club is no small part of its appeal. Sharing the hobby is an important part of Wally and Carol’s relationship. She probably knows more about horse breeds and who owns them than I ever will, says Wally.
Gary, who got started with the hobby when he sold his golf clubs after college to buy a horse, has passed his passion on to his children. An adult son living in the area often joins in Ð sometimes driving a rig and sometimes riding solo as an outrider. Gary’s other two children live in Arizona, but have also gotten involved. Typically, when the kids come home to visit from Phoenix, we’ll have horse activities involving the grandchildren and they really enjoy that.
The club holds 12-to-15 outings a year, meeting at member’s farms, parks or open land. And they don’t stop for winter. There are those that prefer the winter, says Gary. They’re just like the snowmobilers they can’t wait for the first snow. And there’s nothing finer than to hitch horses to a sleigh and go off down the lane.
The club also holds play days, friendly competitions like pole or barrel races. We have a lot of fun, says Wally. He tells the story of his wife, Carol, running the barrels with his 80-year-old aunt on board. When you get into a barrel race and get a little carried away with speed, there gets to be a lot of laughter and a lot of shakin’ going on. My aunt had the greatest time.
Midway through the drive we turn around in a soybean field, the coarse stubble crackling beneath the hooves and wheels. Stompin’ Lena spots a distant car. She whinnies, her ears cock forward and her eyes hold steady on the car. She thinks her colt might be over there, explains Wally. The big mare gave birth six weeks ago to her second foal. Wally has hopes the matching colts will make a fine driving team.
At the end of the drive, the horses are unhitched and the group settles onto the grass for their traditional late lunch. Today we share summer sausage sandwiches and hot chocolate. The conversation turns to the crazy drivers back in the real world Ð people with too much horsepower and too little horse sense.
The depth of the friendships forged in the club is readily apparent as they share personal updates and engage in good-natured ribbing Ð good friends sharing good times. Wally puts it this way: Carol and I figure we have a million friends and acquaintances thanks to the horses, so we figure we’re millionaires.
And Wally’s not opposed to adding to those rich friendships. He invites folks to join them. You don’t need a rig and you don’t need a horse. Just pull up a hay bale on Clayton’s wagon and let a slice of yesterday ease your mind. Enjoy the ride.
For information on the Red River Harness Driving Club, contact Wally or Carol Nelson at 701- 282-3816.