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Four-legged horsepower still the way to go

In one horse open sleigh. That's almost how I spent Saturday afternoon. I actually spent it riding on a two-horse open wagon while taking part in the North West Horses in Harness Cutter Rally.

In one horse open sleigh.

That's almost how I spent Saturday afternoon. I actually spent it riding on a two-horse open wagon while taking part in the North West Horses in Harness Cutter Rally.

I grew up on a farm, but my dad was a mechanical kind of guy. He started farming when horsepower meant just that, but was quickly wooed by the internal combustion engine and all its potential. The only horse power on our farm was fueled by gasoline and diesel.

So, I've never had much to do with the animals, but it was apparent Saturday that there are lots of folks out there who still appreciate the power of four legs, big hearts and sometimes wayward heads.

The cutter rally is in its third year in the Battlefords, and president Lorne Anderson, who is from Lloydminster, says the numbers get better every year. This year 30 drivers registered, up from 18 last year, and with most units hauling at least two people and some many more than that, there was quite a crowd of people out to enjoy a crisp winter day. They sold 103 ghost hands and proceeds are donated to the Battleford walking trail.

Brian Erickson was the lucky winner of the lottery to have the "media" ride along with his team. Brian is a tall, fit looking guy who fits somewhere into the "our age" category recognized by Baby Boomers everywhere. His right hand man is Ken Schwab, who did most of the driving and his share of the talking. Ken is maybe a little further down the "our age" scale that Brian, but that didn't mean he couldn't hold up his side of the constant ribbing between the two.

The cutter rally turned out to be just my kind of event, because fashion isn't an issue. I turned up decked out my vintage snowmobile suit gifted to me by my dad when I was 16 years old, and that set the tone for the day'

"And it still fits," Ken asked. I said, sure, since it was only a couple of years ago, and that set the tone for the day's banter.

The thermometer said it was -17 C, but the sun was shining brightly and there was no wind. Everyone agreed it was a perfect day for a ride in the snow.

As we waited for the rally to begin, I wandered around the drivers and horses compound, which was carved out of the snow just across from Fort Battleford.

One man pointed out two big draft horses, Percherons he said, the same as those he used to drive while hauling firewood.

Paul and Kim Butler were excitedly watching a Lloydminster driver get his plexiglass enclosed sleigh ready to go. Kim said they had just been walking by on the walking trail and decided to stop by to see what all the action was about. They asked if they could buy a ride, and the sleigh driver said his partner had bailed out on him so they were welcome to ride along with him. Paul even got a job holding the horses' heads during the hitching up process. I saw him after we had all reassembled and he was beaming, having had an adventure of a lifetime.

"I've never done anything like that before," he said.

As we got underway Brian's daughter Rhonda joined us on the wagon. The sleighs left the parking area in groups of two or three and were soon strung out in a long line moving towards the Battle River and Westwood Turf Farm.

Just ahead of us was a small sleigh pulled by two horses that was loaded up with two adults and at least three children. It was hard to tell how many, as they were constantly tumbling off and rolling around in the snow and then running to catch up again.

Brian assured me that if I whined about being cold they would have no problem dumping me off so I'd have to get warm while trying to catch up.

He seemed to think I was a bit of a lame journalist because I neglected to ask what the horses' names were. I had asked what kind they were, but forgot the name thing.

Mandy was on the right. She is part Clydesdale so was a bit taller (don't ask me how many hands) and on the left was Vegas, a quarter horse. Brian had a funny story about how Vegas got her name, but like all comedians he dropped his voice on the punch line and I missed it. I didn't want to spoil the mood with my "eh, Sonny, can ya speak up?" routine.

It soon became apparent Mandy and Vegas don't really enjoy plodding. They would rather ramp the pace up a notch. In my ignorance I suggested the team wouldn't really need all that much guidance on such a cut and dried route.

Ken soon set me straight. He said if he wasn't guiding them we'd be careening across the filed at a merry pace and in several directions at once.

As it was he expertly guided the team along a route that eventually took the rally drivers though the scenic Battle River Valley and then back towards town along Levy Road beside the North Saskatchewan River.

We made one brief side trip on a farm access road where we took on three more passengers. During this process Ken demonstrated two horses and a wagon can turn much more sharply than the three-quarter ton truck I usually drive.

Along the route were horses of all sizes and descriptions. At least two of the cutters were of the covered in variety with heaters inside. That's the kind the Butlers rode in and Paul said they were almost too toasty.

My ride was out in the open however, and because Brian's team was pulling a wagon rather than a sleigh he and Ken decided to keep to Levy Road and make their way back to the Fort on town streets.

During the ride we made small talk and at one point Brian mentioned the man who was killed on the luge run at the Olympics. He said he's been known to take risks, but he likes them to be calculated risks.

That said, he let me drive!

Once we left the other sleighs behind, Ken gave me a turn at the reigns. Right away Mandy and Vegas knew there was a rank amateur at the helm, but they behaved and didn't take advantage of me. They still wanted to go fast though, and there was no way I was going to attempt anything more than a plod, so I quickly handed the controls back to the master and went back to enjoying the ride.

As we clopped along with the bells on Vegas's harness jingling I became aware of how soothing that sound is. That moment gave me some insight into why horse people are the way they are.

To them the training and care required isn't work and as Ken said, the horses love to pull. To them it isn't work. It's what they live to do.

And pull they did, putting in an Olympian effort to reach the top of the long 24th Street hill leading up to 1st Avenue.

Then, after turning a few heads as we made our way through town, we returned to the starting point. I never did get the hang of the "rally" part of the event with its mysterious tossing of dice and recording of numbers, but the cutter part was a great way to spend an afternoon.

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