Humans have had a love affair with draft horses for centuries, perhaps even before the descendants of today's stalwarts toiled away on feudal European farms or carried medieval knights into battle. Today, draft horses remain the paradigm for the term "worker," and their keepers are unanimous in extolling their gentle nature.
Mary Beth O'Shea, co-owner with her husband, Kip Porter, of O'Shea and Porter Draft Horses in Worthington, spoke with intense affection of her horses, which are all male, and all Belgian.
"Our horses are the kindest, sweetest animals," she said. "They get to you, really. I was hooked by watching them pull heavy loads at fairs. I learned very quickly that we have very little physical power to make them do anything. They do their jobs out of pure heart, based in their deep trust for us."
O'Shea said draft horses have calm, uncomplicated personalities and, unlike saddle horses "which have some diva in them, draft horses show few, if any, signs of drama, ever."
This trait makes them ideal for pulling passenger wagons on sleigh rides in winter and hay rides in fall, or general touring and special occasions.
Porter, a third-generation draft owner, takes the horses out for passenger rides on country roads around Worthington year-round. He emphasized that while drafts are popular at fairs and in pulling competitions, historically they've had a commercial value past human transport, mostly in farming and logging.
"My father and grandfather had draft horses on their dairy farms," Porter said. "I use them for logging, a practice still popular today in Scotland. It's a bit slower, but logging horses can get in places large haulers can't, and often are ideal for small acreage jobs that the bigger corporations don't want to touch."
Farther north, in Shaftsbury, Vt. David Lively, owner of Lively's Livery, has owned and cared for his unique-looking American Cream draft horses for several decades. Unlike Porter and O'Shea's five male Belgian drafts, Lively's horses are all female. He now has five and has owned as many as 14.
According to the American Cream Draft Horse Association, the American Cream breed was developed in Iowa in the mid-1920s, with an official stud book established by the 1930s. It remains the only recognized American line of draft horses.
"My family owns Cream drafts because they have the unique distinction of being the only members of the draft family whose origins come from the United States," Lively said. "They are very rare, and we breed and raise them to help propagate their numbers."
Lively said his horses range between 750 and 1,800 lbs., and male cream drafts can be somewhat heavier, up to 2,000 lbs.
"I'm probably partial to their gentleness because I own them," he said. "They're ideal passenger carriers. We do country rides in a comfortable wagon with a carpeted bottom."
Back in the Berkshires, Dave Larabee, owner of Specialty Carriage and Wagon Rides in Williamstown, echoes the sentiments of his colleagues to the north and south.
"To give you an idea of how easy-going these horses are, I learned to drive a draft horse-pulled wagon starting at age 4," Larabee said. "I've been offering rides professionally for the last 13 years, and the reaction I get from people, especially children, is one of great love for these animals."
Larrabee said he offers rides in the fall at Sweet Brook Farm in Williamstown. He said his two Belgian drafts, Bob and Ben, pull a variety of wagons on hay or farm rides, which can take about an hour while carrying up to 10 passengers. Visitors also can ride in a 16-passenger open wagon or a 12-person covered wagon for wet weather.
"It's a real nice property where you can take people out for about an hour on a scenic circuit," he said. "By the end of the ride, whether it's a carriage for a wedding or a wagon in the fall, pretty much all anyone wants to talk about is the horses. For some reason, these gentle giants get under your skin in a real good way."
If you go ...
Specialty Carriage and Wagon Rides at Sweet Brook Farm, Williamstown. Weekend rides by reservations, weekdays also in the fall. (413) 441-4302 or www.sweetbrookfarm.com
Lively's Livery at 193 Crossover Rd., Bennington, Vt. Reserve a spot for either wagon or individual rides and tours. (802) 447-7612 or www.liveleyslivery.com
O'Shea and Porter Draft Horses at 399 Kinnebrook Road, Worthingon. Wagon rides by arrangement. (413) 238-5948.
Tetrault's Horse Farm at 62 King St., Hatfield. Rides by reservation, at farm or come to location as
situation allows. (413) 247-5983
A word about cost
Mary Beth O'Shea of Worthington, Dave Larrabee of Williamstown and Dave Lively of Shaftsbury, Vt., explained the cost of wagon rides.
When a ride is advertised for a low amount, it means one of two things, they said: Someone is not advertising fully, and a rate that low only appliies to a full wagon of 10 to16 people, or the person giving the rides is uninsured, and therefore not recommended.
All three confirmed that a one-hour wagon ride takes three hours for the driver -- one to prep horses and wagon, one to ride, and one to stand down. That is why rates of $100 to $160 per wagon are pretty typical. (Divided among 10 to 16 people, this rate works out to about $10 per person.) And while they will gladly take any number who want to split the full price, almost all rides are arranged in advance, and so they tend to prefer full wagons when dealing with groups.
The ones listed here are all solid, reliable and insured.