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More Women Are Showing Draft Horses

“Competing in the show ring doesn’t build character, it reveals character.”


It takes drive for a woman to compete in the heavy horse world. Just ask Janice Rutherford, a Grosse Isle Manitoba farmer who got hooked on Percherons after marrying into agriculture and moving to the country.

“I did not start showing horses until I was in my 40s, so I had to learn fast!” said Rutherford. “I had no background with horses as I was raised in Winnipeg. After I married and moved to our farm at Grosse Isle, my chance to have a horse of my own finally became a reality,” she said.

She learned to drive hauling manure out of the barn with a team of grey Percherons at a local dairy. She is beginning her seventh season of showing Percheron horses, starting out with a team back in 2003, progressing to a four-horse hitch four years later, and now a six-horse hitch.

Being a woman in a male-dominated industry has been a challenge. “I felt that I needed to prove to my peers (mostly men) that I was serious, and have worked really hard at learning and trying to improve my skills,” she said.

But she feels her efforts have paid off, earning her the respect of her peers.

Even more challenging has been public perception. “After six years of showing, folks will still go to the first male they see in my crew at shows and start asking him about ‘his’ horses, not realizing that I am the one in charge!” said a frustrated Rutherford.


Rutherford does everything for her hitch, from buying the horses and equipment, baling the hay, to cleaning the barn and feeding the horses, to driving her semi-truck pulling a 43-foot horse van to get to shows as far as 1,350 kilometres away, to the fitting, bathing, harnessing and driving.

Her husband, Rick, is supportive of her “hobby” but is hands off as far as the horses go, preferring instead to focus on the farm business along with their oldest son Chad. Her 18-year-old daughter, Kara, has been her main co-pilot and helper, with assistance from her younger son, Shea. As well as her regular duties as wife and mother, she still finds time to work in the farm office, help out with farming duties, and volunteer and be involved in their community with various organizations.

For Rutherford, showing draft horses is like living a double life.

“There are not a lot of people who understand what I do with the horses and the commitment to my hobby,” said Rutherford. “Most people in my ‘real life’ are very much removed from the horse world.”

She is physically challenged by some of the tasks her involvement in the industry has brought. “I wish I were taller!” she laughed. “The bigger horses create a challenge. Strength is another issue; I find I am limited with what I do as I do not have the same muscle mass as many men do, but don’t like having to ask for help to get things done.”


Earning that all-important respect has come easier for Donna Swanston, a partner in a mixed-farming operation near Virden. She was born into the draft horse world and grew up showing Percherons with her parents and sister in Alberta in the 1970s and ’80s. “It’s in my blood. My paternal grandma had Percherons,” she said.

Swanston has made the transition from being mainly an owner/exhibitor to finding her place in the organizational side of the draft horse industry. Although she occasionally judges and exhibits, and continues to breed a few Percherons and Clydesdales, her main role in the industry currently is one of leadership.

She was the first woman president of the Manitoba Percheron Belgian Club and the Alberta Percheron Association and is currently the president of the Canadian Percheron Association. Swanston is proud to say she is the first second-generation president of the national organization to fill that role. She also co-chaired the 1998 World Percheron Congress held in Calgary, and was acting show co-ordinator for the 2004 World Percheron Congress held in Brandon.

Linda Banga of Canora, Saskatchewan is another wellrespected woman who is proud to continue the tradition started by her family. Banga was raised with the Clydesdale breed on a farm near Stockholm, Saskatchewan and currently raises, trains, and shows them.


She found the biggest challenge of “going it alone” was building confidence in herself. She was nervous about backing up the trailer, hitching horses by herself at shows, and really just trying to make it on her own.

Banga finds working full time away from her home and having show horses another big challenge, but credits her career with the ability to afford to be involved with them.

“Probably the biggest stigma I face from my community and my workplace is the general comment, ‘Why would you want to work so hard? That work isn’t meant for a woman.’ My colleagues see me every day in business attire with nicely groomed nails and hair. I think it is difficult for them to imagine that when I get home from work my attire becomes Carhartts and a pony-tail!”

Banga holds a tenure position at Parkland College in Yorkton, and specializes in the areas of psychology, Canadian studies, and information technology. Her two passions in life are teaching and horses, and she finds that the two very different areas of her life compliment each other to make her better at both.

“One of my biggest achievements to date was at the Clydesdale Classic last summer in Austin, Manitoba when both of my two-year-olds won first and second respectively in the two-year-old cart class, and first and third in the futurity overall. It might have been no big deal to some, but for me, doing well with both of these two-year-olds that I trained all on my own, was a huge accomplishment,” she said.


These enthusiasts are among a growing number of women who are stepping out from behind the scenes in the heavy horse world.

“When I attended shows as a kid, it was common-place back then for the women to stay behind the scenes,” said Swanston. “You rarely saw a female judge or ring person, clerical was the woman’s role. Now it is not uncommon for the female to be in the forefront.

“We see many girls in junior showmanship classes right now. I anticipate that these girls will continue in the industry and create a stronger female presence,” said Banga.

However, Banga cautions the up-and-comers. “First and foremost, competing in the show ring doesn’t build character, it reveals character. Showing horses is meant to be challenging, but enjoyable. When you do win, be gracious, there is nothing more unpleasant than a supercilious woman. Most importantly, take time to enjoy your fellow draft enthusiasts and to build friendships. Horses will come and go, but friendships are enduring.”

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