The times are indeed changing.
Once a necessity for every successful farmer, heavy horses have moved out of the fields and into the Assiniboine Park Zoo.
The McFeetors Heavy Horse Centre opened to the public Aug. 28, giving people the chance to get close — but not too close — to four Percherons. Zoo officials said the exhibit will later expand to include other breeds, such as Clydesdales and Belgian horses.
“Heavy horses were once as common and vital to farming as tractors are today,” said Ray McFeetors. The former Great-West Lifeco CEO and chairman donated $2 million to the exhibit, while the company kicked in another $250,000.
“As one who grew up in that era, it’s my privilege to support this exhibit celebrating Manitoba’s agricultural past and to help today’s families experience rural life how it once was,” said McFeetors, who is also experienced in driving teams himself.
Janice Rutherford has been showing Percherons for more than a decade, and is one of the few women to drive a six-horse hitch. Her expertise helped bring the exhibit together.
But when she first learned the Winnipeg zoo was looking for draft horses, her reaction was one of surprise.
“I was like, what? It’s sad that it has to come to that,” Rutherford said. “But I’ve also been around the public enough to come to realize that a lot of people don’t know what a draft horse is. Lots of kids have no exposure to horses anymore, except for in media, so to see it in real life is something they don’t always get the chance to do.”
During a sneak peak of the exhibit last week it was clear many adults have never seen draft horses either.
“I can’t believe how big they are!” exclaimed one visitor, who was then warned to move farther back from the animals.
Rutherford, who grew up in Winnipeg’s St. James neighbourhood, now farms with her husband near Grosse Isle. It was an encounter with heavy horses as an adult that led to her passion for them. Now she hopes exhibit visitors will also feel an affinity for the animals.
“So in the end, I was thrilled to know that there is a place in an urban centre where people can go and see a draft horse; they just aren’t that common anymore,” she said.
They may not be common, but they remain popular.
The Southeast Manitoba Draft Horse Association held its annual plowing match earlier this month, drawing 300 spectators and 15 competitors in the draft horse events.
“We had four juniors driving teams too, including two 14-year-old girls,” said organizer John Hildebrand, who said more youth are becoming interested in draft horses.
“We’re really promoting it with the juniors, we need to have younger ones interested,” he stressed. “Some people are still using them in agriculture. There is the odd farm that is using them on a regular basis, especially for hauling feed in the wintertime for the cattle or things like that, but those people are mostly older.”
So while it’s not something he ever expected to see, Hildebrand thinks the exhibit is a great idea.
“The kids nowadays who are in the cities and towns, they don’t even know what livestock is really, other than what they see on the TV or in a book maybe. So this will be good.”