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Grey Percherons add zest to life

July 14, 2014 | 0 comments


Mary Jane Swedberg is the first to admit raising Percheron horses, learning how to drive teams of horses and collecting unique carriages and sleighs were not her goals in life.

She said it was more divine intervention along with her experience on a wagon train in Wyoming and encouragement from great instructors that has led to a life she would never have imagined.

"I grew up with a pony and thought only big men and the wealthy could raise big horses like Percherons," Swedberg said.

Now 15 years later she is raising nine Percherons on her Oconomowoc farm and operating Hoof Beats Express, a horse-drawn livery service that provides horses, carriages and drivers for parades, community events, weddings and even funerals.

It also gives families an opportunity to go "dashing through the snow" in the open fields of the 115-acre farm she and her husband, Bob, own.

The one-horse open sleigh is one of five sleds she owns. She got her first sleigh from her husband's family who had been farming in Minnesota for generations. The wooden-framed sleigh is unique because it has two pairs of runners for winter and gear for summer.

She also owns a black horse-drawn hearse, some surreys with the fringe on top, a wicker surrey, a chuck wagon and some other more practical wagons.

The power is provided by Percheron draft horses weighing between 1,800 and 2,600 pounds. At 5 or 6 feet tall, they are much taller than their handler, but she said she found that with the right training of the handler and the horses, size and strength is not a factor in harnessing and handling these gentle giants.

She does find it is helpful to work out in order to stay strong enough to handle the horses. She said it's not only the hands and arms that must be strong when driving but also the back muscles.

"I love the Percherons because they are strong, can withstand Wisconsin's cold weather and they have a calm temperament," she added.

Driving team started it all

Swedberg was a high school guidance counselor before getting involved with the horses after their two children were grown.

"We went to Wyoming and participated in a covered wagon train trip," she recalled. "A trainer taught me how to drive, rather than ride, horses and I was hooked."

She went back a couple more times to learn how to drive and then got her first pair of horses.

Now that she had the horses and a goal of driving, her husband insisted she go to a driving school in Iowa to learn handling and safety.

The school was operated by the late Dick Sparrow, known for his ability to drive a 40-horse team. His lifelong experience driving multi-horse hitches gained him a reputation as the nation's best driver of draft-class horses. 

She has also relied on the horse expertise of others including Jim Whiting of the Lake Mills-Cambridge area, Dick Berner of Watertown and others.

She trusted her husband's business sense and steered away from the notion of breeding horses. He advised her from the start to buy the horses she wanted and not invest in the more risky venture of breeding horses in hopes of getting just the right one.

Swedberg began by driving one or two horses, but she was motivated to drive more when she had the opportunity to pull a circus wagon in the popular Fourth of July parade in Milwaukee in 2000.

She bought two more horses, an energetic Amish-bred team, and practiced driving the four horses in preparation for the big parade.

In the years that followed she drove two-, four- and six-horse teams that perform at horse shows, community events and parades.

A passion for showing

After her circus parade experience, Swedberg knew she had to stay involved in showing.

"I grew up as a 4-H kid showing beef in Illinois so showing was in my blood," she said. "I took six horses to the Jefferson County Fair and was doing it all alone."

One basic thing she needed to learn from the start is how to maneuver and back the trailer to the unloading spot at a show. She also learned how to unload all the horses and keep them in place while she brought the others out of the trailer. Now she brings young assistants with her to help.

Swedberg acknowledged there is a lot of big competition at fairs and shows, but she enjoys it anyway, and she's happy that she generally places somewhere in the upper half of the class.

Since she began the venture, she has shared what she knows about horses by mentoring young horse enthusiasts.

"Every other year I bring on a junior driver," she said. "It's partly for help and partly for the camaraderie. I'm proud when my kids (those she mentors) do well. Every one of them has left placing first in their junior class. They aren't just learning horsemanship skills, but they are building confidence in themselves. I see them blossom."

Last year the girls working with her at Wisconsin State Fair did an educational display that earned them the Chairman's Award in the horse barn. They built a silhouette of a horse to demonstrate the height of a typical draft horse; made some footprints that were placed so visitors could place their own foot inside as a size-comparison; and did posters about the many uses of draft horses.

Training for shows

"If we're going to show horses, we need to treat them like a baseball or football team," Swedberg said. "We start in spring with daily practices.

"My job as coach is to match the horses so both in the team have the same length of leg and stride. I practice with them all year on flat, rough and wet surfaces, take them through curves and turns and teach them the commands."

At the show, there is plenty of preparation that goes into it, too. It takes about two hours from the time she takes the horse out of the stall until she is ready to enter the ring. Some clipping is done in advance, but on show day there is final clipping, braiding the tail so the judge can adequately see the horse's rump, braiding the bridal path and carefully placing the ribbon to highlight the neck and make the horse look taller. Painting the hooves with a special nail polish is also part of the prep work.

Swedberg also enjoys going to Old World Wisconsin where she uses her horses to demonstrate the old-time plowing techniques.

"I love hearing the sound of the dirt turning over," she said. It takes me back to that favorite grandpa I had. I'm glad I'm doing this now. Had I lived in his era, I probably wouldn't have been able to drive the horses. I would have been in the hot kitchen cooking for the men."

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