Jan Swan Wood

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May 29, 2012
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Little, big horses and old fashioned exercise

Today's ranches often have modern, faster ways to do the day's work. Whether haying or feeding stock, the equipment is efficient and easier on the operator than in times past.

Not everyone, though, adheres to the idea that modern is better. Red Owl, South Dakota rancher, Robert Dennis, has found that feeding with a team of horses works best for him.

Dennis said "My tractor doesn't have a cab anyway, so if I'm going to be cold, I might as well be enjoying what I'm doing." He most certainly enjoys his teams and is proud of the horses that help him to feed his stock and do ranch chores.

His interest in driving horses began back in 1974 when he used a saddle horse to hitch up and start pulling things around. Young Robert was undoubtedly more pleased with the results than the saddle horse, but it got him started. In 1980 he bought a team of three-fourth sister Belgian cross mares and using his grandfather's harness, he was on his way.

"It was cost effective and fun to drive them. I wanted to play at it anyway, so the money savings on fuel made it a good idea," said Dennis. His Dad was dead set against the idea, however, and told Robert "I've spent my whole life changing my Dad's equipment over from horses to tractors and now you're changing it all back." Robert wasn't swayed and when he started working the draft mares, his Dad was right out there making sure he did it right and used the right terminology.

In the mid 1990s, the team he had was getting pretty old, so when the winter started off tough in 1996, he decided it was going to be too hard on the old mares and he went back to using his tractor to plow the deep snow. He went through some more teams after that, but when he switched over from a cow/calf operation to running summer cattle, he didn't need to feed in the winter, so went without a team for a while.

Eventually, though, Dennis started running some cows again, and says "I noticed how fat I was getting from not pitching hay all winter and decided I wanted a team again."

He'd heard about the Haflinger breed of small draft horses and started a pretty serious search for some. He bought a pair of Haflingers, broke them to drive, but they just don't travel well together. So, he went back to where he bought them and bought two more that are closely related, and will soon break them to drive. The hope is that the two teams, when switched to new mates, will pull together better.

The Haflinger breed, is very similar to a small Belgian of the old fashioned style. Deep bodied and good boned, they are strong and agile. The teams that Robert drives are from 14-14.3 hands tall and weigh 1200-1300 pounds each. In Austria, where the breed was developed, they are bred to be an all purpose horse to ride, drive or eat.

Robert uses his teams all year round on the ranch. In the winter he feeds with a wagon that he has modified to feed round bales. He also feeds some loose hay as well, depending on how much he's putting out. During the summer he uses them on a dump rake, then pitches the hay onto a low wagon, hauls it to the stack and pitches it off. He also fences with the team, plus uses them in parades and to give wagon rides on the ranch.

Being good exercise for Robert, he said, "In the spring I can really get a good look at what's happening with the cattle and what the hay looks like. Way better than I ever could with a tractor."

Another plus is that his grandkids and wife can all ride on the wagon with him, but they wouldn't all fit on the tractor. He likes the sense of tradition with the teams, doing the chores on the ranch where his grandfather used teams, using his harness.

His light sorrel horses with their flaxen manes and tails and lighter bellies and legs, are well built. Fit and trim from working every day, they do the breed justice, both with their work ethic and disposition. Robert believes they are the perfect breed for beginners or anyone who isn't going to be pulling really heavy loads. Being smaller, they are easier to harness and handle, plus they don't eat as much.

Robert, who is also a saddlemaker and entertains with cowboy poetry and music, is a man who enjoys the simpler way of life. He enjoys the slower pace of feeding the old- fashioned way, and thinks he'll stick with it. The little, big horses are the perfect fit for the Dennis ranch, doing the day's work with ease and keeping Robert in shape in the process.


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Tri-State Livestock News Updated Aug 14, 2012 04:11PM Published May 29, 2012 01:34AM Copyright 2012 Tri-State Livestock News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.