They’re Off and Trotting

They’re Off and Trotting

BEHIND THE SCENES WITH THE HORSES AT EXPO QUÉBEC

Horses_ExpoQuebec_1Article and photos by Catherine McKenna 

The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit, and fire.  – Sharon Ralls Lemon.

A visit behind the scenes to the stables that Expo Québec horse exhibitors call home for 10 days is arguably as interesting as the competitions themselves. Though a horsewoman for most of my life, I have had little contact with horses used particularly for driving, so this year I took the time to chat with some of the breeders, grooms, and workers behind the scenes who very generously provided me with a wealth of learning.

What is first apparent (and still oh so vivid in my own memories of my early days working with horses) is the staggering amount of work required to be an exhibitor. Horses stand in crossties (tethered in the spacious aisles) being groomed, some braided, still others sporting various stages of dress in harness.

Speaking with one of l’Écurie Beaubois’ team, Esther Messier takes a break to explain she is taking her vacation time to be here to work for a breeder whose horses she knows well. She details only some of the everyday tasks involved in the care, maintenance, and preparation of the four Canadian Horses. Each animal is bathed before every event, their hooves blackened, manes, tails, and coats gleaming for the performance at hand. The horses must be fed at regular hours, kept clean and comfortable; grooms watch over them throughout the day and evening. Cleaning stalls is a never-ending job. And hitching horses is arduous. Unlike throwing a saddle and bridle on a riding horse, which can be done in about five minutes, each horse and harness requires 15-20 minutes; thus, an eight-horse hitch is a good two hours of labour for an experienced driver or groom. Unhitching goes more quickly, but then come the hours of meticulous cleaning of each piece of the harness, and the polishing of the brass.

Horses_ExpoQuebec_2It may seem like thankless work in the shadows – certainly pay is low, and “benefits” usually amount to having the time to rush off for a quick bite to eat during the course of the day and evening. Breeders do not make much themselves; the rich purses that are the hallmark of Thoroughbred racing are not part of this life. Prizes are modest, and barely cover any of the expenses. But look around, and ask anyone you meet back here, and they will all tell you there is nowhere else they would rather be, nothing else that they would prefer to be doing. There are no misgivings, and definitely no pretensions.

Esther continues to describe the horse classes at Expo, which are distinguished both by breed of draught or light horse, and also by the type of carriage. With the exception of a few classes where horses are ridden under saddle (there are no jumper or hunter classes), and a lively and entertaining “musical chairs” class, wherein riders must vault bareback onto a draught horse, along with a number of line classes – where horses are judged for their conformation, the majority of competitions are the various driving classes. Among the latter are special “antique” classes, featuring drivers dressed in period costumes, and classes for young drivers under 18 years of age.

And the horses: there are draught, or work horse breeds, as well as light, and/or riding horses. The former measure from 16-19 hands (one hand=four inches, taken from hoof to withers). Their size, substance, temperaments, and massive hooves enable them to haul heavy loads, many over long distances, for long periods of time. They are, generally speaking, the most docile in nature, bred to adapt easily to the hard work at hand. Light horses are more suitable for riding, and pulling carriages once used for transportation, also often over long distances, and at speeds varying according to breed.

Breeds

Horses_ExpoQuebec_4These are the breeds of horses at Expo Québec this year:

– The Clydesdale, from Scotland, the most famous being the Budweiser Clydesdales. Most are bay (brown with darker legs) with white markings. As with most draught horses, they have extensive feathering on their legs, which serves to protect the hoof and pastern in difficult going.

– The Percheron originated in France. It was and is used as a farm horse, and the breed also made up the majority of driving horses in Paris.

– The Belgian, one of the strongest of the heavy breeds from the Brabant region of Belgium, it is often light chestnut (or sorrel), with a flaxen mane and tail.

– The Canadian Horse is really the Québécois horse. This hardy, compact, muscular, no-nonsense animal possesses good endurance and is an easy keeper. The breed was a gift to New France in the late 17th century from Louis XIV.

– The Standardbred, a long-bodied animal, is a trotting horse that was developed primarily for racing in the United States, but also serves as a multi-purpose equine.

– The Hackney was developed in Great Britain. This fine little high-stepping road horse is capable of trotting at great speeds for extended periods of time.

– The Morgan is one of the United States’ earliest breeds. Named after its first owner, Justin Morgan, this compact, refined, and very versatile animal was also used in the cavalry in the American Civil War.

– The American Saddlebred hails from Kentucky. A showy, flashy, high-stepping horse most often driven and ridden, it has a characteristic fifth gait, the amble, or rack, a form of extended walk.

– The Welsh Pony: Expo features many different specimens of this pony native to Wales, said to have evolved from the prehistoric Celtic pony.

– The Shetland (and American Shetland) Pony is from the Shetland Isles, northeast of mainland Scotland. A hardy, working pony often used in the coal mines of the past, and called “pit ponies”. Today, they are shown, ridden, and driven and are not without character!

Carriage Classes

Horses_ExpoQuebec_5Carriages have traditionally depended on the breed of horse, how many are hitched, and for what purpose.

What we can see at Expo Québec:

– Single or pair: one or two horses.

– The Troïka: of Russian origin, a rather spectacular three-horse hitch with the tallest horse at the centre moving at a trot, and the other two outward bent, at a gallop.

– Four-horse hitch or four-in-hand.

– The arbalet, or Unicorn hitch, is elegant, but difficult to drive. Two horses are hitched close to the wheels of the carriage, with a lead horse in front.

– The tandem hitch: one horse in front of another.

– Six- or eight-horse hitches are harnessed two abreast, with a marked increase in the challenge of driving.

– The “timed cones” class is an exciting zigzag course against the clock, with 10 faults for knocking down a cone, and 15 faults for a ball.

All of the above breeds and events are part of the horse experience at Expo Québec. The classes begin at 7:00 p.m. nightly, now through August 25, with some additional events during the afternoons. But keep in mind that exhibitors are generally delighted to share their knowledge about their horses with you, and answer whatever questions you may have.

One might wonder, finally, what motivates horsemen and horsewomen to invest so much time and energy…Perhaps it is the ribbons, the badges of honour that are the pride and joy of these devoted horsemen and horsewomen that bring them back to Expo Québec year after year.

Well worth a detour from the candy floss and rides to discover for yourself…

Categories: News

About Author

Catherine McKenna

Catherine McKenna is a Quebecker of Irish descent who returned to her native city in 2002 to live inside the walls after many years in Toronto and the United States. Following her studies in literature and languages at York University, she rode Thoroughbred racehorses for 22 years, worked for The Pollution Probe Foundation, Canadian Parks and Wilderness, as well as in the arts, among other diverse endeavours. Her book, Jeanie Johnston Journal, was published in 2005, and she continues to write for various publications in Québec, Montréal, and Toronto. She has worked as an ESL teacher for ten years and a translator for five. The Défilé de la St-Patrick is an organisation dear to her heart; she has been a member of the Board of Directors since the revival of the parade in 2010.

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