Hitching power horses of the past to a new generation

STEVENSVILLE - Mark McFadgen was 6 years old when his father's last team of Percheron draft horses passed on at the ripe old ages of 30 and 32.

The pair helped work the family's 1,600-acre farm and cattle ranch perched high above the Bitterroot Valley on Sunset Bench.

Paul McFadgen, now 89, was one of the last Bitterroot ranchers to trade in the quiet and graceful four-legged powerhouses for the new steel mechanized inventions that changed agriculture forever.

"Dad farmed with horses when that's all there was," said Mark McFadgen. "He spent those later years driving in an air-conditioned tractor. He's seen the whole transition of agriculture firsthand."

But Mark, who now works as a teacher at Stevensville Schools, never forgot those horses.

Twenty years later, in 1978, Mark and his new bride, Kathy, bought their first team of Belgian draft horse mares, Rose and Daisy, so the elder McFadgen could pass on his knowledge of training, harnessing and hitching to a new generation.

The McFadgens now own 13 Belgian draft horses, including a 2-week-old foal and a 3-year-old set of twins - quite a rarity, Kathy McFadgen said, since only 5 percent of Belgian twins are born alive.

Her favorite is a 7-year-old blonde Belgian named Austin who stands 18 hands (about 6-feet tall), wears a size 8 shoe (most saddle horses take a 1 or 2) and has a spirited attitude.

The horses daily haul hay out to the 35 head of cattle on the McFadgens' 225-acre spread; the couple owns 25 acres and rents 200 acres.

The hard-working muscular animals, whose ancestors once carried armored knights into battle, are also key players in a carriage service that the McFadgens began almost four years ago for weddings and other special occasions in Missoula and Hamilton.

The Belgians take part in parades, draft horse shows, 4-H projects and hayrides that the couple also offers into the mountains that surround their Stevensville ranch.

"I've always loved horses," Kathy McFadgen said. "We really enjoy them."

Mark McFadgen was 26 years old when he asked his father to teach him to drive draft horses.

"I didn't know anything about driving," Mark McFadgen recalled. "You need to have someone teach you or you're not going to learn. It's not something you can just read about and then do. You need a mentor."

Mark said he always had the desire to know the intricacies of properly harnessing the large horses and hooking up all their lines.

"If you make one mistake, it won't work," he said.

And if a team breaks free because someone forgot to hook up the right line to the horse's bit, the horse can scare and bolt. The incident may cause a major setback in training the 2,000-pound animal or result in a serious accident.

Handling the lines is another matter - one of touch.

"You have to keep a little tension and know how to give a message through the lines," McFadgen said. "You have to do it enough that it becomes a natural thing. You get a feel for the team … some people never get it."

A third generation of McFadgens has learned the skill that some might view as an art.

Kelly McFadgen, 14, doesn't remember when he first grabbed hold of a set of leather lines.

Kelly grew up driving horses, his father said.

Three years ago, at the Ravalli County Fair, he competed against adults driving an obstacle course and took home a first-place prize. He also annually participates in the Spring Plow Day at Teller Wildlife Refuge, where crowds step into the past and experience the sights, sounds and smells of soil freshly turned by teams of draft horses and mules led by drivers from the Bitterroot Draft Horse and Mule Club.

His sister, Melissa, 11, also has learned the technique. She drove at a draft horse show in Sandpoint, Idaho, when she was 7 and also participates in shows around the area.

The horses play a special role in the McFadgen family's daily routine - one that creates a time for father and son to sit and talk about their day, and one that brings calm to a busy lifestyle.

Just before the sun drops behind the Bitterroots every evening, father and son don their jackets and caps and head out to the barn. They harness and hitch the gentle giants, and Kelly takes the driver's seat.

In a low but firm voice, he coaxes the team to head out to a field and then pull and push the wagon alongside a towering stack of hay bales. Using only five commands and knowledge of how to work the lines, the thin young man steers more than 4,000 pounds of muscle and spirit.

"Whoa" means stop. "Back" means back up. "Go" coupled with a kissing sound means move forward. "Gee" means right and "haw" means left.

Mark tosses the bales onto the old wooden wagon until it's about half full. Kelly commands the team and the wheels begin rolling forward into the cattle pasture where cows are already approaching their dinner.

For Mark, the time spent out on the wagon and in the fields is relaxing.

"It's my therapy after school," he said. "It's a different pace."

"When I go out with the pickup, I feel like I'm doing it (feeding the livestock) because I have to," he said. "When I go out with the horses, I feel like I've done something worthwhile."

Seated at his son's kitchen table, Paul McFadgen, whose bad hip prevents him from driving horses much anymore, just smiles when asked what it's like to see the skills he spent a lifetime polishing pass down to yet another generation of McFadgens.

"It's a good deal," the elder says with a smile.

Draft horse and antique tractor farming demonstrations will be conducted at Teller Wildlife Refuge in Corvallis on Saturday, April 15, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.

Horse and mule teams from the Bitterroot Draft Horse and Mule Club and antique tractors and equipment from the Western Montana Antique Power Association will be plowing and planting fields at Teller as they demonstrate old-fashioned equine, steam and gas power.

There is no entrance fee.

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