Clydesdales – the beer horses, right? That’s not what you think when you visit The Draft Horse Project (TDHP). http://www.thedrafthorseproject.org. TDHP is a therapeutic farm in Geauga County with four Clydesdales and two Shires. Clydesdales originated in Scotland and Shires originated in England. We have our own “Shires of Windsor” close by — in Windsor, Ohio. A draft horse can be one of many common breeds: Clydesdale, Shire, Belgian, and Percheron. Regardless of their heritage, these six gentle giants were rescued and given a second chance at life. That chance has become our gift. Clydesdales and Shires were bred for farming, pulling heavy loads, and logging. Now their work is serving others’ emotional needs. “The horse chooses you.” states Alicia. And they are magnificent givers.
Founder Alicia Matejka and her husband, Larry, began rescuing horses who were up for auction. They wanted to give them a second life. Alicia has been riding horses since age 8. Grounded in deep faith, she and Larry were seeking a way to serve people. During the rescuing and rehoming process, Alicia noticed the effect horses were having on people. It was inspiring. People were emotionally moved. She immediately recognized their potential and found their new purpose. Serving veterans, those with anxiety, disability, depression or other ailments. People who need their spirits lifted.
“Really anyone can benefit from working with the horses or coming to spend time with them. We are all broken in some way and in need of healing,” says Alicia.
Meet Buck, Champ, Blue, Pauline, Higgins, and Dolly. All have different stories of how they became rescued. But a rescued horse needs integration into the existing group. The integration process into the herd is slow and deliberate. A new horse is usually paired with a docile horse, then slowly introduced to the rest of the herd. Horses innately know a hierarchy exists, and they work it out among themselves. TDHP is a place of love and acceptance. The incoming horse senses this and begins with desensitization training. After all, this is a new home, a huge departure from what they’ve known. The next step is working on ground manners to ensure they are polite and respectful while being handled. Finally, they train to ride. This process benefits the herd as well as those visiting. It’s all about love, safety and acceptance. (see more photos later in article.)
Like many herd or pack animals, a leader is essential. A leader helps keep control, keep order, and keep the other members safe. Buck is the esteemed leader of this group. The leader isn’t the eldest or the most assertive as you may imagine. It happens internally among them, and the respect of the others follows.
I saw how Buck would nudge Champ out of the way, so he had me all to himself. Not in the sense of a bully, but as the leader and the other horses respect that. When I went to pet Champ, it was clear he waited for his signal from Buck before approaching me. Buck may have been a bit jealous, but he soon let Champ approach me. One way the horses communicate is through the position of their ears. When Blue wanted to eat and Champ was at the trough, he waited for the ear signal before putting his head into the trough. These horses are incredibly perceptive of each other and of human behavior. They read us long before we know we are communicating to them.
Don’t think they live the life of luxury standing around all day. The team exercises them to keep them fit. Alicia and her team work to train them for acceptance in the herd and acceptance of visitors. Some arrive with issues, as humans do, and need rehabilitation work to fit in. These creatures are exceptionally perceptive. Alicia shared a story that a horse can pick up if you have an apprehension or some type of prejudice (say you don’t like white horses.) The horse may actually back away sensing that, and you might need a bit more time getting to know him or her.
That’s one example of how horses choose people.
They know if you have anxiety, have hesitation, or are an open spirit who welcomes them. Fortunately for me and my love of all animals, they were vying for attention to come say hello. I arrived with an open mind, hands ready to pet, lips ready to kiss, head ready to lean against them, and ready to receive a hug. Their idea of a hug is beautiful and touching. When it’s time, you place your head toward the neck of the horse, and it ever-so-gently wraps its head and neck around yours.
Mercy the dog. (love that mustache)
To keep fit, Alicia has a track system where she lays hay placed along the track to keep them moving. It happened on this day that they were divided three and three in two different stations. The group at the second station galloped in excitement to meet our vehicle. I was so excited myself to meet the next three. I rolled down my window and Dolly put her head into the car wanting affection! Again, they knew I loved them and sensed it was safe.
The herd ranges in size from 16-17.3 hand and 1,500 – 2,000 pounds. The largest is darling Pauline at 2,000 pounds. Yep, 2,000 pounds of love. But have no fear – they are truly gentle giants. Gentle giants with good appetites. Each horse eats about 50 pounds of hay daily, a $14,000 annual cost.