Have you met Ollie, Odyssey, Ruby, Judy, Sally and Brooke? These gentle giants are the hard working Percheron horses that pull the wagons for our winter sleigh rides and at Mountsberg’s Maple Town and Christmas Town.
Percherons were first bred in the fertile French region of La Perche (located in Normandy), from which they get their name. Many visitors tell us the horses bring back memories of growing up on farms. They are well known as draft horses, commonly used in agriculture, for pulling cargo, and even pulling trees out of forests. The invention of the tractor almost erased the breed. Percherons were used as artillery horses in World War I due to their ability to tolerate loud noises and challenging conditions. Percherons are able to work in such challenging conditions because they possess an even temperament. They are intelligent, willing to work, and have an ease of handling.
One of the many differences between Percherons and Thoroughbreds are the positioning of their legs. Percherons have been bred to work in teams and consequently, their legs are positioned more closely together under their bodies. Another more obvious difference is their size. Percherons can reach 6’4” (19 hands) in height at the withers and up to a colossal 2400 lbs in weight—the same weight of a small car! Thoroughbreds, in comparison, can reach 5’8” (17 hands) at the withers and up to 1100 lbs in weight.
The horses’ health and well-being is paramount when we make any decision about their work. The horses love to pull, and work together with one another and with their handlers. It is great enrichment for these strong, intelligent, social horses. However, we need to be conscious that working horses work up a lather and, in very cold temperatures, this can be dangerous for them, as it would be for humans. We are grateful to our guests who also understand that the health of these amazing horses comes first when deciding whether to use horses or a tractor to pull our wagons and sleighs.
Our current team is comprised of Sally, Odyssey, Ruby, Judy, Ollie, Brooke. Ollie (age 11), Odyssey (age 10),Ruby (age 12), and Sally (age 18) are the core members of the Maple Town team. Ollie is the matriarch, or grand dame, of the group. She is a key member of the team—due to her temperament and work ethic, she can be paired with any of her team mates. Serena Livingston Moorhead, a handler at Mountsberg, told us how caring Ollie is.
“There have been a few times at night during Christmas Town when she wouldn’t let me leave. If I walked away to do another task she would call out with a big whinney. I would come right back, and she would go silent. I would try again moments later, and it would happen again,” Moorhead said. “It turned out a few times that there were coyotes in the area. I felt like she just wanted to keep me near and safe.”
Odyssey is a gelding and the only male member of the team. He is our largest team member weighing in at almost 2000 lbs and, despite his large size, is very affectionate with his handlers. Ruby is our second oldest team member and has led a previous life as a lead show horse. Her show background still shines through as she is eager to pull and show our guests and her team mates how things are done. If you’ve signed your Ways of the Woods campers up for Farm Camp, they might meet Sally. She is very easy to teach with and will play a larger role in our Farm Camp this summer. Sally is a gray mare and the oldest of our horses which makes her very reliable in many situations. She works well in a team hitch pulling wagons or sleighs but really likes to by herself in down time, that’s why you may see her alone in the paddock at the back of the barn or inside alone on a frosty day.
Two new team members were added in 2015. Born only one day apart, April 25 and 26, 2013, both Brooke and Judy are now almost five years old and are still growing into their frames. Horses are carefully selected for our team to make sure they are a good match for our other team members and that they enjoy the work of pulling a wagon at a busy education centre. Both horses are a little shy but curious about people and we are excited to watch as they learn the ropes. Megan Sutton, another handler at Mountsberg, told us how much Brooke has grown up, and especially excelled at driving.
“It is amazing how Brooke has been since she started driving more,” Sutton said. “Brooke has always been a very clumsy horse—she doesn’t watch where she’s going so she trips constantly when she’s out in the paddock or being walked to the barn. But as soon as she’s driving, she’s like another horse! She has a job to focus on and its clearly made her very happy and helped with her concentration”.
The next time you’re visiting Mountsberg Conservation Area, stop by the paddock and the barn and wave hello to our team of Percherons. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to go on a sleigh ride during Christmas Town or during Maple Town!
Thank you to Rod Kennedy, Serena Livingston Moorhead, Megan Sutton, and Erin Gibson for their contributions.
Last modified: January 25, 2018