Like many young girls, Sarah Brockoff started working with and riding horses early in her life. She recalls making her show ring debut at the age of two in lead line classes, and ran her first set of barrels when she was four.
As a young adult, Sarah still enjoys training horses for barrel racing. She says that when she’s seeking a barrel racing prospect, she looks for a horse with heart that’s broke to ride but doesn’t know the pattern. “I do a lot of walking and trotting,” she said, describing what she believes is the best way to start a barrel horse. “I also trail ride, and sometimes work them up in a field so they aren’t always in the arena.”
Although the best barrel horses aren’t necessarily from race horse lines, Sarah prefers horses with Streakin’ Six and the Dash Ta Fame bloodlines. “Some people like to breed a cow horse to a horse from a racing line to settle them down,” she said. “That’s what I like.”
Sarah grew up in 4-H, and in 2010, she won the state 4-H competition in draft horse driving. Today, in addition to training and competing with her barrel horses, Sarah is also actively involved with her family’s Belgian horses. The tradition started with her grandfather Dave Brockhoff, who had Belgians and competed in pulling competitions. “My dad (Dale) always had a team, and we started showing in 2006,” said Sarah. “He said he wanted to do this (show Belgian hitches) some day, so we did.”
Sarah started learning to drive draft horses when she was about five years old, which is also when her family began to train and prepare draft horses for hitch competitions. When asked about the differences between riding and driving, Sarah explained, “The main thing you can take away from riding and driving is slow hands. If you start pulling harder on one horse on one side, they don’t know what you’re asking.”
Sarah’s full time job is working the horses, caring for them and conditioning them for the show ring. Sarah’s boyfriend Bud Miller, a champion draft horse driver, drives the six and eight horse hitches with Sarah’s assistance.
The exhibition season for Brockhoff Belgians is between June and January, and during the off-season, Sarah is busy preparing the horses for competition. The majority of training involves sled work with the horses as teams, although Sarah will sometimes hook up six on weekends. For the most part, horses maintain the same positions in the hitch. If a new horse is added to the team, Sarah will switch that horse from side to side so it doesn’t become accustomed to working on only one side. “If they’re a lead horse, we usually keep them in the lead,” she said. “If we have a problem with another horse and have to switch them, they can all switch places.”
Preparing Bud, Cletus, Jet, Sheldon, Charlie, Ghost, Otis and Bruce for exhibition takes some time, but the Brockhoffs have it down to a finely orchestrated process. Sarah says it takes several hours to prepare for the hitch classes, and that’s with plenty of experienced help. The horses were already clean, and just needed mane rolls, tails braided, blackened hooves and harnesses put on. When every horse is ready, and right before the class is scheduled to begin, the horses are hitched to the wagon.
“It usually takes about an hour and a half to get the six together,” said Sarah, explaining the process during the Keystone International Livestock Exposition (KILE), “but we’re hitching eight today after the six, so it’ll take two hours to get eight ready. We’ll hitch the six then come back and get the other two.”
With ample help from family members and friends, the horses were prepped quietly and efficiently. The Brockhoffs have found that they achieve the best uniformity, which is important in the ring, when each person works on their area of expertise. Sara’s mother Tracie is an expert at braiding tails, so she handles that, while grandfather Dave’s duty is to make sure every piece of harness is sparkling clean and shiny. Sarah’s father, Dale, and Bud work together to harness the hitch and arrange the long reins necessary for driving a large hitch. Several other friends have learned the various preparation jobs and accompany the Brockhoffs to shows simply because they enjoy doing it.
Otis, the horse that’s the newcomer to the group, was the last horse to be pulled from his stall for final preparations because he’s still learning to work with the hitch. For a while, Otis just came along to the shows for the experience but wasn’t part of the hitch. “Sarah worked him with the sled with another horse at home,” said Miller. “He’s in the wheel position (the team closest to the wagon) of the eight-horse hitch.” Bud explained that Otis’s bloodlines are a bit hotter than the other horses’, and Otis has benefited from Sarah’s patient, quiet work to prepare him for the 8-horse hitch.
Sarah says her family didn’t envision being at the top tier of competition level, but that’s where they are today. The Brockhoff Belgians did well at Keystone, with wins in the Four-Horse Hitch, draft geldings; Ladies Cart, Belgian; PA Exhibitor Cart; Draft Horse Team, Belgian Geldings and Draft Horse Team, ladies.
Because the Brockhoff Belgians will be exhibited at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in January, Sarah will continue to work with them through late December. “After that we’ll pull the shoes and let them be horses,” said Sarah, adding that winter and early spring mud tends to suck shoes off. “Then we’ll start working them again in April.” Winter is also sale season for draft horses, so Sarah and her family will spend time traveling to sales while their own horses are on pasture.
Sarah says there’s a lot to be learned about driving from riding, and vice versa. “There are a lot of things I’ve learned and made either my hitch better or my barrel horses better,” she said. “There’s still more to learn, and horses are the best teachers. They’ll tell you a lot.”