by Laura Rodley
The 2018 Equine Affaire highlighted many breeds available for attendees to view up close. Pamela Rickenbach, executive director of the 501(c)3 non-profit Blue Star Equiculture Draft Horse Sanctuary (BSE), was walking a 19.3 hand high, 2,900- to 3,000-pound Shire named Foxy for people to admire. He towered over other horses but was easily handled by Rickenbach, who happens to be 6’2”.
When Foxy was two, he was in an accident and got stuck in a mud bog. “They didn’t know how to get him out and wrapped him around the shoulders to pull him out,” said Rickenbach. “It ripped muscles and tendons under his left shoulder. His hips took on a lot of the stress to compensate.” As he was still growing, compensating resulted in his hip bones growing fused together, causing him to throw his back legs out in a splayed fashion when he walks.
When Foxy arrived at BSE at age three, Rickenback used acupuncture treatments and essential oils for a year to aid his discomfort and give him more mobility, as does walking in their “Paradise Paddock,” a system of pathways and rotating pastures that encourages more movement in the herd while simultaneously protecting the surrounding environment.
Apart from the way he walks, “now he’s completely normal. It doesn’t cause him any pain. He can actually trot and gallop without any hitch or problem. He is the herd leader. Foxy took that position after the passing of Tex, a former competitive pulling horse, a Belgian, measured by Guinness as one of biggest horses in the world at 20.3 hh,” said Rickenbach.
Foxy is one of 25 horses that live at BSE in West Brookfield, MA. He and his brothers Merlin, Tommy the Pinball Wizard and Big Ben arrived at BSE in 2012 from Ox Kill Shire Farm in Schoharie, NY.
It was agreed the brothers be kept together as ambassadors of the Shires, an endangered draft horse breed. Shires have attained world records in height and size. The brothers attest to that. Merlin is 20 hh and Tommy is 19.3 hh and 2,700 pounds.
Sadly, Ben died in his sleep in early November of a heart attack. He had been part of a working team with Tommy, pulling plows in the field or carts for occasions or in parades. They were scheduled to pull the haywagon while people chose Christmas trees at Silver Bell Farm in Monson.
On Saturday, Dec. 1, Tommy pulled a cart with a Percheron mare, Piper, from BSE, in the annual Barre Christmas Parade. “Afterward, all the little children gathered around him,” said Rickenbach.
She said, “Ben was the confident one. After the parade, Tommy stood looking lost in the barn doorway, as though he was looking for him.” He is missed by all.
According to the Cotebrook Shire Horse Center in Cheshire, England (www.cotebrookshirehorses.co.uk), the breed’s origins date back to the Normand Conquest in 1066 when heavy cold blooded horses were introduced to England. During King Henry VIII’s reign in the 1500s, laws were passed to breed only strong horses, with acts that forbid breeding horses under 15hh. “They were most famously his War Horse (or Great Horse) and invention, powerful enough to run in raids while carrying over 400 pounds of armor,” said Rickenbach.
In the 17th century a further infusion of Dutch Flanders and Friesian horses with massively wide hooves capable of doing such heavy work as draining the fens in eastern England remained in England and were used for breeding purposes due to their size, strength and kind natures.
The black stallion, Packington Blind Horse, is recognized as the Shire’s foundation stallion who stood stud between 1755 and 1770 at Ashby-de-la-Zouch in North West Leicestershire, England. He is listed in the first Shire Stud Book, as he sired many progeny. The UK’s Shire Horse Society (www.shire-horse.org.uk) was started in 1878 to protect the breed. At the time, it was called the English Cart Horse Society. Shires were used to pull heavy farm equipment and heavy artillery in World War I and World War II.
Rickenbach said, “Over eight million horses, donkeys and mules lost their lives in those wars and seriously impacted their place of work at home in America and England, forcing more to use motorized vehicles, something the general public did not switch to so easily. The Shires were commonly mostly used as the ‘heavy haulers’ for big loads that came off ships and brought into the city, and famous for hauling beer wagons too. Americans didn’t really take to using them agriculturally so their purpose became obsolete after World War II.”
By the 1960s, Shires had fallen from over a million to a few thousand, according to the UK Shire Horse Society. The American Nature Breeds Conservancy notes that by 1961, “the breed almost became extinct in the U.S.” Dedicated breeders worked to regain their popularity. There are now 2,000 Shires worldwide. “In the next generation, we’ll lose them if we don’t do something about it,” she said.
On their home front, BSE has retired hundreds of New York City and urban carriage horses as well as farm, logging and police horses. Rickenbach offers an alternative to sending their horses to auction, and tries to find homes for horses that are suitable for adoption.
There are approximately nine million horses (down from 25 million at the turn of the century) in the country. There are 150,000 of them that are homeless due to economics or health issues for the horse. That’s how many will need help. There are only a few – approximately 2,700 equine rescues in the U.S. with approximately a hundred or so in Massachusetts; these facilities can only handle 30 percent. Very few of these facilities specialize with working horses and their needs. BSE offers community outreach horse/human interactions for military veterans and seniors from group homes, Girl and Boy Scout clubs, 4-H groups, local parades and festivals.
In May 2018, BSE relocated to their current 65-acre site, Hamletgrove Farm in West Brookfield, owned by Darcie Confar, who resides at the farm and leases the land to BSE.
“This was a farm in the past. It was allowed to get overgrown. We are using the horses to bring it back to its productive state in an ecologically sensitive manner,” said Confar.
“They started bringing in the equipment in the middle of May. They moved the horses in a day. It was quite an operation, a big volunteer effort,” said Confar. “I love the promise that they bring of getting the farm back to what it used to be and could be. I knew I would never have the time and money to do it, but having the horses and teaching people to work with the horses to accomplish it is a gift.”
For more information, access www.equiculture.org.