Connect to History at the Yamhill Valley Heritage Center

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One of the amazing things about working with horses is the connection to history through the animal.

It’s history we take for granted—like the fact that we get on from the left side because soldiers of times-gone-by mounted that way in order to keep their swords (worn on the left hip) out of the way. Nowadays, the dashboard is where we look to see how fast we’re speeding, but back in the day it was truly a board on the front part of a carriage or sleigh to keep water, mud, or snow from getting thrown up by the heels of the horses onto the passengers. And if you’ve ever called out “shotgun” as dibs on the front passenger seat, you’re taking the spot once occupied by someone carrying a shotgun to protect a stagecoach full of treasure from would-be thieves and marauders.

History is passed on and kept alive by those who tell its stories, or demonstrate them, as is the case at the various Oregon Draft Horse Breeders Association shows held at the Yamhill Valley Heritage Center every year.

On Saturday, April 4, you’ll see horses and mules plow the spring earth as they compete in the plow competition. Teams of Percherons, Belgians, and many others work straight furrowed rows with tight turns at each end.

On Saturday, June 20, the association is giving a demonstration on haying implements that use actual horsepower. No dealer mechanic needed if there’s an equipment failure. Arrive early for the pancake breakfast and you can support the 4-H Wagon Train fundraiser.

And on August 15 and 16 the Heritage Center hosts the Harvest Fest where you can see the teams back in action harvesting the plots planted earlier in the year.

The community of people who put on these events have a love for their animals and also for sharing their knowledge and passion of the animals and of the sport. Driving teams of horses is indeed an athletic endeavor. In the same way that riders don’t just “sit there,” drivers aren’t just passengers, passively holding the lines.

When a team is taught to drive, plow, or pull a cart or wagon, they are first taught with the driver walking behind them, without a load. Even after teams are trained to pull or plow, the practice sometimes calls for miles in harness and under tracings. The work is physical—not only keeping up with the horses, but resisting the forward momentum of the horses, guiding them around turns, cueing them with a few taps down the lines, or calling to them to “get around” at the end of a row.

Last year I was invited to spend a Saturday learning the basics of driving a Percheron-cross team. The ground has to be just right for proper plowing but it was still far too wet at that time. So instead of learning to guide a plow, I learned the basics of driving with a tree as the load. The weight of it gives the horses a little resistance to pull against, and it taught me the nuance of working with something unwieldy behind the horses. Because really, anything you put behind a team can become unwieldy in unfortunate circumstances.

Learning to drive a team made me realize that no matter how curled my spine or achy my joints get, driving is a discipline that can keep me close to the animals I love—even if I’m no longer able to climb upon their backs.

I hope you’ll take the opportunity to visit the Yamhill Valley Heritage Center on one of the dates mentioned and meet the community of people behind the events. They are happy to share their wisdom. You might become so smitten with the magic of it you’ll be convinced to get your own team. And if you do, you’ll know just the community that’s available to offer advice and cheer you on.

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