Elegance and power: Draft Horse Classic starts today | TheUnion.com

Elegance and power: Draft Horse Classic starts today

Most of the participants in the Draft Horse Classic trailer their prized quadrupeds to Grass Valley from across the country.

But the partners of Empire Horse and Carriage Co. hitched up a team of Clydesdales and arrived the old-fashioned way, driving a wagon straight to the Nevada County Fairgrounds.

“We’re lucky because we’re so close,” said co-owner Will Snyders; he keeps the company’s Clydesdales at his farm off Thoroughbred Loop a few miles away.

Snyders and his wife, Paulette, retired to Lake Wildwood in 2004, and bought two draft horses that same month. He met his eventual partners – Nevada County residents Kim and Gloria Woodward and Dan and Sandy Higginbotham – during a driving class at Rock-N-Horse Ranch near Grass Valley, he said.

“I always liked the idea of draft horses,” Snyders said, adding he was a frequent visitor to the Draft Horse Classic even before he became a horse owner.

Snyders grew up in post-war Amsterdam, when most people were impoverished and used horses as commercial transportation, he said. One of his earliest memories is of seeing draft horses at a nearby farrier.

“It was hard not to be impressed by (their) beauty and power,” he said.

Draft horses “really are gentle giants,” Snyders added. “They’re easy, they’re friendly … They’re mellow, like a St. Bernard if you’re used to Chihuahuas.”

Dan Higginbotham also retired in 2004 and brought two Percherons and a Percheron mule with him when he retired to the area.

“I saw them at a Renaissance Fair during a jousting tournament,” Higginbotham said. “When I saw how elegant they were, I fell in love.”

“My story’s all about my wife,” Kim Woodward said with a smile. “Horses weren’t even on my radar screen.”

But Woodward got hooked after his wife “hauled” him out to see some draft horses.

“You can’t stand next to that much passion and not catch it,” he said, adding he eventually bought a Clydesdale from Snyders.

“We’re in it hook, line and sinker,” Snyders said.

The friends started the business about two and a half years ago. Empire Horse and Carriage Co. provides carriages and rides for weddings, wagon rides, parades, company or family events, farming or a special funeral service

“It’s a hobby for us, but we do more and more every year,” Snyders said.

The company has provided wagon rides at South Yuba River State Park’s Bridgeport area and at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park; the partners frequently donate their time at charity events.

“It’s not so much to make money,” Snyders said. “But it gives us a reason to take the horses out and do something with them. We love to share them with people.”

The team starts practicing in April or May for the Classic and worked especially hard this year because Snyders has a new Clydesdale.

By August, Snyders was out at the farm three or four days a week. When the Classic is over, he’ll scale down, he said.

“We try to work the horses every week, year-round, just to keep them in shape,” Snyders said. “I’m a firm believer that horses need to be used.”

Competing in the Classic takes a full eight days, Snyders said, beginning with set-up work the Sunday before the four-day event. His team spent Tuesday and Wednesday going back and forth between the fairgrounds and the barn, moving all the wagons and carts, and then the horses and tack.

The drivers plan to start their practice at 10 a.m. today and will compete in the farm wagon and four-abreast categories.

Snyders and Woodward will drive in several events Friday, including gamblers, which is an obstacle course.

Both men will compete in log skidding Sunday, and Woodward will compete for the first time in driving a four-horse team. He also will drive a stalk cutter in the farm implement event.

Higginbotham is not competing this year; he recently sold his more experienced team of Percherons and now is working with a newer team.

“Learning how to drive a team of two horses is not too bad,” Snyders said. “But driving four horses is 10 times as difficult. It’s interesting and challenging.”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail lkellar@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4229.

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