ALBA – They can weigh nearly 2,000 pounds, and tower at six feet or more in height.
They can be an intimidating presence, but for Tricia Hojnowski of Alba, they’re “just like oversized teddy bears.”
They’re draft horses -- Clydesdales, Percherons, Belgians, and Shires, and for the 15-year-old Hojnowski, the big, powerful horses are a source of fascination.
The teenager, a 10th-grader at Troy Area Junior-Senior High School, has been around draft horses for as long as she can remember. She lives down the road from the Young farm on Route 14, home of “Young’s Real Horsepower” and several Clydesdales. On a recent winter day, two of the horses stood outside, munching on hay amid a landscape of snow and red barns. “Clydesdale Boulevard” was the message on a sign in the farmyard.
Here, as a child, Hojnowski was introduced to the animals.
“Tom Young just lives up the road from me and ever since I was born, my dad would take me up to the barn with him,” she recalled. “I would sit in the hay in the field while they hitched the horses and did farm work with them like mowing oats and loading hay. This is probably what helped make me feel so comfortable around the horses as I grew up.”
A childhood photo shows a curly-headed Hojnowski when she was only a few years old as Young, driving his horses in the background, reaps and binds oats. She smiles for the camera.
Her favorite horse at the Young farm is Donita, a 6-year-old Clydesdale owned by the Youngs. Standing by the giant, Hojnowski gently caressed the animal, giving it a soft kiss on the nose.
“For the most part, she tends to be very mellow and relaxed,” Hojnowski said. “She’s very, very easy to work with and she picks up on things very easily and fast.”
In the past, draft horses were used for work around the farm, such as plowing, planting, and harvesting, but they’re now used for shows, wagon rides, and even riding.
Ever since she was 7 years old, Hojnowski has been showing Clydesdales.
“As I got older, I was allowed to be more involved in helping them get the horses ready for show, and then showing them,” she said. “Eventually I got to the point where I knew how to harness a horse better than my dad.”
Young, who has 14 Clydesdales at his farm, is impressed by Tricia Hojnowski’s initiative.
He said “there is more to showing horses than show day, or the day of the big parade, and Tricia in January is out there thawing up the ice out of the water buckets, and in July, she is throwing hay bales like nobody else can.”
Being careful is part of the trick of working around such large horses. It has the potential to be dangerous, so you have to keep on top of things.
“When you’re hitching up six horses and these horses are 10 times as big as you, that’s a lot of horse power,” Hojnowski said. “They can take over if you don’t have them trained well, or if you don’t have something hitched up right, it can go wrong in a lot of ways.
“You’ve definitely got to use your voice, speak up,” she said, noting that you have “to figure how to communicate to the horse, get their attention, make sure they know you’re there, because you’re so small, they might not even notice you’re there.”
“You have to make sure they can see you, they can understand what you’re asking from them.” She also makes sure that she’s familiar with the horses’ individual personalities.
The big horses have provided some interesting moments for her over the years.
“I remember having to put boxes in the carts since my feet could not reach the bottom of the cart,” she commented. “I also remember showing one of Tom Young’s horses in a showmanship class and on my way out the gate, the horse raised its head, lifted me off the ground and carried me back to the stall. The funny thing is I do not recall ever being scared of these animals. I just had fun being able to be around them and to be able to work with them.”
While taking part in draft horse competitions, Hojnowski has earned many honors from different fairs in Pennsylvania including Troy Fair, Lycoming Fair, Harford Fair, and Luzerne Fair.
“I have received many placings at the (Pennsylvania) Farm Show for this activity over the past 8 years and have placed at the Owego, N.Y. Fair,” she said. “I also have just recently won State Champion Draft Horse Cart at the Pennsylvania State 4-H Competition this past October.”
She participated at the draft horse show at the recent Pennsylvania Farm Show, placing second in the halter class, third in the western riding class, fourth in the youth cart class, English riding class, and the decorating class, and fifth in the showmanship class. She was showing Donita.
“The hardest part of working with draft horses is preparing them for the actual show,” she said. “Everyone sees the horses trotting around the ring with their shiny harness pulling a nice cart, but in order to be able to do that there is a lot of cleaning and training that is put into these horses before they enter that ring.”
She said that cleaning is “a big thing, especially when working with Clydesdales, because most of our time at the wash rack is spent cleaning their feathers (the hair on their legs).
“Since the feathers are long, white hair, you want them to be really clean and untangled. What I like most about showing draft horses is having the power to control an animal that is about 10 times as big as me. They may be big, but they really are just like oversized teddy bears, and they are really fun to work with.”
She has an encyclopedic knowledge of the draft horse contests.
Hojnowski noted that the draft horse competition at the Farm Show is a three-day event in which draft horses owned by Pennsylvania residents are shown in multiple classes.
“Draft horses are heavy built horses that were used for pulling heavy equipment on farms,” she said. “When draft horses are shown, they can be shown in halter, under saddle, pulling a cart or in a hitch. In Halter classes, the judge is looking at the conformation of the horses and placing them according to the best-looking horse. In riding classes the horses are judged on how pleasurable they looked being ridden. Cart classes are judged on how well the horse moves out and picks up its feet. In all the hitch classes, all the horses are judged on how well they move out, pick up their feet, and how well they move together.”
She likes driving them the most.
At the Farm Show, she said, young people are very much involved in the show.
“There are youth classes such as showmanship, cart classes, riding classes, team hitch classes, and a decorating class. All these classes are judged fairly similar to the open classes, except the judge looks at the youth more and places them according to how well they showed the animal.”
“The Decorating Class is a class that only youth compete in,” she noted. “All the contestants walk their horses in and have someone else bring in grooming supplies and a stool. We get 30 minutes to braid the mane and tail and put decorations in the mane. Once the 30 minutes are over, the judge places the class from who has the best mane roll, and tail. Showmanship is like halter classes, except the judge is watching how the youth show their animals and how well they can set up their horse to stand square.”
Her father, Tom Hojnowski,the Canton FFA advisor, said, “Tricia’s experience with draft horses has been a fun one.
“She has acquired so much knowledge that she applies to working with all of the horses, drafts and non-drafts alike. She has developed much better horsemanship skills than I and particularly loves the way that drafts are shown at draft horse shows. She has learned most of what is needed in order to show drafts from a wide array of friends who show at the many shows as well. The horse experiences are preparing her well for what she hopes to do in college as a major in the animal sciences and perhaps the veterinarian field.”