Meet these 'gentle giants'

When Elizabeth Flint was 7, her parents went to an auction and brought home the biggest creatures she'd ever seen. They were draft horses - the kind of heavy horses that worked on farms before tractors were invented. But Elizabeth's parents didn't buy the drafts because they needed help with their crops. The Flints, who live in Highgate Center, Vt., bought these big horses because they have a sweet nature. The horses also are fun to show and can help with pulling things on the farm. The family's affection for these "gentle giants" has grown, and now they own nine of them.

Draft, or draught, in the English spelling, refers to "the act of drawing or pulling." Draft horses combine incredible strength with impressive looks and gentle dispositions. They are taller, stronger, and up to twice the weight of saddle horses. They have wider hooves and backs.

After being seen as outdated 50 years ago, draft horses are making a modest comeback in the US. Horse expert Robbin Miller of Johnson, Vt., calls them "110 percent trustworthy." Drafts can be trained to obey voice commands, so even children can handle them.

Elizabeth, now 14, stands with her gray mare, Daisy, ready to enter the white-fenced arena of a local draft horse show in Johnson. She will compete in obstacle courses, riding contests, and events called halter class (the horse is led) and cart class (the horse pulls a two-wheel cart). Elizabeth hopes to earn some ribbons - maybe even the "Junior Teamster" award, given to the teenager with the most points at the end.

Daisy is a Percheron, a breed developed by the French in the 17th and 18th centuries for army mounts. Descended partly from the elegant Arabian horse, Percherons are intelligent and sleeker than other draft breeds. They were the favorite carriage horses of French kings. Belgian draft horses enter the arena with Daisy. These are the most common drafts in the US. They are blond and combine great strength with a willingness to work.

Draft horses not present at this show but bred in the US and other countries include Clydesdales, once used in Scotland for farm work and hauling on the streets of Glasgow. They are chestnut-colored with black manes and tails. The old Shire is a huge horse bred in England during medieval times. It was strong enough to carry a 400-pound armored knight into battle. They have "feathers," or long hair on the backs of their lower legs. The smaller Suffolk Punch draft was not bred for war, but used by English farmers to plow clay soil. It's known for its endurance.

Elizabeth leads Daisy into the arena and asks her to stand, trot, and back up. She leaves with a fourth-place ribbon - not bad. Later, Elizabeth's father hitches up two black draft horses for her to drive in a cart class. In this event, pairs of horses are hitched to old-fashioned two-wheel carts. The child and a parent sit in the cart and drive the horses around the arena, responding to commands like "walk," "trot," and "back." Judging is based on how well the drivers and horses work together.

On the farm, the Flint family's draft horses are used for hauling logs from the forest, collecting maple sap, and riding bareback in the fields. The family also uses their drafts to give hayrides. Elizabeth's favorite activity is driving, or guiding her horse when it pulls a wagon or sled.

"Holding the reins is like holding the steering wheel, the gas pedal, and the brake all at once," she says.

Unlike machines, though, draft horses sense people's feelings. "When I'm upset, I go down to the barn and talk to them," Elizabeth says. "My mare puts her head right around me and hugs me."

What is it like to ride a draft horse? Elizabeth says it's easy to stay on because their backs are so wide. And they're comfortable, her sister Ashley adds, "like a gigantic couch."

At the show, it's time for the 14- to 18-year-olds' cart class. Elizabeth drives her black Percherons into the arena. Their huge polished hooves pound the ground. Their long tails fly in the breeze, and their soft black manes seem to float.

Next, Elizabeth's little sister, Michealla, has a turn. She's only 5, but she slaps the reins with confidence. With her dad beside her, she makes them trot so fast her straw hat flies off.

"Whoa," Michealla shouts, and they stop. "Back," she commands, and they back up. The judge smiles and hands Michealla her hat and a blue ribbon.

Later in the show, the family's favorite draft, Prince, helps Elizabeth win ribbons in races and games. And guess what? She earns enough points to win the "Junior Teamster" award.

Just how big is a draft horse?

• Height: Up to 6 feet 5 inches at the withers, or the highest part of a horse's back (at the base of the neck)

• Weight: 2,000 pounds or more

• Strength: can pull three times its weight - 6,000 pounds or 3 tons

• Hooves: up to 8 inches or more in diameter - as big as a dinner plate

• Food: a bale of hay (40 pounds) of hay per day, plus grain

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