DIARY: Searching out four-legged horse power for this season’s final installment of Escapes with Nigel.
Rattlesnake Point on the Niagara Escarpment is a tall cliff, notable for a pillar of rock that looks about to topple over, but has probably been separated from the rock face for millennia. The road is steep and winding and perfect for roaring up in a sports car or rushing down on roller blades. The only downside is meeting a vehicle coming the other way. Years ago, when I briefly had a soft top Renault Turbo Fuego, the kids loved nothing more than roaring up the sinuous curves, the wind rushing through their long blonde locks, screaming with delight. Later, my son took up long boarding and told me of his adventure coming down the hill, and losing quite a bit of skin in an upset at the bottom.
Coming off the escarpment on the other side of the massif, there’s a spectacular view over the Ontario landscape, with Country Heritage Park in the foreground. That’s our destination today, but with an overpowered Jaguar XK convertible starring in the opening of every episode of my television series, it was too much of a temptation not to lead the crew a merry chase up the hill for a bit of shooting. Now the 290 horsepower engine is cooling down and we are off to see horse power of a different kind.
David Natress, the general manager of the park, has invited us for their annual Heavy Horse Days and we are delighted to be out in the hot summer sun for our final day of shooting for this season. I’ve probably driven past the former Ontario Agricultural Museum dozens of times. To my shame, I’d never ventured inside the grounds. But when we were looking for an agricultural event to cover for my television series, this place came immediately to mind.
The Ontario Government has long ago bailed out and the whole operation is now privately funded and run by a very small staff and lots of willing volunteers. The group inherited a stunning location with the majestic cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment as a backdrop, and authentic farm and village buildings scattered around the site. A group of car fanatics have restored a 1920s rural gas station, as a centrepiece of a wonderful collection of antique cars. A farm equipment company has generously donated a huge collection of classic tractors and all over the site volunteers are working to display and restore agricultural objects. In one shed alone, there are dozens of horse drawn threshing machines, the ancestors of today’s combine harvesters. Along the back wall hundreds of hand ploughs are mounted. There’s a school, a church, a women’s institute, several residential buildings, and two complete farms as well as a smithy and a harness shop. As David points out, however many people are on site, it still seems a quiet and tranquil place. Eighty acres can suck up a whole lot of tourists.
Heavy Horse Days is a gathering of farm horses organized annually by the park. Volunteers come with their teams and demonstrate how all the tasks of the agricultural world were undertaken in the days before steam and tractors. Huge draft horses were used in the fertile belt around Toronto for about a century and started pulling more complex farming implements as machines were invented in the industrial age. They replaced the brute force of a farmer simply guiding a plough by hand through the rough soil and were eventually ousted with the invention of the tractor. A US government test in the thirties concluded that farmers spent $0.95 per acre plowing with a tractor compared to feeding eight horses for a year and paying two drivers, which cost $1.46 per acre, so it wasn’t long before draft horses’ days were numbered.
Before we get to meet the big guys, we have an appointment with the blacksmith, where Brad has brought his team of miniature horses to get new shoes. These small animals are true horses, not ponies, and as the public begins to arrive they offer kids rides in their little cart.
Needless to say, making a horse shoe is a lot harder than it looks and takes an amazing amount of strength and skill to bash the hot iron into shape. After totally messing up one end of a miniature shoe, I pass the tongs back to blacksmith Mike, who finishes the task in short order. Mike’s last name is Smith. I don’t think he had much career choice but to be a smithy.
Under a spread of magnificent trees, beside a half ploughed field, a pair of huge Percherons rest up while I chat with farmer and owner Tony. He’s operating an ancient threshing machine, the latest thing of its era because it can tie a knot around the sheaves of barley. Vintage machinery, entirely horse powered, and working perfectly.
Carrie is both a farmer and a farrier and I ask her about working at two tough jobs in what’s generally seen as a man’s world. She brushes feminist thoughts aside with a simple explanation. The farrier looking after her own horses was a woman and she thought: if she can do it, so can I. Carrie guides her two heavy draft horses down the field making perfect straight rows. I suspect, like everything else around the Park, it’s a lot harder than it looks.
At the end of the day we meet up with Jim, who has been driving visitors around in a Connestoga wagon. Jim is very patient and lets me try my hand at driving the team. Managing to get them travelling in a straight line is relatively easy. ‘Giddyup,’ gets them going. But then I get confused about whether it’s ‘Gee’ or ‘Ha’ to turn left or right. I get them turning by using the long reins, which I’m more used to from riding, but my first turn is too tight and the wheels almost lock against the carriage. But Jim lets me try a couple more times and in the end I manage a complete circle. Too bad that bit ended up in the editing bin.
We have a grand day at the Ontario Heritage Park and I look forward to many return visits for other events they hold throughout the year, starting in the Spring.
I’ve always loved riding horses and so it was a great thrill when my then eight-year old daughter Rebecca asked me to take her riding not far from here. We signed her up for lessons and I don’t think she’s gone a week without being around horses in the intervening years. My own horse had gone to the sales auction when the economics of bringing up children intervened, so we rode school horses together. Her first owned horse was a giant seven-eighths Thoroughbred called Spinnaker. The horse had to be big because I rode him as well, but Rebecca was the one who handled him the best. Other horses came in the intervening years, but now she has a new baby.
We went to see Lela for the first time, just before Christmas, and at nearly two years she is a lovely creature. Her coat is shiny dark brown, with a white blaze on her face and white socks. She was bred locally and is a Clydesdale Thoroughbred cross. She’s nearly 16 hands tall now and is going to be huge. When she’s three, Rebecca will start riding her. Proud as I am, I think of Lela as my first grand-daughter.
I hope you enjoy watching the tv show as much as we had fun making it. Watch the Escape to Milton episode on Bell Local, Channel 1217, if you subscribe to Bell Fibe, or on our website.