Calgary – Regular attendees of the Calgary Stampede often build traditions into their visits: a high-flying spin on the Ferris wheel, a leisurely stroll through the barns, betting loonies on the tarmac at the chucks. For Express Clydesdales, their tradition is winning the Calgary Stampede World Champion Six Horse Hitch every four years.
The team — owned by Bob Funk of Yukon, Okla. and driven by Josh Minshull — trotted off with the championship title Sunday afternoon at the Saddledome, adding to their wins in 2013 and 2009.
“We’ve been here now for 24 years, cattle first and then with the horses. Calgary is the highlight of our year from a family and a showing perspective. To win the Worlds in Calgary makes me cry,” said Funk, standing in the barns holding the Championship belt buckle that comes with the win (along with a cheque for $10,000). “Josh is one of the best drivers in North America. He’s a young person; I hired him at the age of 17. He wasn’t even old enough to drive the trucks. I had to hire drivers for the first two years. He’s always one to improve our hitch. . . . And he does a wonderful job managing the ranch as well.”
The nine high-stepping teams in the heritage event — representing all four draft breeds of Percheron, Clydesdale, Belgian and Shire — were judged by a panel of three experts on conformation, presentation, driving and reinsmanship as they were put through their paces to live music provided by members of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. The teamsters control the gentle giants with voice commands, as well as the reins.
“That run felt really good. The horses went out and they wanted to work today. Everybody was right there in my hands,” said Minshull, 33. “This is almost a completely new bunch in the past year, year and a half. We are rebuilding and gearing up for the World Clydesdale Show next year. They went out and started to click, though.”
Championship teams are made, not born. Take the ZD Pickering Farms hitch out of Prince George, B.C. Although the team of Percherons was only assembled last fall, owners Zane and Diane Pickering entered it at the Stampede. The move paid off: their six horse hitch earned Reserve Champion after the judges called for a three-wagon drive-off to determine the final ranking.
“We’ve got a ways to go, of course. We keep working on them. They are young horses, so they have to get used to the people and the racket and everything else that goes on in and around the ring,” Zane Pickering said. “We understand that it takes time and effort. There are some longevity commitments to formulating the team and we’re prepared for those.”
Veteran teamster Gordon Ruzicka helmed the ZD Pickering Farms team and trained the horses over the winter. The team of mostly four year olds “is a very, very talented bunch” with great potential, says the native of Viking, Alta. In general, it takes one to two years of training for a group of horses to hit its stride.
Pickering grew up listening to his grandparents and father talking about the draft horses they used to log and farm on their operation in B.C. About five years ago, he decided it was time to get the family back in touch with its draft-horse heritage and bought some Belgian pulling horses. Their string of five teams enter pulling competitions, and Diane competes in cutting horse. Four years ago, the Pickerings decided to add a six-horse hitch to the mix. They started with Clydesdales, but transitioned to Percherons after the first year. (Zane wanted Belgians, but lost the deciding coin flip to Diane.)
“We have built the equipment. We’ve got the crew. We’ve got the horses. We are working it now. All the pieces are here,” Pickering said. “There is never a day that goes by that you don’t strive to be better. It’s in our interest to better ourselves, as we want to see the hitch be in the top three hitches in the world.”
For the full results of the Calgary Stampede World Champion Six Horse Hitch, please visit calgarystampede.com
About the Calgary Stampede
The Calgary Stampede celebrates the people, the animals, the land, the traditions and the values that make up the unique spirit of the west. The Calgary Stampede contributes to the quality of life in Calgary and southern Alberta through our world-renowned 10-day Stampede, year-round facilities, western events and several youth and agriculture programs. Exemplifying the theme We’re Greatest Together; we are a volunteer-supported, not-for-profit community organization that preserves and promotes western heritage and values. All revenue is reinvested into Calgary Stampede programs and facilities.
See more at calgarystampede.com