Clydesdales in dressage

A horse story about Duke and the comeback of Jack.

The Hungerfords and Tracy Olsen atop Jack. — Bella Bennett

A Clydesdale doing dressage — a type of riding that focuses on agility and gaits, with no jumping — is like a parrot in a canary cage: Clydesdales are a specific breed of draft horses, which are not only much larger than their competition,they are also bred for a completely different skillset. Regardless, Clydesdales Jack and Duke of Hungerford Farm in Chilmark continue to exceed everyone’s expectations with their gentle dispositions and surprisingly graceful movements in the show ring. At Sunday’s dressage show, hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard Horse Council, dressage trainer Tracy Olsen of West Tisbury exclaimed, “You wouldn’t believe how light on their feet and light to the aids that these boys are! They’re so fun to ride!” Owners Bob and Irene Hungerford maintain a great deal of love and respect in their training of these horses, and this tactic has proved very successful. As Irene commented to a Times reporter, “I feel very honored that they let us be a part of their lives. They are very, very special animals.”

At Sunday’s dressage show, six-year-old Jack showed training level, which includes walk, trot, and canter gaits, while five-year-old Duke showed intro, which excludes the canter. For drafts, canter is an unnatural gait, as they are bred for work over riding, and are thus bred for slower gaits and stamina. This being said, both Jack and Duke seem cheerful at the canter.

“People really love watching them go,” Ms. Olsen said. “When Jack canters, the whole Ag Hall shakes.” Weighing in at about 2,000 pounds each, it seems pretty impressive that she can convince either of the horses to stay within the bounds of the 20- by 60-meter dressage ring.

For these drafts, showing is little more than a bit of horseplay: they are already at ease in a crowd and don’t seem to mind an audience.

Jack and Duke are learning dressage because, “lower level dressage is the fundamentals of riding,” as Ms. Olsen put it, and will therefore help to achieve her goal of raising safe and well-trained riding horses. This being said, the pair exude conscientiousness and already appear to be very safe. The Hungerfords’ grand-niece, Abby, had her first ride on Jack Sunday afternoon when she showed him in the lead-line class. Before getting in the saddle, Abby admitted that while she was very excited, she was also, “a little bit nervous,” which was completely fair, as she stood only to Jack’s shoulder on the ground, and appeared much smaller atop him. This contrast fully commanded the attention of the audience, however, and made for a wide-smiling, high-scoring ride.

Beyond lead-line and dressage, Jack and Duke have no shortage of talents. Irene explained, “Versatility is the name of the game. The other day they were pulling logs out of the woods for us.” Furthermore, both Duke and Jack drive solo and as a team, which Tracy finds particularly entertaining because their personalities really show when driving together. “Jack’s laid back nature often needs some giddy-up to keep up with Duke,” Tracy said. “Bob really has to drive each horse entirely differently,” in order to maintain the same pace and therefore a cohesive team.

Before Jack stole Mr. Hungerford’s heart, he lived in “a very narrow and dark barn” in Connecticut. Mr. Hungerford had visited the barn to buy an old Belgian draft, but as he was speaking with the barn owner, he felt a tugging at his trousers, and looked down to see two-year-old Jackson (now affectionately shortened to Jack) nibbling at the ankle of his jeans. “It was a weak moment,” Mr. Hungerford admitted: he returned home with two horses instead of one.

A year later, Mr. Hungerford met Duke, who was bred to be a part of a hitch (one of eight horses pulling a large cart, as featured in the Budweiser commercials) in Ontario, Canada, where he was born. “The owner broke up the hitch when Duke was two,” Mr Hungerford said, “and all of the horses were going to auction. I thought to myself, ‘hmmm, I ought to have a team,’” and Duke joined the family.

Despite scoring second place in both of his classes and having crowds of admirers, life for Jack hasn’t always been easy. Two years ago, Jack was diagnosed with an anaerobic infection inside of his hoof called a canker. For an entire year, the Hungerfords did everything they could to treat Jack’s affliction, but the canker continued to come back. After many treatments and, “hundreds of bandage changes,” they had to send Jack to Tufts Veterinary Clinic to be healed. The canker, or tumor, had grown around the bone above Jack’s hoof, and had to be removed very carefully. The vets needed to have an MRI machine on the area for the entirety of the surgery, which Jack underwent lying down. Jack was one of the largest horses that Tufts has ever done this type of surgery on, and it was quite precarious. Jack then began a six-month rehabilitation process, during which the afflicted hoof was constantly packed and repacked with chemo and antibiotics. It was a very long and stressful time for the Hungerfords. Thankfully, the surgery healed well and seems to have fully resolved the canker, leaving the Hungerford family in high spirits. Irene remarked, “Jack loves Bob,” Ms. Hungerford said. “It’s lovely to watch their bond grow. It is very special when an animal lets you into its life and you can be its person.” The affectionate way that Mr. Hungerford interacts with Jack — through touch, vocal commands, and encouragement — reveals the depth of their bond, as does Jack’s affinity for nuzzling his human pal.

Following the show, the Hungerfords intend to continue to hone all of Jack and Duke’s talents, and will display many at the Ag Fair this summer. Mr. Hungerford recently built a beautifully handcrafted wagon, which the team will pull at the Fair – between pulling logs and being ridden both bareback and under-saddle.

“Many breeds of draft horses are actually endangered,” Mr. Hungerford said in explaining his special fondness for draft horses, due to the waning need for them to perform farm work. After meeting the Hungerfords’s gentle giants, it’s hard not to sympathize. There are however many programs emerging to employ these “heavy breeds” of horse, and hopefully we’ll see more drafts in the dressage ring in the future.