By Kim Lemmon
If you have ever watched Gary, Greg and Mike Rowe of Bellevue show their Flat Rock Draft Horses six-horse hitch of Percheron draft horses, you’d never guess that they weren’t born into showing and hitching draft horses.
These brothers and their horses work together seamlessly and have earned several top honors at draft shows throughout the country. It can be argued that for the past several years, this team of brothers and their horses are one of the top hitches in the nation. This feat seems even more amazing when you consider that the family’s interest in showing draft horses all started with an FFA project.
When Gary Rowe joined FFA in 1989, his family had owned draft horses for a few years but they didn’t show them. Soon after Gary joined FFA, his younger brothers Greg and Mike joined as well.
Throughout their FFA career, the brothers’ combined efforts involved serving on their high school horse judging team, earning a couple of state farmer degrees and a state proficiency award in equine. In addition to serving as a learning experience outside of the show arena, their FFA projects led to their start showing draft horses.
“We just had draft horses on a small piece of property,” Gary said. “I was in FFA and I needed a project so we decided to use one of the horses. We started showing because it was my FFA project. That is what really got us started showing.
“At first, we just showed halter classes at a couple of county fairs,” he said. “We were just a county fair group, and we did all we could to make it through the shows. It was a learning experience.”
As they continued to participate in shows, the brothers’ interest in showing continued to blossom as their skills at showing the horses improved.
“We just kept growing,” Gary said. “Greg got into FFA and started using a horse as a project. A few years later we decided to start hitching. At first we had more geldings, then we switched mainly to mares when we started going to state fairs and getting a little bit bigger.”
Eventually, the Rowe family campaigned a six-horse hitch of grey Percheron mares at several shows per year. The men chose greys because they like the color. They recently switched to geldings and all three men agree the change was a good one.
Not only do they like the geldings better, but they no longer have the expense and limitations of a mare breeding program that also shows hitch horses.
“We just switched to geldings three years ago,” Gary said. “They allow us to show year round if we choose to.”
“Geldings are easier to get along with,” Greg said.
Having more agreeable horses is important for these busy men. Gary holds a full-time job as a machinist. Greg is a farrier and travels throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan during the show season helping others make their horses’ hooves show ready. Mike tends to the horses and the hay field at home.
“Everybody has their position and thing that they do and everything runs smoothly,” Gary said. “Greg started shoeing horses because we couldn’t afford to have somebody else shoe them so he started doing ours. Then he started working with another guy that had a bunch of customers and he learned how to do it so he started his own business.”
“I started shoeing my own horses and it turned into a job by mistake,” Greg said.
When asked how he has time to shoe the Flat Rock horses, he answered, “I don’t. I often have to shoe them at the show grounds.”
Under Mike’s supervision, they make about half the hay they need for the year and buy the rest.
“We get three cuttings a year,“ Mike said. “Once August hits, with our show schedule it is hard to get enough time at home to catch good weather to cut and bale it.”
The Rowes are facing the same hay shortage the rest of Ohio livestock owners share.
“Right now we go through 13 bales a day,” Mike said. “We are going to start calling people that we have gotten hay from before.”
With the shortage of hay and the high prices, the Rowes are concerned.
“I do not know how we are going to cover that expense,” Greg said.
Right now they have 21 horses at home. They still have a few brood mares and former hitch mares from their mare team along with their geldings and a few horses they are showing in halter classes for another exhibitor. All these horses keep Mike busy.
“I work the hitch horses five to six days a week,” Mike said. “I try to work them three days and give them a day off and then work them three days again.”
The Rowes have a half-mile track where Mike works the horses to get them in shape for the 10 to 12 shows a year they attend.
The list of shows they often attend includes the Centerville Classic Draft Horse Show, the Ottawa County Fair, the Ohio State Fair, the Indiana State Fair, the Iowa State Fair, the Keystone International Livestock Exposition, the Big E, the Southern Ohio Draft Horse Show, Ohio Buckeye Draft Horse Show, and the Michigan Great Lakes International Draft Show. Their show season is typically June through November.
It takes a semi truck with a trailer, an additional truck with a trailer and a camper to get this hitch of horses and their accessories to each horse show.
All three men agree that the highlight of their show experience was traveling to Denver, Colorado, for the North American Six Horse Classic 2010 Finals at the 2011 National Western Stock Show. They won the finals that year.
To be invited to the North American Six Horse Classic Finals, a team has to collect points at qualifying shows throughout the United States and Canada. The top four teams in each of the three divisions are invited to the finals. The divisions are Belgians, Percherons and a third division that combines Clydesdale and Shire teams.
Once qualified for the finals, the teams compete three times over three days under three judges. It is quite a feat to qualify for the finals, let alone win them.
“You compete against all the breeds,” Gary said. “Theoretically you are the best of the best in North America if you win that.”
During the show season, the Rowes depend on friends and neighbors to care for the horses they leave at home while they are gone.
“Some friends of ours take care of them for us,” Gary said. “That is a chore in itself to make sure everything is taken care of when we are gone.”
Despite all the hard work and the challenges that owning and showing draft horses present, it is obvious that this team of brothers enjoys what they do. They’d have to in order to spend 20 years at the task. They hope their futures continue to be tied to family and horses.
“We have no intentions to stop,”Gary said.
For all of those who have enjoyed watching these men’s efforts develop from FFA projects into one of the nation’s most successful draft horse hitch programs, that is good news.
Make sure you check out Kim Lemmon’s original blog on the Rowe brothers’ horse Cody and her more recent blog for video of the Flat Rock Draft Horse crew preparing a four horse hitch for the 2012 Indiana State Fair.