By Matt Reese
Cattle people love cattle shows and hog people love hog shows but pretty much everyone loves draft horse shows. And, fortunately for those in Ohio, the Ohio State Fair has five impressive days showcasing the largest livestock on the grounds.
The Ohio State Fair draft horse competitions are among the top in country.
“It truly is outstanding. I see it grow every year. I am so proud of it and I think it is great entertainment for all of our visitors who come to the Fair,” said Virgil Strickler, Ohio State Fair manager. “They get those horses decked out in their harnesses and the wagons they are pulling — that is just something you don’t see every day. And to see those six-horse hitches out there in the coliseum at one time for the Governor’s Cup is just phenomenal.”
In the background of those impressive horses at the Ohio State Fair is Ron Mack, who has served as the Ohio State Fair Draft Horse Superintendent since 2001. Mack loves that so many State Fair visitors get to see the draft horses because he has a long history appreciating draft horses himself.
“When I was about 8 my uncle was farming with draft horses and he needed help on the farm. He didn’t have any kids yet and needed help. When he made hay, he’d load the hay and I drove the horses. When he made maple syrup in the woods, I’d help and keep him company. I fell in love with horses,” Mack said. “When I got older I was able to buy a farm in 1977. I was really ill with cancer and I wanted to buy a draft horse before I kicked the bucket. I bought my first draft horse in ‘82. I went from one to as many as 12. I started hitching and learning and teaching myself. I showed Belgians at the Ohio State Fair from 1982 up through when I started running this show. I had been going to six state fairs and 10 or 15 county fairs and so on. I have done some judging too. I slowed down showing in ‘99 and 2000.”
Outside of the draft horse world, Mack had a career as a teacher, coach and athletic director. The discipline and people skills he learned in his career have served him — and the Ohio State Fair draft horse shows — very well.
“I try to get along with everyone and I have a lot of discipline in my background as a teacher and coach. You have to have some passion but bend a little here and there without losing what you represent,” Mack said. “The State Fair had shows for seven or eight different breeds back when I started. Now there are really just two shows — the draft industry and 4-H are the only horse shows at the State Fair. We are fortunate that Virgil Strickler, when we went from a 17- to a 12-day show kept us at a five-day show. We were one of the few that did not get cut period. We’ve gotten bigger and better since then and we have really grown in the last four or five years. Virgil has been a huge supporter and should be credited for much of this progress.”
A highlight of the draft horse shows is the Governor’s Cup, featuring an impressive six-horse hitch competition.
“Our Governor’s Cup was started back in 2002 and we have had some of the best six-horse hitches in the country come through there. The first year we invited the two six-horse hitch winners from each of the breeds: Belgian, Percheron, and Clyde/Shires — that first year we had six in the Governor’s Cup. It was sort of a championship class. We raised around $5,000 for awards to get it off of the ground. After that we allowed anyone in and we got up to 21 hitches then it fell back to 16 or 18. We are hoping for 30 in the Governor’s Cup this year. Last year we had 27 and it was the largest six-horse hitch competition in North America. People who come to the Ohio State Fair usually end up being in the top of the North American hitches.”
The early success of the Governor’s Cup at the Ohio State Fair put the draft horse program in a very strong position nationally in the North American Six-Horse Hitch Classic Series. In the Series, six-horse hitches across the United States and Canada compete at agricultural exhibitions to accumulate points for the Classic Series that includes 60 qualifying shows.
“They have a championship at the end in Oklahoma or Denver or Pennsylvania. They started the series around ‘87 and if you hooked a six at the big fairs they kept track of the points. The Classic has helped the industry big time,” Mack said. “At the Ohio State Fair, we host more Classic Shows than any other fair. We have six Classic shows for the draft horse industry. There is a Classic show for each of the three breeds and the Governor’s Cup for each breed. If you don’t come to the Ohio State Fair, you’re probably not going to make it to the championship.”
Involvement in the Classic Series requires higher payouts, which also has helped Ohio State Fair draft horse numbers.
“We don’t have the most money in the country but, for example, we have gone from $5,000 to $12,000 in the Governor’s Cup. The top dollar award is maybe $1,000 and the minimum is $200. If you enter, it costs you $50 so at least you get back what you put into it. The six-hitch people at the Fair average about $1,000 in entry fees and stall fees to come and they go home, on average, with $2,000,” Mack said. “The total is around $87,000 that is available to win for draft horses at the Ohio State Fair.”
Big awards are needed for the big, expensive, animals.
“If you take the dollars invested in wagons, carts, harnesses, semis, trailers, employees, salaries, horses — when you add it all up it is very expensive,” Mack said. “Some show four months a year, some show nine months a year. You can pretty much show year round any more and they travel with crews of four to five people with all of that equipment.”
The draft horse numbers have also increased because of efforts to cater to the super-sized challenges and needs of draft horse exhibitors.
“The first thing I did when I took this job was meet with the Fair people. I went in with my briefcase. I asked where the hot seat was and they said, ‘Over there.’ I went over 13 items I thought draft horse people would like to see changed. After an hour and half I had 11 of the 13 OKed. I thought that was doing pretty well,” Mack said. “Then I asked to meet with the Highway Patrol a few days before the Fair. I went to their office and said, ‘Look, I want to work together and I want to help. If you have a problem with any of my people parking here and parking there and coming in the wrong gates, call me and let me handle them, unless it is an emergency.’ I told them we wanted to cooperate and get along. I always meet with the Highway Patrol now every year. I work with them on a first name basis and we get along. They have been fantastic. They listen, they are super good people and they have been flexible.”
That flexibility extends to the exhibitors’ stay at the Fair as well.
“We’ll have around 800 draft horses and ponies at the State Fair, but they are not all there the whole five days, which helps,” Mack said. “We are fortunate in that most fairs require people to come from a deadline to a deadline. We have a policy that you can come and go when you want to.”
Mack, now 83, has enjoyed watching draft horse entry numbers climb during his tenure due to his efforts.
“Being as old as I am they asked me if I had an assistant. If I was going to have an assistant, I wanted someone who I could get along with who works like I do. Sometimes it is not a good thing to have family and friends working with you, but I have a granddaughter — Chelsea Ball — who sees things the way I do and she has a backbone. She is interested in helping and now she is my assistant. She runs the office and runs the computers. She can run the whole thing if I’m not there,” Mack said. “Getting ready for the show is a challenge and the seven days we are there for the shows are intense. The days start at 7:30 and then at night I spend a lot of time wining and dining with the people. That is part of getting to know people and understanding what they need. If you like it and live it there really is no tough part.”
From July 30 through Aug. 3, Ohio Ag Net (ocj.com) will be live streaming draft horse shows from the Ohio State Fair, including the Governor’s Cup on Aug. 2.
“We are going to live stream shows each night,” Mack said. “Being an old guy I don’t always get into the computer stuff, but I think it has helped us and will help us. I don’t understand all of it but it is amazing what it has done for the industry. I think overall it is going to be great for us and help more people get interested in draft horses — and we can brag and say we have some of the best hitches in North America at the Ohio State Fair.”