NEW PHILADELPHIA, Ohio — In 1989, when the oldest of John and Paula Cush’s five sons, Jonathan, was just 9 years old, a Palomino mare named Honey came into the family’s lives.
A friend hauled that horse to the Cush homestead — in town, in Bolivar, Ohio — and Jonathan and his father tied the horse to a tree in the backyard.
“We had no knowledge of horses, no lead ropes, nothing,” Jonathan remembers. “We just wanted a horse.”
That horse quickly outgrew the grassy lawn that was its pasture, and moved to his grandparents’ farm outside New Philadelphia.
Honey quickly taught the entire Cush family one very important lesson: “One horse begets another.”
With Oak Haven’s Lou Lou by his side — towering over him, actually — Jonathan Cush wrapped up his most recent show season at the 2007 North American International Livestock Exposition.
Lou Lou, his sorrel mare, had just topped her class in the show. Cush’s pride continued to build as the horse was also named junior champion mare. Things couldn’t get any better.
And then they did. When the judge tapped her reserve champion Belgian mare of the entire show, Cush “just about fell over.”
“Winning with horses you’ve raised is the ultimate.”
After Honey came an Arabian mare, which the family housed in return for riding her. Then came an old spotted pony, Shorty, which all the Cush boys rode. Both still live out their days at the Cush stable just outside of New Philadelphia.
Jonathan and all four brothers — David, Michael, Greg and Erik — showed horses through their 4-H careers. Too old for that now, three of the brothers ride at the collegiate level.
“All the while, I never felt I fit in with that 4-H crowd,” Jonathan recalls. “It was way too competitive; that’s where you teach people to be great with horses, not to see how many blue ribbons they can get.”
The Cush men have always liked horses, so it was no surprise when John brought home a pair of old Belgian mares from the Dover auction in 2002.
A family friend, who raises Belgians, accompanied John to the sale that day, Jonathan explained.
“If he’d have had Percherons, that’s probably where we’d be at today. But he had Belgians, so that’s the way we went.”
Their first hulking horses, Ruby and Heidi — an old work team straight off an Amish farm — “taught us a whole lot more than we could ever teach them.”
It also sparked an interest that let the workhorse breed push the young man’s other passions aside and plow its way straight through the center of his heart.
The 20-something spent the summer and fall of 2002 — just after earning his degree in finance from Miami University — on the road with horseshoer Emery Stutzman.
Cush credits the time spent traveling to other horse farms across the region with Stutzman — whom he calls “a terrific horseman, friend and shoer” — plus advice from other Belgian breeders with shaping him into the horseman he is today.
“I asked one time what makes a good horse, and one guy told me I’d know after I’d seen 1,000 horses,” Cush reflects.
In the eight months he shadowed Stutzman, he did see hundreds if not a thousand horses across Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York. But he didn’t stop there in his quest to learn how to be among the best.
“I’ve spent a lot of time doing homework over the years,” Cush admits, noting that he’s burned several early mornings and late, late nights hanging around with and talking to breeders in show barns, or even helping his competition get its own team ready for contest, picking their brains and taking his own mental notes.
The first time Jonathan and brother Michael took to the showring with the Belgians, at the Tuscarawas County Fair, wasn’t their proudest moment.
Jonathan can laugh about it now, but admits that their earliest tries were downright futile. They finished last in every class they entered.
“Another competitor came up to us and said we didn’t have show horses, and he was right. It broke my heart. But that comment lit the fire, and I said that we’re going to have show horses,” Jonathan said.
“They say it usually takes about three generations to get good competition horses and horsemen,” Cush said.
With no lineage behind him and the itch to leave a mark on the breed in front of him, Jonathan Cush has put his own equine interests on the fast track.
Since first taking to the ring in hitch and halter classes, he’s made major strides — the kind that turn heads and make “the big guys” wonder just who this newcomer is.
“We used to get sent out of the showring. Then, almost overnight, with some good luck … here we were two unknown kids standing with this good Belgian stud, and the big guys were circling and looking at us and wondering who we were,” he said.
Since arriving on the scene at the major draft horse shows in 2002, the Cush herd has excelled.
In the last five show seasons — with appearances at the Ohio, Indiana and Michigan state fairs, regional shows and the North American show in Kentucky — the Cushes have netted 19 All-American nominations to be among the best of the breed.
They also have SCVF Jessica, the third overall mare in the country, and CF Samson, the reserve All-American stallion, in their showstring and as a foundation of their entire operation.
“I chuckle when I think of that, when I remember how I used to think we’d never do well. We’re on the map now.”
“Back then my goal was Please let us make the Top 10,” Jonathan said. “Now, I’m really getting used to being at the top. Now I don’t want to own one that’s not nominated.”
Cush, who works days in the family business as a financial strategist, spends the bulk of his evenings and weekends with his horses.
There are the veterinary and equine reproduction books to read, the pedigrees to look over, the horses to brush.
During foaling, he’s camped out in the barn around the clock, keeping a close eye on the television screen that lets him watch expectant mares. He doesn’t miss a second, he said.
“Dad says these horses are like cocaine to me: addictive and very expensive,” Cush jokes.
He’s not disagreeing. But he has found the returns from his addiction.
Cush, at 28, has already kicked off a judging career by ranking the draft horse hitches and halter classes at the 2008 Pennsylvania Farm Show. He’s also worked on the nominating committee for the breed association’s board of directors, a move that he says will truly let him leave his own mark on the future of the breed.
This year he’s prepping for the North American Belgian Championship, which he calls “the Olympics of Belgians,” and is keeping his eye on the prize: high-performing horses both in and out of the ring and show results that are always climbing.
“My one fear is that one of these times, we’ll start falling backward, losing forward momentum,” Cush admits. “I’m terrified of that.”
“But I’m also very fortunate. It seems the harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Cush stops at each stall and talks quietly to each giant, begging each to lower her head so he can slide on a halter, and then leads her to clomp through the barn’s aisleway.
At the lead, he grins when he eyes up Samson’s hulking body or gives Jess a nudge on her shoulder. There’s a certain happiness, a spring in his step, when one of his beloved Belgians is at the end of his rope.
“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” he recounts Winston Churchill saying.
And he believes it’s true, he says.
Especially when that horse is a Belgian.