JEFFERSON, Ohio – Dick Stasiak cried when his dad sold their family’s draft horses. He was just a kid, but he had fallen in love with the majestic animals.
But back then, tractors were arriving on farms throughout the country, rendering draft horses and their work obsolete. Stasiak’s father was one of the many to purchase the new invention.
Greatly attached to the horses, both Stasiak and his mother were in tears as his dad sold their last draft. Then, moved by their tears and perhaps more than a little fond of the horses himself, Stasiak’s father bought the drafts back.
A constant. The breeds changed throughout the years, from Clydesdales to Belgians to Percherons, but Stasiak, now 75, hasn’t been without a set of his beloved animals ever since.
Stasiak, from Pierpont, Ohio, can’t put into words why he loves draft horses so much. He just knows there’s something special about them and their magnificent size.
He’s in a position to know, having made a living from working with and showing them for over 50 years.
First in showring. As a 19-year-old, he brought two black Clydesdales to the Ashtabula County Fair. No one had ever brought drafts to his home county’s fair before.
Since an official draft horse department didn’t exist, the fair board set up a special tent for him and his drafts.
“I paraded them around the fairgrounds,” remembers Stasiak.
He continues to travel to fairs in the summer to this day, showing in halter classes and driving in hitch classes.
Next in line. Now that Stasiak is getting older, he’s been handing the reins over to – or at least sharing them with – his grandson, Sam Rettinger, 25, to whom Stasiak has passed on his fondness for drafts.
“He’s been working with me ever since he was knee-high to a grasshopper,” says Stasiak. “He’s the only grandkid who took a shine to them. He likes them more than I do.”
Together they live at and run Whispery Pines in Pierpont, a sawmill and logging operation. Their work includes using their drafts to skid logs out of local forests.
Horse versus higher ed. Rettinger briefly attended Kent State University to pursue a career in industrial arts, but he, like his grandfather, couldn’t resist the lure of drafts.
“I tried to go to school, but he couldn’t do it on his own, and I wanted to be there,” says Rettinger.
“He had money saved for one year’s tuition, saw a horse he liked, and bought it instead of going to school,” Stasiak reveals.
Penchant for Percherons. Stasiak and Rettinger currently own six Percheron geldings. Percherons have been Stasiak’s breed of choice for more than 30 years.
Stasiak and Rettinger don’t breed their horses. Instead, they buy them at sales as 2-year-olds, train and use them and eventually sell them as 7- to 8-year-olds. Two are for sale even now.
Made it to Arlington. One pair was recently purchased by the military, to serve in the caisson platoon of the 3rd Infantry Regiment at Arlington National Cemetery.
Stasiak and Rettinger were both attached to the horses, but they were put on sale because their dapple-gray coat didn’t fit well with the four black Percherons in 6-up hitch competitions.
“There were some tears shed,” admits Stasiak.
Passed inspection. A military veterinarian saw the pair of dapple-gray horses for sale on draftsforsale.com and inquired about them. A veterinary technician, blacksmith and manager from the platoon came to Whispery Pines for a two-day inspection of the animals.
The Old Guard, as the regiment is often called, is stationed at Fort Myer, Va. The horses will be used in full-honor military funerals. Roughly 1,500 funerals are performed at Arlington each year.
The horses aren’t unfamiliar with driving in that type of event. Besides showing at fairs, Rettinger and Stasiak occasionally drive their horses in funerals and weddings in northeast Ohio.
Work horses. Stasiak and Rettinger don’t put their drafts through any elaborate training to prepare them for shows. Any preparation they receive comes from working in the woods.
“People tell us you can’t show a horse you work,” Stasiak says.
But Rettinger and Stasiak proved the skeptics wrong, most recently winning premiums at the Ashtabula County Fair, including first- and second-place in teams of geldings at halter and first-place in draft horse hitch team.
The teams at halter are judged on movement and confirmation; the hitches are judged on quality, performance and ease of handling.
“Even when we’re showing them, they’re working,” says Rettinger.
Stasiak and Rettinger couldn’t show their Percherons in as many events as they usually do at the Ashtabula County Fair this year because a few the horses weren’t quite ready. Instead they drove a few Belgians for friend Doug Carlson.
“It was a trial-and-error fair. We weren’t able to do half as much as we wanted. It was the first time with the wagon for some of them,” explains Rettinger.
Daredevil. Missing at this year’s fair was Stasiak’s trick of riding the 6-up draft horse hitch “Roman-style” at the culmination of the show, which involves him standing on the backs of two of the running horses while Rettinger drives the wagon.
After seeing chariot races and cowboy-rescue scenes in movies, Stasiak felt like trying the daredevil stunt roughly six years ago.
“I like it up there, as long as Sam is driving the horses,” says Stasiak.
However, a recent logging accident left him hospitalized for two days, so a still-recovering Stasiak didn’t attempt it at this year’s fair.
He did drive in several of the shows, though, including his first-place drive in single draft horse hitch 60-years and over.
Stasiak, Rettinger and their Percherons headed to the Ashtabula, Geauga and Crawford (Pa.) county fairs, as well as fairs in Waterford and Albion, Pa., this summer.
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