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Originally published August 2, 2013 at 12:06 PM | Page modified August 6, 2013 at 2:50 PM

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Whatcom families nurture a life with the gentle giants of beer-commercial fame

The sun around which this draft-horse galaxy revolves is the Northwest Washington Fair, a Lynden institution for more than a century.

Pacific NW staff writer

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You'd almost have to be in Amish country back in Ohio or those remnants of that culture... MORE
Go take a look at the Brotherhood commercial. Bring a tissue. I love draft horses. ... MORE
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REACHING TO unhook the gate to a pasture on his rural Whatcom County farm, Ed Henken pauses to pass along a sort of disclaimer, borne of decades of close contact with Clydesdales.

"They won't kick you or bite you or anything," he says. "But they might push you over."

This will make a whole lot more sense in about a minute and a half.

Walking through ankle-deep grass, Henken whistles in the direction of a pair of young Clydesdales grazing 50 yards away. He shouts. Whistles again.

Munch, munch, munch.

Another call.

Suddenly, the nearest horse swivels his outboard-motor-sized head toward the encroachers and, still swallowing, begins hoofing it toward them. The other big horse follows, rushing to catch up.

Clydesdales, it turns out, are fairly competitive. And the next thing you know, it's a Clyde drag race, with the pair of 4-year-olds, Maggie Mae and Malik, pushing snout-to-snout to establish first human contact. Soon, one horse breaks into a trot, then both. They're making a beeline.

Mental notes from a coward in their path: You might have read all about Clydesdales and their draft-horse brethren being "gentle giants." And — just admit it — your heart might have melted a little as one particular Clyde in "Brotherhood," a recent Budweiser commercial, broke from its wagon-duty ranks and galloped down a city street to reunite, in a tender embrace, with a man who, you are supposed to believe, raised the horse from infancy years before.

So you possess at least shaky faith that the couple of tons of animal with hoofs as big around as cast-iron skillets will not soon pound you straight into the fertile soil of the Nooksack River Valley. But seeing these two bruisers come at you is still a big-gulp moment, thanks largely to the ground reverberating with the ka-whump, ka-whump, ka-whump of their feet.

Thank God, you think, when Malik pulls up short. He walks straight toward you, pushes his snout against the side of your head, and, his long mane drooping over your shoulder, firmly but carefully nuzzles his neck and chest to your face, clearly cherishing the contact.

This is where Henken's prior warning becomes clear: These leviathans might knock you over, but not on purpose. Maggie Mae and Malik are essentially frisky St. Bernards that just happen to stand 6 feet high at the rump and weigh 2,000 pounds.

That's not their fault. Any incidental toppling of people is fueled not by aggression but by their own playfulness — or, more likely, inter-horse competition to be The Local Center of Human Attention at a given moment.

"Every one of them has a little bit different personality," says Henken, who has raised 140 Clydesdales, 13 of which are still in the family, with a couple young ones on the way. "They're very social. Any trouble usually comes from one wanting all the attention."

For most people, particularly city slickers, rubbing noses with one of these massive, genteel beasts might qualify as a bucket-list moment. For the uncommonly large draft-horse community around Lynden and Custer, it's just another Thursday.

ED HENKEN, longtime Whatcom County roads engineer, is about as "Lynden" as a person can get: His late father, Arthur J. "Art" Henken, a city councilman for 49 years, was a staunch defender of the city's tradition — largely still honored — of shuttering its doors of commerce on Sundays. The town is still widely known for that conservative bent, reinforced by a high percentage of churchgoing. But among farming folks, it's best known across America for its draft horses.

Ed himself is patriarch of one of a dozen local families that own and operate six-horse hitches — a concentration likely unique in North America. Clydesdales, Belgians, Percherons in all three colors, including the rare sorrel — they're all here. All are raised and trained by families, some now into their fourth generation, that keep alive the largely lost art of harnessing the beasts that once defined "horsepower."

The horses are a product of their place, and vice versa.

In sharp contrast with much of the Puget Sound lowlands, the lower Nooksack River Valley has remained dirt-road rural. Draft horses need a lot of space, not only to roam but to grow the pasture grass and some of the hay that they consume at a clip of about 40 pounds a day while stabled.

The big horses, to put it simply, fit here in Washington's "Fourth Corner." They always have.

At its farming heyday in the 1920s, the valley that now produces the bulk of the nation's raspberries was home to hundreds of dairy farms — all the heavy lifting and pulling done by draft horses. While most farmers switched to tractors in the 1940s, Whatcom dairy farmers' affection for true horsepower lingered, with some hitches performing tasks such as delivering fuel oil all the way into the 1960s.

Today, some of Whatcom's draft-horse families are still farmers. But most are draft-horse hobbyists, their majestic animals living lives of relative leisure except for show-time duty at Northwest fairs, and a couple remaining plowing and pulling contests. The sun around which this draft-horse galaxy revolves is the Northwest Washington Fair, a Lynden institution for more than a century.

The fair, which launches its annual six-day (never on Sunday) run this year Aug. 12, feels like a 1950s time warp: It has the usual accouterments: curly fries, hot-tub salesmen, vegetables shaped like Lyndon Johnson, a demo derby, various farm implements, Ginsu knives and casino-level musical talent. But the best show of all — free with fair admission — is a showcase for the six-horse hitches.

The "heavy horse" barn at the fair is home, for one week, to more than 50 of the gentle beasts, lined up hip-to-hip in tidy rows beneath neat name tags, their long tails and manes braided and tied with show-time flair. Once a day, a small army of horse family members of all ages assembles at the barn to conduct the time-honored, meticulous ritual of harnessing each horse with 150 pounds of leather and steel finery, then hitching them in pairs to gleaming wagons lined up outside the barn.

It's a unique spectacle, usually with nine hitches — more than 100 tons of horse — champing at industrial-sized bits. But it's only a precursor to the spotlight event, the "Lynden Fair free drive," that caps the daily show. Not for the faint of heart, it's a decades-old tradition in which all the wagon teams break into a full-gallop, unchoreographed, figure-eight-style weave around the arena.

The resulting near-miss chaos — it's more controlled than it looks, drivers say, but still mildly dangerous — is spectacular. Dirt flies, the earth shakes, the rattle and jangle of the hitches and harnesses providing up-tempo accompaniment to the heavy bass of the hoofs.

It's sort of like the Blue Angels on the hoof, and for reasons surely involving sanity and liability insurance, you won't see this anywhere else in the world.

"Nobody else is as crazy as we are here in Lynden," Fred Polinder Jr., at 85, one of the county's draft-horse pioneers and a national legend in the draft-horse community, says with a cackle. "Maybe we just don't know any better."

Crazy like foxes, perhaps, given the way that maintaining the tradition keeps horse families with one muck boot firmly planted in a rural way of life they clearly treasure.

NOBODY GETS rich raising draft horses. At least not around here.

"It's a family hobby," says Craig Shagren, a real-life contractor whose distinctive Belgians are a staple at the Lynden and Puyallup fairs. "You're certainly not in it for the money."

Sponsorships and appearance fees at regional fairs such as the Puyallup help defray the cost of moving and feeding giant horses. The consensus is that the lucky families break even.

Most draft-horse families run farms or other businesses to support themselves. The Henken Clydesdales are managed these days by Ed's son and daughter-in-law, Ray and Monica, who also run an excavating company from their ranch.

Just up the road, the Polinder family's trademark black Clydesdales now are in the hands of Courtney Polinder, Fred Jr.'s grandson. Courtney, representing the fourth generation of Polinders to show horses in Lynden, is a Whatcom County sheriff's deputy. He and his wife, Heidi, stepped in at the last minute in 2006 to buy the horses and keep them in the family when Fred and his wife, Glenda, retired after 50 years, and neither of their sons wanted to take on the task.

A few miles east, the Shagren family's huge, muscle-ripped, bay-colored Belgians frolic on a former thoroughbred ranch that's now run by three generations of Shagren men, along with the able aid of three sisters and their entire families.

"We're a bunch of crazy Dutchmen," says Craig Shagren. "You've really got to enjoy it, because it's a lot of work."

Many people see the draft horses all decked out for an hour a year; few see the years of training and daily grind it takes to get them there: Scooping and exercising, washing and brushing, coaxing and cursing and, ultimately, bonding.

It is a labor of love. By necessity. And it would all fall apart without constant reinforcements by way of new recruits, namely grandchildren.

The reins, literally, get passed on a regular basis out here. The next-generation Shagren horse platoon — Craig's three teenaged sons — already has displayed its dominant draft-horse gene, despite other teenage distractions.

"I think it's cool," says Dak Shagren, 18, a star athlete at Lynden High School who began driving the family Belgians at 15. "Not a lot of people get to do this."

Bill Shagren, his grandpa, has seen Dak get beat up in many a Friday-night football game, but never fail to make his stall-cleaning shift at 5:30 Saturday morning.

That, above all else, has made a lifetime of horse handling worthwhile for Bill, a retired dairy farmer and truck driver who sold the family farm to buy the current Belgian ranch — also now home to two of his kids. The horses give the family a common purpose.

Watching 15 grandkids start to embrace that is icing on the cake, allowing him to live what he calls a dream retirement focused on eight strapping Belgians.

"I couldn't do it without them," he says, with a look that lets you know how much that means to him. "If you had to pay a crew, you couldn't do any of this."

A WEEK LATER, Bill Shagren is walking around with an oversized Crescent wrench in his back jeans pocket, hanging as if it's at home, as the draft-horse community converges on a local grass field to engage in a delightfully simple spring ritual.

Lynden's International Plowing Match began, according to legend, in 1942, when Cornelius "Cornie" Verduin, another local draft-horse legend, was driving around admiring freshly plowed spring fields one day when he blurted to a friend, "Let's have a plowing match!"

That's how things work out here. The event, often drawing teams from the lower B.C. mainland and Oregon, has continued every year since, becoming part of the social fabric — which is also how things work out here.

In the 72nd edition, 17 pairs of draft horses are working the field, slicing deep furrows and laying rich, reddish-brown soil over in neat rows like frosting on the edge of some creation at the Dutch Bakery on Front Street. In the field's center, Tucker, a younger black Clydesdale paired with steady veteran lead horse Jock, is giving Courtney Polinder — six-time champion at this event — fits.

Seeing this, Fred Polinder Jr., his grandfather, rises haltingly from a lawn chair and, leaning on a walker, makes his way out into the field.

"Has this horse been on a plow?" he asks, nodding toward Tucker. Courtney shakes his head. "You should've practiced," Fred says, with a knowing smile, and then tells other family members, "Courtney learned a lesson there."

Fred, who took the reins from his father at age 12, confesses that, not long ago, when a friend was coming to town, he couldn't recall how to get to the Bellingham airport. But he can fondly rattle off names and details of draft horses from half a century ago like they were his own children.

In his golden years, nothing thrills him more than those times, now rare, when he boosts himself into his Ford pickup and drives down to Courtney's place — the old family farm on Polinder Road along the slow-rolling Nooksack. When he arrives, a few of the family Clydes recognize the vehicle and come running toward him, eager to nuzzle up once more to the man who raised them.

Draft horses are like that, Fred says: He and Glenda have been similarly greeted by Clydes they sold to others many years before. The Budweiser-ad fantasy, it turns out, is not such a stretch. That too-good-to-be-real bond between big horses and their big families not only exists, it plays out every day as real life in rural Whatcom County.

Outsiders might not get it, but the magic in that is simple, Polinder and others say: To some people out here, the process is just as important as the product. And if a person's life compass must point a bit backward to steer them home, so be it.

Ron Judd is a Pacific NWstaff writer. Harley Soltes is a freelance photographer based in the Skagit Valley.

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