Monday, February 17, 2020
Mary Hirsch-Justice practices barrel racing at the Dan Jones Farm near Bangor with Lola, a two-year-old Clydesdale filly who won the barrel competition at the Minnesota State Fair earlier this year. Herald photos by Pat MulvaneyMary Hirsch-Justice has been training Clydesdales for saddle riding for the past five years.

Clydesdales as riding horses? You bet

Local trainer finding success in unconventional sport of draft horse riding

It's been the conventional notion that Clydesdale draft horses are bred to pull things not to be ridden.

Don't tell that to Mary Hirsch-Justice, who has been knocking that convention on its head for the past few years. People driving by Jones Farm on Hwy. 16 outside of Bangor can sometimes catch a glimpse of her astride one of the huge beasts as she trains them for riding competitions.

That's when she's not working for her brother, Leo Hirsch, owner of Housing Data Systems in West Salem, where she is an accountant and data analyst.

The role of Clydesdales as riding horses is blasphemy to some in the draft horse establishment, but to Hirsch-Justice, who has been riding and training horses since she was seven years old and living on her family's rural Sparta farm, its exhilarating.

Dan Jones, the owner of the animals, comes from a family that has owned Clydesdales since 1893, and up until a couple of years ago, only used them as hitch horses. He confided in Hirsch-Justice that his father would be rolling over in his grave if saw them putting a saddle on the animals.

"It does surprise people to see you riding them, especially the big mare," said Hirsch-Justice. "It does turn heads."

But it's a type of riding that's also gaining traction. Only a few years ago, riding competitions for draft horses were almost unheard of. Now they're beginning to ease into the mainstream, although the die-hard traditionalists still frown on it.

Hirsch-Justice is among those nudging  draft horse competitive riding into the conventional realm and has already racked up some impressive finishes.

In 2018, the World Clydesdale Show was in Madison. The international event is only held every three years and last year it added a number of riding classes to the event, including barrel racing and pole bending.

Jones and Hirsch-Justice decided to enter the competition, but wanted to get a little arena experience for their horses first, so they went to the Minnesota State Fair, which offered a walk/trot class and barrel racing for draft horses. Hirsch-Justice ended up winning both competitions.

With that experience under their belt, it was off to the World Clydesdale Show, where Hirsch-Justice placed sixth in Pleasure Class, which had 40 entrants, and eighth in trail class. She was second going into the finals of barrel racing, but ended up tipping a barrel and lost.

Then it was time for the pole bending competition, where the rider and horse weave between six poles in a timed event. Hirsch-Justice's mount had never done pole bending before, so two hours before the competition, she set up a course using barrels and gave the horse a few last-minute practice runs.

Despite the horse's lack of experience, it finished third out of 21 entrants.

That was enough to tease Hirsch-Justice and Jones into competing in the Minnesota State Fair this year, where her two-year old filly, Lola, which she had just broken, took first place in barrel racing in the class for riders-over-40.

For a rider who grew up training light horses, Hirsch-Justice is hooked on the bigger animals, which she only started training for riding five years ago as a method to make them easier to train for hitching.

"They are much more reasonable with humans than light horses are," she said. "There's more versatility with these horses than they've been given credit for."

It appears the draft horse establishment is coming around. The Percheron National Show last year also included riding events.

Hirsch-Justice said she plans to continue entering the draft horse competitions, but also wants to enter local light horse shows with the Clydesdales.

"I want to expose them to the public to see what the response is and say 'here's an option for you as a riding horse.'"

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