Gentle Giants Will Parade Through 125th

One of the West's finest equestrian teams will be here

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Colonel kicks his nine-inch wide hoof at his stall in Bison Ranch and whinnies.

It is a few days before the rodeo parade, but the large draft horse is ready to show off right now.

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Gary Keck with Major, a Percheron horse who is a wheel horse pair for the Team Bison wagon.

"He's a pest," Gary Keck says. His smile turns up the corner of his moustache.

Colonel is part of a team of six "hitch horses." He and his fellow team members summer in the cool pines near Heber and winter in the Valley at Westworld. They make their living prancing in arena shows and parades.

Keck is the teamster that puts all 12,000 pounds of Team Bison through its paces.

Team Bison, is made up of Percherons, one of the four major draft horse breeds in America. The others are Belgian, the Shire and the Clydesdales, made famous by Budweiser.

There is no modern need for a working draft horse, yet the modern day Percheron is leggier and a little heavier, due to a century of breeding for size.

"Percherons are very versatile. They were the workhorses that pulled fire engines. They pulled Barnum and Bailey Circus wagons. They pulled heavy artillery in WWI," Keck said.

Duke, the biggest Percheron at Bison stands nearly 19 hands at the shoulder and weighs about 2,300 pounds. A hand is four inches; 18 hands equal six feet.

"Percherons are very friendly, but not suitable for riding. You can't find a saddle big enough," Keck said.

With great size came great heart.

"I'm partial to Percherons. I love their dispositions. They are pleasing and really want to work for you.

"Almost the bigger they are, the more gentle they become," Keck said.

He grew up around draft horses and has spent 20 years driving them. Team Bison is the second hitch he has had at Bison Ranch.

"They know when it's show time," Keck said.

This is because the two days before an event are spa days for the gentle black giants.

Currying has made the Percheron's oh-so-soft, coats-of-black shine. They get haircuts and their manes braided. Their hooves are polished.

"Originally their tails and manes were cut short to keep them from getting caught in driver's lines, especially low sitting plows. Then short hair became a tradition," Keck said.

Now when Team Bison parades, "their tails are tied in a ball with a bow to show off their big butt a little better," he added.

Draft horse competition is a common sport in the Midwest, where Keck goes to purchase Percherons, so with tails out of the way, judges can look at conformation.

Team Bison will walk down Main Street in Payson during the 125th Anniversary Parade. They will also be at the 2007 Arizona State Fair.

The current team

Each standing 18.2 hands high, Major and Colonel are the pair hitched nearest the wagon. Sam and Duke are the "swing team." Waylon and Willie are the lead.

"Usually you want your smaller, more athletic horse out in front," Keck said.

Are the horses competitive?

"The good ones are. If one picks up the pace, the others will, if they aren't lazy. It's kind of funny, but when the crowd cheers, the faster they want to go," Keck said.

When Keck purchases a Percheron it is 3 years old or older and already trained, because the horse is going to be around the public, such as -- visitors to Bison Ranch.

Slim is in training and might be ready for the 125th parade and may have potential as a lead horse.

"We just need to put him in a hitch and find out where he works good," Keck said.

Whatever event the Percherons showoff at, Sissy their mascot dog will hitch a ride on the wagon.

Town celebration

The Town of Payson will celebrate its 130 birthday with four-day celebration Oct. 4-7. There will be dancing in the streets, parades, cake walks, demonstration and much more. Watch for details.

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