- Associated Press - Monday, October 12, 2015

BEMIDJI, Minn. (AP) - Andy Branham doesn’t have to coax his draft horse Prince out of the trailer. He just says “back, back, back,” and the horse moves. And that’s a good thing, because Prince weighs 1,700 pounds. His half brother King is bigger.

“You can’t make them do anything they don’t want to,” Branham says. “If they wanted me dead I wouldn’t be around.”

It’s a recent Saturday at the peak of fall season, and Branham is unloading his Percherons at the Concordia Language Villages, north of Bemidji. Middle schoolers are set to arrive in the early afternoon for wagon rides behind Prince and King. Branham’s an hour early, getting the harnesses squared away.

Branham does a lot of these events - school festivals and weddings, especially in the fall when the leaves turn bright and the mosquitoes die. Sometimes his drafters even haul logs from hard-to-reach tracts of land, Minnesota Public Radio News (https://bit.ly/1Mdlm1Z ) reported.

During the week Branham keeps a fleet of buses running at Paul Bunyan Transit in Bemidji. The draft horses are his side hustle. For Branham, the work is a way to stem the constant hemorrhage of money that is horse ownership.

The tall black horses stand patiently, breathing slow through soft nostrils as Branham takes a damp rag to the harness. As he cleans, he runs down the list of expenses the beasts incur.

Round hay bales can cost as much as $80 a piece. When the drafters work hard, they can eat a whole bale in a weekend. Then, there are the shots and hoof-trimming costs.

And Branham has to buy liability insurance in case someone wanders under the dinner plate-sized hooves.

“This day and age, with everyone being sue-happy,” he says, “you want to make sure you’re covered.”

He’s never sat down and added up the cost of all this, but says the occasional weekend of paid draft work helps even the budget.

He does three or four weddings a year, and quite a few private parties and wagon rides.

“I usually ask $150 if I have to drive somewhere,” he says. “A lot of people think that’s steep, but I have more time into it than just the rides.”

The best he’s ever done was on Christmas Day a few years ago. A wealthy local paid him $600 to run sleigh rides for his party guests.

“They spent more time taking pictures with my horses than actually going on rides,” he says, taking a pinch of chewing tobacco from the can in his pocket. “It was a pile of money, but can you put a price on Christmas?”

He promised his wife and three kids he wouldn’t work holidays after that, and he hasn’t.

It’s hard to break even with draft horses, and at 1:15 p.m. it’s becoming clear today isn’t going to help. The middle schoolers were supposed to arrive at 1 p.m. and Branham’s old Silverado is still the only car in the parking lot. He pulls out his phone and starts making calls.

It wasn’t always so hard to make draft horses pay. Branham’s grandfather James had a pair of Belgians back in the Great Depression. They plowed the fields before there were tractors. Horses were vital pieces of farm equipment - and James never had to pay for liability insurance.

James kept his drafters even after buying his first John Deere, even after they stopped making financial sense. One of Branham’s first memories is hauling tanks of water with his grandfather and that pair of old Belgians. That’s what got him started.

He bought his first set of draft horses when he was 15. They were young and totally untrained. He had to tie their leads to a truck to get them to move. He spent every evening for months teaching them to pull. And then his grandfather James came over and took them for a turn and told Branham he did well. James died a year later.

“So here’s what happened,” Branham says, he’s off the phone now. “I got the wrong date.”

The middle schoolers aren’t coming. The school event is tomorrow, but Branham takes the horses for a spin anyway.

The obvious question is why. Why have horses that weigh nearly a ton, cost a lot of money, and could kill you if they wanted? Holding the reins on the rocking wagon bench, hooves clopping over gravel and fallen leaves, the question doesn’t surprise Branham.

“For me, harnessing up these horses is just relaxation,” he says.

Branham’s job has him on his feet, on concrete 40 hours a week. Every day he smells diesel and oil and grits his teeth through the roar of troubled machinery. He takes a lot of pride in what he does, but when he gets home, he can’t face another engine.

“Sometimes I think I should have been born 100 years ago,” he says. “I would have been just fine.”

___

Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, https://www.mprnews.org


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