More than hobby horses
It is a chilly spring morning and skies of crisp blue have turned to muddy gray.
At a farm near Basehor, there is the heavy thud of hooves on packed dirt, the gentle ringing sound of metal chains bouncing and the squeak of wheels.
Lee Lunceford is exercising his horses. But they're anything but ordinary horses.
Frank and Jesse, the black Percherons pulling the wagon and 800-pound sled, have just finished their morning exercises and they've lathered up a sweat.
Lunceford, 70, unhitches the heavy sled and lets them lightfoot it around the corral, pulling only a small cart he drives. The draft horses circle the barnyard half a dozen times or so, until they are dry.
Twice a day, morning and afternoon when the weather is decent, Lunceford says, he hitches up "the James boys," as he calls them, for training sessions.
"They were kind of broke," he said, when he bought them last year at a draft horse sale in St. Joseph.
"But they've still got a long way to go before they're really dead broke," Lunceford said.
When ready for pulling competitions, the team of geldings will be trained to pull much more weight than 800 pounds, Lunceford said.
"When you're going to a pulling contest, they've got to be able to pull about 6,000 to 7,000 pounds or they won't do any good," Lunceford said.
That's a good bit more than the pair's combined weight of 3,200 pounds.
He plans to take the team "all over," he said, when they're ready, and that includes Missouri and Iowa as well as Kansas.
In the three decades he's been training draft horses for pulling competitions, Lunceford said he's worked with about a dozen pair.
Some of them have been pretty good, he said. But not all.
His friend, Alfred Dyer, Tonganoxie, who also has raised draft horses and who was instrumental in initiating the pulling contests at the Leavenworth County Fair, said just because a horse looks big and strong doesn't mean it will be a good puller.
"It's like with people," Dyer said. "Just because a guy is seven feet tall, it doesn't mean he'll be a good basketball player."
Some horses are simply better fit to work in the fields, he said, and others are fit to pull.
Lunceford said that in all his years of buying and training draft horses he's only had one real disappointment. It was a pair of draft horses he nicknamed "The Counterfeits."
Normally, though, he sees the training of draft horses as a challenge.
"I like to get them, work them and show them," he said. "You can see the improvement."
Dyer, 77, currently has two Belgian horses on his farm north of Tonganoxie. Dyer is taking care of them for a friend until the horses, Bud and Bud Light, can be sold.
To the casual observer, Bud and Bud Light are nearly identical except one might note that Bud sports a yellow mane and Bud Light's is white. The horses tower over Dyer, himself a tall man. And they look heavy.
"I figure they weigh about a ton apiece right now," Dyer said.
Or, in other words, the bale of hay and three gallons of corn and oats they feast on daily are helping Dyer keep them "in good flesh for the sale," as he says.
Prices at the sale could go high or low, Dyer said.
"They run all the way from $1,700 to $40,000 for the pair, just depending on the horses and what part of the country you're in," Dyer said.
Meanwhile, near the open barn door barn at the Lunceford farm, Frank and Jesse have finished their morning workout.
It is a quiet dance of obedience as the Percherons stand stock-still during the five minutes it takes Lunceford to remove hame and harness. Even when he leaves to hang up the tack in the next room, the horses' hooves seldom move.
Are they always this obedient?
Lunceford chuckles as he continues working.
"Once in a while they'll run off," he said. "But not very often."