Schuylkill County horse rescuers give equines a second career
SPRING GLEN, Schuylkill County - Not unlike their draft horses, Les and Karen Montford embarked on "second careers."
As operators of Running Springs Farm Ltd., the Spring Glen couple provide horse-drawn wagon and carriage service for special occasions, while giving some auction-destined equines a new shot at life. December is one of their busiest times of year.
After working their day jobs as Facilities Manager at Hexcel Corp. and in human resources at Big Lots, respectively, Les and Karen spent a recent Wednesday afternoon working with their team, Belle and Whitie, two 15-year-old Percheron mares.
Belle they acquired in 2012, while Whitie came into the mix in April. The grey mares were practicing teamwork, backing up into a wagon hitch and going on a ride with Les at the reins.
"We will buy horses from auctions and try to make a second career for them," Karen said.
The Montfords own 11 horses on their Spring Glen farm, including three teams of draft horses. In addition to Belle and Whitie, they have two black Percherons, Sue and Melody, about 17- and 18-years-old; and a team of 15-year-old strawberry roan Belgians, Wendy and Abbey.
All of the horses have their own personalities, but Wendy seems to be a favorite among the public, her owners said. Wendy was born on their farm and has been battling two bouts of carcinoma. Her left eye was removed about five years ago. The cancer has come back, but Wendy has been able to undergo some chemotherapy treatment and is able to continue to serve.
Other horses who are no longer used as part of the draft team are retired and live out their lives on the Montfords' farm.
On the farm's website, www.runningspringsfarm.net, Wendy is described as "full of personality." She's the main sleigh and single-carriage horse.
"She trains weekly and is very accustomed to loud noises ... She stands quietly and loves attention," the website states.
The Percherons and the Belgians are the two primary breeds that the Amish use, Les said.
Whitie, Sue and Melody all came off an Amish farm. Belle came from a man who formerly operated a carriage business. Most of the horses are between 16- and 18-hands tall and weigh between 1,700 and 1,900 pounds each. As a group, the horses eat nearly a ton of grain and two tons of hay a month.
"We look for an easygoing horse that's not going to get worked up," Les said.
Part of the training process includes acclimating the horses to being around all kinds of noises, including sleigh bells and fire sirens, and getting them used to various celebratory scenarios. He said during one wedding in Bethel, a drone flew over the horses.
"They just stopped and looked around," he said of his team, which displayed its laid-back personality.
Fans may also want to pet the horses, which is permitted. It's important for people to understand that the horses wear "blinkers" at their eye level, which blocks their peripheral vision and helps them focus while working, the couple said. Anyone wishing to pet the animal should approach the horse directly from the front, not from the side, so that the horse can see whoever is greeting them.
Some of the special events where their horse-drawn carriages or wagons have appeared include the Schuylkill County Wine Festival in Hegins; Schuylkill Haven's Island Festival; Benigna's Creek Lighting of the Vineyards, Klingerstown; Halloween "Headless Horseman" wagon rides at the Klingerstown Hotel; New Year's Eve in Pottsville; Relay for Life events in Millersburg, Hegins and Halifax; and at TLC Tree Farm in Hegins. Four of their Percherons pulled the Amoskeag Steam Fire Engine belonging to the Mountaineer Fire Department in Minersville.
Running Springs Farm Ltd. serves Schuylkill County, from Pottsville to Pine Grove; Lewisburg and Selinsgrove; and surrounding areas in central Pennsylvania.
The company is fully insured. All of their carriages are equipped with wheels and hydraulic brakes, turn signals, hazard flashers and slow-moving vehicle signs, so their carriages can be used day or night on public roads. Their teams have worked at parades, birthday parties, weddings, company picnics, Christmas events and other community festivities.
"It's the nostalgia of it and being able to hear the bells and that 'clip clop,' " Karen said.
The Montfords and their horse teams will be featured at the following upcoming events: Friday, Bucknell University; Saturday, Harrisburg; Saturday, Martin's Farm Market, Schuylkill Haven; Tuesday, Selinsgrove; Dec. 7, Mechanicsburg; Dec. 9, Lebanon; Dec. 10, Ashland Old Fashioned Christmas; Dec. 16-17, Danville; Dec. 17, Valley View Park; Dec. 18, Havertown; and Dec. 23, Bryn Mawr.
Few young horses
There are approximately a half dozen carriage operations in the region, including Leiby's Carriage Service in Tamaqua; Bee Tree Trail in Shartlesville; and some near New Cumberland and Harrisburg, the couple said. The Montfords are also friends with Frank and Joanna Pierce, Herndon, who run Ridgewood Percherons. The Pierces frequently provide horse-drawn wagon rides at the Lykens Fall Festival, Dauphin County.
After the economic downturn, there have been fewer young draft horses available to purchase, Les Montford believes, as well as fewer young thoroughbreds on the racing circuit. The Montfords also own two thoroughbreds, along with two other couples as part of PIA Stables. Their thoroughbreds race at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course with trainer Stephen Mick.
According to the USDA 2012 Census, there were 110 farms in Schuylkill County that had 813 equine animals; and statewide there were 16,426 farms with equine, and 119,900 equine animals listed.
The Montfords, who have operated their carriage service since 2004, are members of the Percheron Association and the Pennsylvania Draft Horse & Mule Association.