Shani Mihalich of Desert Edge Sport Horses in Fruita, Colo., has been driving nearly every day since she was 14, and it shows in the strength of her handshake. “It takes four years to train a finished competition horse,” she told me, “so it’s a real commitment.” What is her favorite breed? “Friesians and Friesian-crosses are the best. It is one of the oldest, traditional breeds (originally from Friesland in the Dutch Netherlands) and is known for its grace, elegance, cadence and rhythm.”
Sometimes referred to as the Knight’s horse, or destrier, the Friesian resembles a light draft animal and has high knee action, a long and elegant head, a wide brow, and a naturally arched neck. (They also have surprisingly large hooves. 16-hand-high Tynke, Shani’s imported purebred mare, wears a size three shoe which is something you’d normally find on a 2-year-old Belgian.) For Shani and her husband, Otto, the love affair with Friesians began when they were given a stallion to train back in 2003. He impressed them so much that they started doing more research, which led them to begin using Friesian crosses in driving marathons. Watching as Shani warmed up Tynke in a high-wheeled cart known as a country gig, it was easy to understand what makes these horses special. For all her size and stoutness, the mare seemed to float across the ground with each hoof momentarily — and almost effortlessly — suspended in the air. She also quickly and obediently responded to the commands to change directions, speed and gaits. “There are three that we get judged on,” Shani explained. “They’re referred to as the collected, the working and the lengthened trots. Your whip and your voice take the place of the legs when it comes to commands, and the whip helps the horse to bend.”
A lot more goes into competitive driving than meets the eye, which is why the Mihalichs require a minimum, two-year commitment from any outside horses that they accept for training (a maximum five per year). Clearly, one has to think about the actual show scene and that’s just for starters. “People are stomping their feet, the bugler is calling you in, there are spotlights — it’s a lot for a horse to get used to,” they said. One of the very first things a youngster is exposed to is dirt time, meaning that they stand tied for an hour each day. Once under harness, they begin by pulling tires, then logs and then carts, eventually working up to a 775 pound Kutzmann wagonette which comes complete with lights, brakes, and turning signals. Downtown Fruita residents are accustomed to seeing Shani and Otto cruising by with their more advanced animals, and “we even take them through drive-up windows” as part of an outing.
To help the horses be prepared for any sudden sounds or obstacles, the junior students at Desert Edge (which included daughter Tiana, now 18, niece Mackenzi Frick, 14-year-old Paige Burnham, and 19-year-old Dakota Hayes on the day of this interview) often help out in unusual ways. They freely use everything from yoga balls, tarps, bells, sheets, raincoats and cell phone rings around the horses. “If we can think of ways to spook them, we do.” But has Shani herself ever been behind a runaway team? She has. “All you can do is aim them in a straight line and let them run it out,” she advised, adding wryly, “we try hard not to harness up on a bad day.”
Shani herself continues to train as often as possible in order to keep the competitive edge sharp. Since 1992 she has taken lessons with such Nationally-known, East Coast drivers as Jimmy Fairclough, Larry Poulin and Bill Long, under whom she received a World title in 2001 with a Morgan gelding. “We are lucky enough that they travel through Colorado often so that we can take lessons from them.” These days her hopes are riding high with two sisters-in-training named Anya and Deja, both out of the same Paint/Percheron dam and Friesian sire. At 15.5 hands, the stocky yet refined mares have the power, looks, and skills, Shani and Otto believe, to take the World title yet again. It’s something they are completely focused on, for “Pairs add a whole new gamut to the driving journey,” they admit.
As part of the plan to breed and raise their own stock, in 2007 the Mihalichs bought their own purebred stallion, Stydere, who was born stateside (out of an imported Friesian stud). In just four short years he became so popular for his looks and gentle disposition that the Mihalichs, who had limited him to 20 mares a year, ended up with a waiting list. Unfortunately, he came down with a severe case of colic and passed away July 7th at the age of seven. “It was devastating,” Shani said sadly, “but we were lucky to have collected 77 straws of his semen beforehand. That translates to between six and eight future foals.” They also have Stryder’s black and white yearling son, Dragonetti, that is out of a Paint mare. “We waited 10 years to get a stud colt like him,” she told me, her smile returning. “He’s called a Baroque Pinto Friesian and according to his blood work, it’s been confirmed that he’s also a Homozygous black Overo. That means that there’s 50 percent chance his future foals will have color, also,” — highly unusual and greatly prized when one considers that Friesians are exclusively black.
In the meantime, the family is eagerly anticipating the next special arrival: Tynke has just been confirmed in foal to Strydere and is due on April 22nd. Of course, the Mihalichs are hoping for a colt but as Shani says, “it really doesn’t matter.” Either way, they’re definitely staying in the business for the long haul, for “the art of driving is becoming lost, and we hope that the interest in this wonderful sport will continue to grow.” ❖