‘Gentle giant’ draft horses spark 15-year passion for Severance couple
March 6, 2015
The couple spent the better part of a year searching every publication and Internet listing they could find for horses that fit the criteria of their neighbor's team — used to work his fields — that they had fallen in love with.
"We were intrigued by these hard-working, gentle giants," Leroy said.
Though they had limited experience in wagon driving, the Leavitts knew they wanted three things in their future team: sound, healthy feet, training to easily load into a trailer and basic experience as driving horses.
However, each pair they came across was too small, too old or too ill for the couple's needs, Leroy said.
Finally, the Leavitts saw an ad around Labor Day that listed draft horses for sale and provided a number, but no location or age on the horses in question.
The couple took a shot and called up the number to find out the owner was based in Paola, Kan., and did not have a pair of horses in the 5- to 6-year-old age range they were looking for.
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However, he assured them the two 3-year-old, half-siblings he had for sale would impress them so much they would buy them on the spot if they came out to test drive them, Leroy said.
Armed with the promise the pair would meet their criteria, and accompanied by their puppy, Doc, and an empty trailer, the Leavitts drove to Paola.
Though Leroy did not have substantial driving experience, he and Janice took Jess and Jim out for a drive with the owner.
"They were everything he said they were and more," Leroy said. "We wrote him a check then and there and took them home."
When the Leavitts arrived home at their ranch northeast of Gill, Leroy faced the challenge of how to further train Jess and Jim while also learning how to drive himself.
With the goal of competing in local competitions, providing rides for friends and family and doing light work with the team, he set out reading any book he could find on harnessing, farming with horses and driving, he said.
"He and the horses really learned together," Janice said.
Over the course of the 15 years the Leavitts owned Jess and Jim, the horses have grown from 1,000 pounds each at 3 years old with 24-inch collars to approximately 2,200 pounds each needing 34-inch collars, Leroy said.
During that time, the pair outgrew five pairs of collars, most of which remain on the walls of the Leavitts' barn at their home in Severance.
As the horses grew and became better at driving with Leroy, the Leavitts began investing in more wagons.
Of the multitude of wagons they built, restored and bought, they feel most proud of the 1890 Birdsell chuckwagon, a symbol of the old West, Leroy said.
He particularly enjoys telling the story of the invention of the wagon, credited to Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight in 1866, as a way to pack, store and cook for his cowboys on cattle drives, he said.
Today, the Leavitts use the chuckwagon to mount the Flag of Heroes and U.S. Flag of Honor that list the names of those who died in the 9/11 attacks during presentation of the U.S. Flag for the National Anthem at the Big Thunder Draft Horse Show in Loveland and the Estes Park Draft Horse show.
The couple also uses the chuckwagon to host chuckwagon dinners at their barn for their community and their maroon-and-black passenger wagon to give rides to neighbors in addition to other uses.
"Janice and I have used Jess and Jim to pull a hay wagon to feed our herd of Red Angus cattle, transported a neighbor's casket to his gravesite, carried a bride and groom to their wedding and participated in numerous draft horse farm team competitions," he said.
The Leavitts also use the horses in parades in communities like Grover, Nunn, Ault, Fort Collins and Estes Park, as well as at the Greeley Stampede.
While events and parades give them the chance to show Jess and Jim off and be included in the larger community, they said they get the most joy out of seeing how people interact with the horses when giving out wagon rides.
"That's the enjoyment that we get out of it," Janice said. "To see the people enjoy what we do."
While some horse owners sell off their teams for younger driving horses, the Leavitts said they intend to keep the horses around for as long as possible.
"The good Lord has entrusted us with these two fine horses," Leroy said. "They're not just a commodity for us, they're our friends. They have been faithful for us, and so we are going to be faithful for them." ❖