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Platteville man’s mastery includes mules, horses, harnesses

Mike Peters
Greeley, Colo.
STEPHANIE BURCHETT/gtphoto@greeleytribune.comMule team runner Gene Hilty of Platteville greets his mules on a recent cold morning. Hilty is also a craftsman, making harnesses for the mules in his workshop.

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ON THE PLAINS – In the faces of Betty and Bonnie you can actually see the love when he approaches.

And, as he walks up to them, it’s obvious Gene Hilty loves his two girls, also.

They tower over him. Betty and Bonnie weigh close to 10 times more than the 77-year-old Hilty. They are Belgian mules, weighing about 1,400 pounds each and standing 18 hands tall. That’s 6 feet tall at the shoulders.

Hilty is the expert horseman who brought them home after they’d been abused. He taught them to love and trust again.

Hilty and Margaret, his high-school sweetheart and wife of 56 years, live out on the plains, about seven miles east of Platteville, where the only sound most nights is the wind whispering along the snow.

They grew up in Colfax, Wash., a small town surrounded by wheat fields and horses and Germans from Russia. Hilty followed his father and grandfather (Germans from Russia) into farming, and when he was still young, began driving mules in the fields. He loved it.

One of Hilty’s wise mule proverbs? “A mule is what a horse always wanted to be.”

After the mule team, he learned to drive large draft horses: Belgians, Clydesdales, Percherons. There was no experience like it.

As he learned, he got into competition and became one of the leading draft horse drivers in the country. He traveled to shows across the United States, many times bringing home trophies.

He and Margaret became the team to drive and promote the Coors beer wagon, pulled by draft horses, traveling the country to fairs and rodeos.

Today, he’s semi-retired. He doesn’t drive the teams anymore, but he makes the gear and the harnesses the huge horses need. Step into his shop east of Platteville and the aroma of leather hits like a soft pillow. The walls are lined with brass and steel fittings and old and new tools, and huge, tough sewing machines, one of them a century old.

Gene and Margaret had four daughters and now have nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Their daughter Nancy is manager/owner of the family business, Hilty Harness, and she not only runs the business but works with her father in the designs and special decorative items on the horse gear.

Through the years, Gene Hilty became deeply involved in the Big Thunder Draft Horse Show, which begins next weekend at the Budweiser Center in Loveland. He has served on the committee, competed and participated in the shows and was a judge for many years. He’s now supposed to be retired, although he’ll work at the show again this year.

Abby Powell, event coordinator at The Ranch, said the show is indebted to Hilty. “His depth of knowledge and background in the industry was invaluable to our committee,” she said. “We are glad to still have him as a part of the show this year and hopefully for many years to come.”

This past week, Gene Hilty was at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, putting together a “circus wagon” rig he built years ago. It’s back at the stock show by popular demand.

Two things Gene Hilty likes the most:

1. Take a horse or a mule and teach them to be team animals.

2. Take a student and teach him to drive the rig … “And then have him come back and beat you some day,” he said.

He’s also learned another thing about draft horses and mules. They can teach you a lot more than you can teach them.

ON THE PLAINS – In the faces of Betty and Bonnie you can actually see the love when he approaches.

And, as he walks up to them, it’s obvious Gene Hilty loves his two girls, also.

They tower over him. Betty and Bonnie weigh close to 10 times more than the 77-year-old Hilty. They are Belgian mules, weighing about 1,400 pounds each and standing 18 hands tall. That’s 6 feet tall at the shoulders.

Hilty is the expert horseman who brought them home after they’d been abused. He taught them to love and trust again.

Hilty and Margaret, his high-school sweetheart and wife of 56 years, live out on the plains, about seven miles east of Platteville, where the only sound most nights is the wind whispering along the snow.

They grew up in Colfax, Wash., a small town surrounded by wheat fields and horses and Germans from Russia. Hilty followed his father and grandfather (Germans from Russia) into farming, and when he was still young, began driving mules in the fields. He loved it.

One of Hilty’s wise mule proverbs? “A mule is what a horse always wanted to be.”

After the mule team, he learned to drive large draft horses: Belgians, Clydesdales, Percherons. There was no experience like it.

As he learned, he got into competition and became one of the leading draft horse drivers in the country. He traveled to shows across the United States, many times bringing home trophies.

He and Margaret became the team to drive and promote the Coors beer wagon, pulled by draft horses, traveling the country to fairs and rodeos.

Today, he’s semi-retired. He doesn’t drive the teams anymore, but he makes the gear and the harnesses the huge horses need. Step into his shop east of Platteville and the aroma of leather hits like a soft pillow. The walls are lined with brass and steel fittings and old and new tools, and huge, tough sewing machines, one of them a century old.

Gene and Margaret had four daughters and now have nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Their daughter Nancy is manager/owner of the family business, Hilty Harness, and she not only runs the business but works with her father in the designs and special decorative items on the horse gear.

Through the years, Gene Hilty became deeply involved in the Big Thunder Draft Horse Show, which begins next weekend at the Budweiser Center in Loveland. He has served on the committee, competed and participated in the shows and was a judge for many years. He’s now supposed to be retired, although he’ll work at the show again this year.

Abby Powell, event coordinator at The Ranch, said the show is indebted to Hilty. “His depth of knowledge and background in the industry was invaluable to our committee,” she said. “We are glad to still have him as a part of the show this year and hopefully for many years to come.”

This past week, Gene Hilty was at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, putting together a “circus wagon” rig he built years ago. It’s back at the stock show by popular demand.

Two things Gene Hilty likes the most:

1. Take a horse or a mule and teach them to be team animals.

2. Take a student and teach him to drive the rig … “And then have him come back and beat you some day,” he said.

He’s also learned another thing about draft horses and mules. They can teach you a lot more than you can teach them.


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