@story Marla Cantrell
@images Marcus Coker
Victor stands in the barn at his home near Greenwood, tethered by a blue lead rope, while his trainer, Kelly Hughes, outfits him in the black patent leather trappings he usually only wears when he’s competing at state fairs or Belgian draft horse competitions.
As Kelly works, Victor’s big head moves up and down, like a parishioner who’s in constant agreement with a fiery Sunday sermon. His hooves, big as dinner plates, are perfectly aligned. Kelly guides him a few steps back, and even these small movements cause the dust to stir. Victor is a powerful animal, weighing more than 2,000 pounds. If he wanted, there is nothing or no one in this barn powerful enough to stop him.
His owner, Dr. Ann Passmore, feels none of the anxiety of those unfamiliar with Belgians. She pats Victor’s long neck and then holds her hand out to him. At five feet, five inches, she barely reaches his withers, the point between the shoulder blades where a horse’s height is measured. He licks her, once, twice, and then her entire hand disappears inside his soft mouth. It seems like a reckless move for a plastic surgeon, whose skilled hands drive her livelihood, but she knows the nine-year-old powerhouse as well as she’s ever known anyone. “These guys,” she says, “are gentle giants. They’ll do anything for you.”
Victor, whose awards fill the wall, has done plenty for Ann. Her husband, Powell Sanders, first saw the red Belgian draft horse at a Denver stock show in 2002. In 2004, they brought him home to Arkansas. Today, he lives in a barn with their other Belgians: Big Sir, Gorgeous, Kyle, and the clown of the bunch, Jessie, who likes to get loose and play keep-away in the corral where they go to train.
Outside the barn is an orange Peterbilt. Its fifty-three foot trailer carries the horses to shows. They are hitch horses, not farm class. “Think of Clydesdales,” Ann says. “That’s a good comparison. They pull show carts that are the size of the Budweiser hitch wagon. “What makes Victor so good is his desire to please, his intelligence – he absolutely knows when he’s in a show – his form and his action. He’ll pull his knees straight up to his chest during a show. The judges look for that. We get him ready, I braid his mane, and you can see him change. He can’t wait to get out there.
“If you’re driving him and he’s 2,000 pounds, he can do whatever he wants. He knows his place; he knows his responsibility. He responds because he wants to please me. It’s a partnership; it’s a marriage.”
On this day, Kelly and Ann get Victor ready for a few laps inside the corral. He bends his head, his white blaze bright against the black leather, and lets Ann adjust his collar.
As Kelly leads him out, Ann grabs the football receiver’s gloves – made for young boys – that she wears to protect her hands. She steps onto the round metal step, no bigger than a hamburger bun, and lifts herself into the cart’s driver’s seat.
She controls this one-ton horse with a pound of line, a whip she holds but never uses, and three words: Vic (his shortened name gets his attention), gee (forward) and haw (stop).
Victor struts by, going faster as Ann allows, and starts the trot that wins blue ribbons. He is a beautiful sight, his white socks flash as he passes, muscles flex from his shoulders to his hips. The motion is like pistons: regular, rhythmic, syncopated.
Ann is showing as much control as Victor. She sits tall in the seat, her back straight, the wind whipping her red hair across her face. She doesn’t stop to pull it back; she doesn’t seem to notice. It is as if the two of them have entered a place all their own. Jessie, who’s still in the barn, leans his big head as far out of his stall as he can and cranes his neck to watch. Ann’s dogs run along the fence row, making as much ruckus as is possible for two rowdy canines. Traffic rumbles by, birds sing out, a horn blows.
None of it matters. In the corral, there is only Victor and Ann, a cart with big white wheels, and the glint off the silver on the Belgian’s fancy collar.
Back in the barn, Kelly starts the process of taking off Victor’s gear that took him an hour to put on. Ann gets a brush and runs it across the great horse’s coat. Sweat falls in sheets, like water that’s been squeegeed from a shower door. Victor, ever submissive, bends again so the collar can come off.
He can pull a cart alone, like he did on this day, with a hitch mate, or even with three other Belgians. Ann also rides the big guy, using a Quarter Horse saddle with special cinches to make it fit. “I love summertime,” Ann says. “I’ll come home from work and Kelly has him ready to ride. It’s addictive because you keep wanting more. There’s a peace to it because it takes you away and you have to have such total concentration.” Ann smiles, scratches the underside of Victor’s chin and says, “Troubles just evaporate.”
Kelly puts Victor back in his stall and brings out Big Sir. He is easily six inches taller than Victor, but a good deal thinner. “He’s nineteen now,” Ann says, a small frown showing as she adds up the years. “He’s a little skittish. But Big Sir would do anything for me. A child comes around and he’s so careful.
“Every night,” Ann says, “no matter what, no matter how late it is, I come out and pet this guy because I know he’s getting older.”
That’s the reality of loving horses. It’s not hard to outlive them, but losing them is like losing family. “Our first two Belgians were Lucky and Tom. My husband Powell and I bought them after we’d gone to ride them for a second time at Petit Jean. [The second time] the guy told us they didn’t have shoes so we couldn’t ride and Powell asked, ‘Then can we buy them?’ And just like that, on a lark, we had these two big horses.”
That was well over a decade ago. Both Tom and Lucky are gone now. There is a burial plot on the property, as sacred as any other cemetery. “If a horse is down, work stops,” Ann says. “I come home. That’s part of your family. It’s like your child. It gets very emotional.
“With Lucky, we even got a wrecker here to try to hoist him up, to help him stand. When one of these guys goes down and you can’t get him up, it’s potentially lethal.”
The wind blows through the open doors of the barn, rattling the halters that hang in neat rows. Ann’s eyes glisten. “Then,” she says, moving past the worst part of the story, “you’ve got to call your friend who has a backhoe. This ground is rocky, so even digging the hole is hard. Well,” she says finally, “it’s just horrible.”
Even knowing that, she can’t stop. Ann loves these horses. She loves the shows where no one knows what her day job is. Where the day is filled with Belgian draft horses, friendly competition, and the joy of life around these amazing animals. “If we didn’t do this, we’d probably live in a fancier place. I don’t care about a fancier place. And my husband, who’s an attorney, would probably never have learned to drive an eighteen-wheeler,” she says, and then smiles. “Everything considered, I think we made the right choice.”