In tune with gentle giants
By Gary Fletcher
Creighton Kooch's father, the late Raymond "Cy" Kooch, grew up farming with workhorses.
And he still had a couple of Belgians around as Creighton was growing up.
By age 9, Creighton remembers his dad competing with the Belgians at Yakima.
But Creighton didn't really take an interest in draft horses, until he was about 40 years of age.
His dad was then judging shows. Creighton accompanied his father to competitions, and decided that the competition looked like fun.
"Dad and I got to talking, and decided to start raising Black Clydesdales," Kooch said.
That was about 1980, when they bought two geldings. In 1982 they bought their first four mares. They hitched four mares for the first time and entered a competition.
"We didn't win, but we were out there driving," he said.
There are 15 to 20 entries per class, so "you're doing pretty well when you get into the ribbons."
Among that competition are often the Budweiser and Heinz teams.
Though the senior Kooch taught Creighton to drive, the son developed his own individual style.
Then they bought a stallion out of Canada, and began raising colts. They have bought other stallions since then, as well as used artificial insemination, and also raised their own stallion.
Kooch now has 21 registered Black Clydesdales, three of which are colts.
The colts are a light color when born, usually a smoke grey or lighter, or a taupe. They typically change colors between the age of 6 months and a year, he said.
They come into the world at 150 to 200 pounds. The adults reach 1,800 to 2,000 pounds.
Kooch has sold horses over the Internet. Sales also come from the horses being seen in show competition, as well as by word of mouth.
"You'd be surprised at the number of people who buy them to ride," Kooch said.
Kooch's Springwater Farm of registered Black Clydesdale horses and Black Angus cattle sits on Highway 82 at the eastern outskirts of Enterprise.
There, at a gravel pullout off the blacktop, people continually pull over to admire and photograph the big, black, gentle giants bordered by the white fence along Prairie Creek, and with Chief Joseph Mountain as a backdrop.
Kooch has driven four-, six- and eight-horse hitches in competition.
"It gets a long ways out there," he said of the eight-horse hitch.
"And you need extra people to hold the horses, run lines and hook tugs."
The biggest horses are hitched nearest the wagon. They are the wheel team.
Next in size is the swing team, then the point team, and finally the smallest are the lead team.
However, not just any horse can be a lead horse. The lead horse is the most important of the whole hitch, Kooch said.
"You can tell which ones will be lead horses, and which ones will be wheel horses," he said. "You can usually tell right off, the first time in the harness what kind of disposition they will have."
For the past 15 years, Kooch's lead horse has been Chief, now age 18.
"Chief was a born leader. There's no quit in him. He's got his head up and it seems like he's pulling the whole load. They like to do it," Kooch said. "It's a thrill to drive them."
Kooch describes the leather lines laced between his fingers, and the all-important lead line in his palm.
"It's like fishing with your fingers," he said.
Kooch is a soft-spoken, tall raw-boned man with big hands Â— broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip.
He's used to hard work as a mason. In 1958 those big hands and athletic torso helped take Enterprise High School to the state basketball playoffs.
But now when driving, even Kooch's big fingers can go to sleep handling the lines of eight massive horses.
The horses are actually "easier to drive at a trot, when they're up and going, and everything is tight," he said. It's more of a challenge to adjust the lines at a walk when things are slack and their heads sort of swing back and forth in slow motion.
The competition classes include the cart, the team, unicorn (three horses), four abreast, conformation and driving classes, the eight-horse hitch and weight pulling.
Kooch has a wall full of ribbons from competitions. He's won the eight-horse hitch once and the six-horse hitch several times in the Eagle Crest Competition Show in Redmond.
He explained the different ways of backing a team to a dock. He prefers to pull parallel alongside the dock and then fan the horses out until the front wheels of the wagon are cranked just right. Then he backs into the dock. If you get everything lined up just right, it takes less time than other types of backing, he said.
"Creighton has a natural presence with horses that's just beautiful to see," said his wife, Cheryl, who also drives a cart. "They do for Creighton out of respect," she said.
This pastime takes a big time commitment. The Western Washington Fair at Puyallup is 17 days long.
Once the Kooches were on the road five weeks, when they went from Puyallup on to the Monroe, Wash., and then to the Sandpoint, Idaho,
They also regularly compete in the Eagle Crest show.
Then there are the parades in Pendleton, Joseph, Enterprise, Elgin, Union and John Day.
And when there's snow, they've even been known to haul Santa Claus through town on a sleigh, complete with old-time sleigh bells.