When Brice Ridgely was a boy, he sometimes would ride on the broad back of his father's big gray Percheron, the old workhorse the Ridgelys kept on their western Howard County farm. In those years after World War II, there were farmers such as the Ridgelys who held onto some of the draft horses and mules once used throughout Maryland, pulling plows and hay wagons, hauling logs and doing the hard labor of farming.
As the years passed, however, the animals disappeared, many of them sold to slaughterhouses to help pay for the tractors that replaced them. At subsequent farm sales, it was common to see old harnesses that had been cast aside crumbling from dry rot, said Ridgely, 58.
On a cloudless summer day last week, draft horses and mules were working the soil on a rolling field within sight of Ridgely's farm near Cooksville. A pair of tawny Belgian draft horses waiting their turn in the field were jumpy, nipping at each other. They settled down as their driver got them pulling a harrow to break up clods.
Nearby was a pair of mules sporting a fancy leather and chrome harness and a pair of big black Percherons, each weighing more than a ton. They were irresistible lures for children, who stood on tiptoe and with outstretched arms to touch them. The outing was a field demonstration, a chance for owners to show what their animals can do and get them ready for other events and fairs across Maryland this summer.
"We brought back animals we thought were gone for good," said Earle Nicholson, president of the Maryland Draft Horse and Mule Association.
The association, formed 21 years ago at a meeting in New Market in Frederick County, has grown to 100 paid members, who'll exhibit more than 130 animals at agricultural fairs across the state. The group's efforts are part of a national resurgence for these former beasts of burden, now largely used for tourism and recreation. There still are many people who remember how it used to be.
"The younger generation should know really what built this country," Nicholson said.
Nicholson, 77, grew up on a farm in Comus, at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain in northwest Montgomery County. His family had three farms and 30 horses, all Percherons, a French breed that supposedly descended from medieval war horses and that was widely popular among Maryland farmers.
Like the other farmers of his day, Nicholson traded horses for tractors in the late 1950s, convinced that it was better to use a machine that could work all day and never require food or water. The animals even disappeared from county fairs, where they used to enter the judging rings with their manes decorated, tails coiffed into buns and fanciest harnesses jangling. As the years passed, Nicholson realized what he was missing.
"I like to be around them. I like to hitch them and drive them," said Nicholson, who lives in Ijamsville in Frederick County. "It's a pleasure."
The association's events draw people such as Keith Beck of Lisbon, who grew up hearing stories about his grandfather's farm horses and who now owns three Belgians. Over the years, he has used horses for timber and garden work.
"I'm a traditionalist," said Beck, 47. "I feel more at home in the 18th century than the 20th century."
Getting the animals ready for the summer circuit can begin months in advance, when, as Carl Layton of Woodbine put it, they're sent to school. Layton, vice president of the state association, meant that some owners send their horses and mules to Amish farmers in St. Mary's County and elsewhere to help with spring plowing. The Amish, who eschew motorized equipment on their farms, get the animals accustomed to the harness and build up their strength.
Layton's denim overalls, battered straw hat and sunburned forearms reflect a life of work outdoors, and as a young farmer he worked with Percheron. But in recent years Layton, 64, has become a fan of mules, which he described as smart, sure-footed and less expensive to maintain than horses. In fact, he said, one of his mules came home last year as grand champion from the state fair in Timonium, and that's enough incentive to keep up what has become his chief hobby.
"I couldn't wait to get rid of that horse stuff," he said with a laugh. "Now I'm buying it all back."