FREDERICKTOWN — Often seen at the Knox County Fair as well as the Mount Vernon Christmas Parade with his team of horses, Dean Shira is known for his enthusiasm in showing and driving these prestigious Percherons.
Shira, a Fredericktown native, has been working with horses since the age of 5 when he received his first pony, and since then has always had a pony or a horse in his barn. In 1970, his love for the equine grew with his acquaintance with Percherons. This week Shira ventured to the World Percheron Congress in Des Moines, Iowa, with six black geldings.
Percheron origins extend to France and, historically, were used as war horses. Their average height stands at 18 hands (approximately 6 feet) with an average weight of 2,000 pounds.
For the past six weeks the training with his team of horses — Ace, Bandit, Smoky, Eddy, Mike and Roc — has been rigorous 12-hour days.
To work with this magnificent breed of horses, one has to have a special relationship, Shira explained. “If you don’t have a natural instinct, you’re going to have one hell of a time doing this. And you have to be fearless with these horses, and know which ones to be careful of because there aren’t any of them that won’t kick or bite you.”
Horse and owner begin to cultivate their relationship at the moment they make eye contact.
“We look at most of the horses individually. You can tell when you walk up to them which horse has a sense that you’re not going to hurt it and that it shouldn’t hurt you,” he said.
With each training Shira said he learns something new which helps to prepare them for every show and competition.
“We have to know these horses’ personality better than our family. In a way it’s cooperation but it’s also discipline,” he said. “For the last six weeks we’ve been hitching them in pairs to see what works and to see which ones we want where. And one of the luxuries we have is all the horses are about the same in size. Normally what we like to see are the smaller horses leading.”
A lifetime member of the Percheron Horse Association of America, Shira has participated in many Percheron competitions locally and nationally.
Going to the World Percheron Congress competition means a lot to Shira.
“Even if you don’t win anything, just to have enough guts to try it,” he said. And if they win, “It’s glory — to say, ‘you have the best’ at that particular time.”
Shira said the judges will look for stamina, movement, posture with each horse carrying their heads high and their ears and eyes at attention. Most importantly each horse must be seen doing their part in the hitch.
“The competition is judged, I would say, on 60 percent performance of the driver and the whole team, and 40 percent on equipment.”
Before his start with Percherons, Shira drove with Belgians. “I’ve been around all kinds of horses,” he said. But with his new found love, he doesn’t think he’ll ever stop working with Percherons.
“Some guys golf, some guys drink, we play with horses,” said Shira.
During the practices, Shira said he and his crew, Jeremiah Litteral and Scott Love, work with the Percherons to get just as much out of the “wheel” or back horses, and “swing” or middle horses, as he does out of the “lead” (front horses) to have each horse doing their part. And as the horses are hitched to the wagon, Shira looks to get each one in the right position.
“We work with these horses,” he said. “We don’t have to get rough with any of them, and you saw when each horse came out, they stood and were disciplined.”
When it comes to performance the horses are “all business.” Not only does Shira pay close attention to their attitude and personality, but assess their size, confirmation, and action of the legs and feet with each practice run.
“I wake up in the mornings sometimes thinking about this or in the middle of the night,” he said about training and practice method.
“I have had tears in my eyes more than one time watching these guys go,” said Shira. “I’m like the coach when it comes to working with these horses. It’s an ultimate acclamation of success to get the horses all working together.”
The driving part is what Shira says he likes the best. “Even at 67 years old, I still get on that wagon seat,” he said. “And I will be driving in some of the classes in Des Moines.”