“My grandma and grandpa grew up with horses on the farm; Grandma had Percherons; Grandpa -- not sure what breed he had,” Wellnitz said. “I sent a link to some draft horses for sale to Grandma, not really expecting anything, but she wanted to do a road trip – there were horses in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin.”
One team of Belgians, owned by Ken Lemke of Milton, was practically in their backyard. Ritz, a 2-year-old, and Roy, a 4-year-old, were for sale.
Priced at $8,000 for the team, Wellnitz figured the cost was beyond what they were thinking of spending, but when the price dropped -- Lemke was moving and needed to re-home the horses -- the family had its first pair of draft horses.
Soon the family would have 10 horses, big horses -- Belgian draft horses, to be exact.
The Belgian draft horse is one of the strongest and heaviest of horses, bred in the Brabant region of Belgium.
To the uninitiated, a group of Belgian horses might appear to be identical, brown to chestnut coloring with a lighter shade of flaxen mane, tail and feathering on their legs. A blaze -- white strip -- down its face, can take different shapes, so looking a Belgian in the face can help you identify it.
“The blaze is a big way I tell the difference,” said Matt’s sister, Nicole Kan, 32. “You can look at their feet, too. Plus, they all have a bit different coloring. Rocket is the reddest one; JP is a lot lighter, but he still has that reddish tint.”
“They each have their own personality, and just like us, they have good days and not so good,” said Wellnitz, who has no trouble knowing which horse is which.
“Sunoco and Chief have almost the same shape blaze, but totally different personality.”
That personality -- even tempered, willing to work, steady -- is one of the reasons the Belgian is the most popular draft horse in the United States, where the Belgian Draft Horse Registry was formed in 1887 in Indiana.
The other reason the Belgian is popular is its size. The horse can stand at 17 hands (about 68 inches) at the withers and weigh upward of 2,000 pounds -- that’s a ton.
“It’s one of the things you get so much satisfaction from,” Kan said. “What you can do with that size and mass.”
“Once you find the horse for you, you just know it,” Wellnitz said. “When Aunt Donna looked at these two, you could just tell … And once you find a certain breed, you tend to stick to it.”
Lemke worked with the family to get them familiar and comfortable with the two horses, but since then, Wellnitz has done much of the training himself.
“We’ll hook up the more experienced horse with one that still needs training,” Wellnitz added. “A lot of work goes into each horse, though they get a bit of a break in the winter. We’re right back at it in March though.”
A training sled is used to start with, maybe only a half-hour to start, gradually working up to an hour or so.
Once you’ve got a few horses, you need a few more carts. Some are built for one, others need at least a pair, but more often a team of four or six horses hitched together. All of those horses and wagons take a lot of people to put on a showing.
The business name of the families’ driving endeavor is WW Belgians, combining the “Ws” from the last names of Wellnitz and Welsh. Ha Be Weel Acres is the name of the farm where the horses are kept.
Virginia and Harold Halvensleben infused their family with a love of the land and the big horses, once so essential to farming the land.
The Halvensleben daughters, Donna Welsh and Denise Wellnitz, passed that on to their families. Now WW Belgians truly is a family affair.
When Wellnitz’s grandfather, Harold Halvensleben, passed away at age 86 in June of this year, two of the horses were hitched to a hearse and carried him to his final resting place at Maple Hill Cemetery in Evansville, a fitting tribute to a man who always enjoyed working the animals on his farm.
Two of the 10 Belgians are getting more training before making a public debut, but the other eight have been busy this year.
The show season starts with the Midwest Horse Fair in April in Madison. After that, it’s parades and county fairs.
Wellnitz and his family, which includes his older brother Jason, 34, just came off showing horses at the Boone County Fair in Belvidere, Illinois. They showed a unicorn hitch -- one horse in the lead, with two behind -- a tricky setup. They took a third place in the six-horse hitch, which was very good, considering its one of their newer arrangements.
Earlier this year, the driving team, sponsored by Badger Equine Veterinary Services, wowed the crowd at the Milton Fourth of July parade. Later this month, Wellnitz and family will take the horses to the Walworth County Fair in Elkhorn.
Michael Deneen is the draft horse superintendent of the fair, which just added new horse barns to the Elkhorn fairgrounds.
“These big horses always attract a crowd,” Deneen said. “There’s always a good turnout for the driving classes, even the halter classes. There’s just something about that size and power.”
“Showing the horses or driving them in a parade is really the end result of a lot of hard work from a lot of people,” Wellnitz said. “It’s the camaraderie of the family all working together that’s the reward.”
That, and working with the big horses, of course. The next generation is already lining up to take over. Kan said her two sons, Nicholas, 3, and Jamison, 1, love being around the horses.
“Nicholas gets right in there and cleans up the stalls,” his mother said. “He wants to know everything. He thinks he’s already involved.”
Not horsing around
Robert Mischka, of Whitewater, is an acclaimed horse photographer whose photographs appear in calendars, books and Rural Heritage magazine, available direct from Mischka Press (877-647-2452) or at Tractor Supply stores.
He is often found taking photos at horse pulls and county fairs, including the Walworth County Fair, which will be held Aug. 30 through Sept. 4 in Elkhorn.
For more of his photos, go to www.mischka.pics.