Katy Stewart and the team of Elsie, right, and Jubilee, left.
If not for a ring tone from the movie “Despicable Me” when a text message arrives on her phone, Katy Stewart could be a rancher a hundred years ago driving a team of draft horses through pastures near the Pine Ridge.
Stewart is a Chadron State College senior majoring in business administration with an agri business option who said if she tried to describe her life without mentioning horses she could do so in less than 30 seconds.
“I like the versatility of horses, their unique personalities and the sheer beauty and power of them,” she said.
The team of black Percherons she has been driving since the first week of November is owned by her boss, Chris Nerud. She has worked as a ranch hand for him for about a year, and he purchased the team about a year ago. Elsie is about 13 and the mother of Jubilee, who is about five years old.
The first day of training, Stewart worked them on halter and the second day she drove them around the corral in their harnesses. The third day, she hitched them to a wagon and began driving them even though they had not been driven for a year.
She had hoped to drive the team in the Chadron Parade of Lights, but it was postponed due to severe winter conditions and the new date for the parade proved to serve up almost equally bad weather and slick streets, so she opted to forego the event. She did drive them to town for practice the week of Thanksgiving.
A brother to Jubilee, Czar, age 2, is waiting in the wings. Stewart anticipates that Jubilee and Czar will make a strong team for logging the hills around King Canyon Ranch, which burned in 2006, and also for hauling hay.
“I grew up around a team. We used them for logging, to feed cows and for weddings,” she said. Many people at the weddings were intrigued to see a team of draft horses, many for the first time, and asked a lot of questions.
Her initial experience driving a team came when she was 10 years old at a thrashing bee organized and hosted by Dr. John Gamby. Her dad came down with heat stroke and she took over driving the team.
The day before, at the Dawes County Fair she had won a champion belt buckle. As she braced her small frame against the front of the wagon while handling the reins, the belt buckle engravings were rubbed off so she ended up with a blank belt buckle. However, she has earned many more buckles in the intervening years through both 4-H and ranch horse competitions.
She seems to be the epitome of the Logan Pearsall Smith quote, "The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves."
Stewart knows the equipment, how it is made, how it works, how to care for it and how to harness the horses by herself. She astutely observes that one horse is calmer in the harness while the other is calmer in the corral.
Allan Tullis, a family friend and harness maker from Rushville said it is nice to see Katy carry on her father’s tradition.
“There is a place for draft horses, for some work and chores they are much better than tractors. Katy's dad, Barry, is a good teamster, horseman and stockman. Katy grew up with draft horses,” Tullis said.
Tullis wrote an article about Barry and his Belgian team which was printed in the “Draft Horse Journal” in the 1990s.
Barry said, “It could be a pretty cold day and she’d be dressed and ready to go if you were feeding with the team. If I took the tractor she’d just stay in the house. Your mindset just changes when you hook up a team of horses. You don’t think about how fast you can get the job done.”
Katy's friend and classmate from Crawford, Haley Soester, said, “We hadn't probably said 10 words to each other in third grade until she asked if I liked horses and if I wanted to ride. I said, ‘yes’ and we left and the rest is history. We've been riding together ever since. She's really amazing with any kind of horse, any age. She can train them to do practically anything she wants.”