LOGAN Old Billy's poutin'.
Nikki's the prettiest, but she's a little lazy.
Justice drives Littlefoot crazy, but they stick together because they're a team.
You quickly forget that Billy, Nikki, Justice and Littlefoot are draft horses at Hardware Ranch. The drivers talk about them in such human terms, you struggle to remember that man has yet to sit down and have an educated conversation with a Clydesdale.
The horses are what inspire Shoat Roath to work at the ranch.
"The elk are just a bonus," he said.
"I'm a cross between a sheep and a goat, S-H-O-A-T," he explains to help people remember how to spell his name.
Most of the ranch's visitors come for the elk and perhaps glaze over the most colorful and endearing characters: the cowboys and horses.
After 25 years at the Cache County Fire District, driver Kelly Pitcher chose the ranch over retirement. He likes being with the horses because they "have the same work ethic as the firefighters."
And they do work. These are not the long, lean-legged horses that clear jumps. Their legs are thick and appear to sport giant Sherpa boots. A team of two horses pulls a 3,000-pound sleigh full of 20 people (plus a driver or two) through a large field where about 500 elk are calmly feeding on a mix of meadow grass and alfalfa. The contrast between the horses' body heat and the chilly air causes them to steam like freight trains. Many of the elk don't even stand up as the sleigh passes. Some of them bring themselves to their feet, backside first, and take a few wary steps away from the enormous horses, but none of them run.
They look you in the eyes, chewing slowly and looking a bit bored with the whole affair. They seem tired and wise, completely unaware of the cold. The colors of their coats range from a deep walnut to faded sepia and look like they got a $2 cut from a blind barber. Their scarred sides could convince anyone they lived through a run-in with Old Ephraim.
The sleigh rides last about 20 to 30 minutes with several stops to observe the elk. The snow in the field is about 2 feet deep this year, and the horses' hooves slide as they search for traction.
"They're old and tired," Pitcher said after yelling encouragement to Belle, the "sweetheart" Clydesdale.
Belle and her partner, Beauty, are the ranch veterans. They've been there for more than 10 years. "They're solid, quiet. They do their job," said driver Brad Hunt.
But with those years of experience, the team sometimes takes over.
"They've been doing it for so long, sometimes they just get up and go if you've been in one spot for too long," Hunt said.
Each team has a different personality and the pairs stay together, even when they are not working. They eat and socialize side by side, as though they were pulling a sleigh. They even position themselves on the side they normally pull, Hunt said.
The drivers and horses must also be a team. Horsemen build trust as they take care of the horses, especially grooming them. The horses groom each other in their herds, so when people groom them it is a bonding experience, Hunt said.
"Horses are social. They need a leader," he said. "You must treat them judiciously ... "You should talk to them, and call them by name. They know their names."
The drivers have deep friendships with the horses. The question, "Which horse is your favorite?" brings a smile to every driver as he gazes thoughtfully, playing with the beautiful memories in his heart. Proud as parents, they answer.
"Justice is my favorite. He's just kind of big and dumb. He reminds me of a Labrador," said Jenny Johnson, who worked two years as a driver and now volunteers some weekends.
"His upper lip is huge. You could stick a tennis ball in there," she said, laughing as she described how his lip shakes back and forth when he comes toward you.
"Justice is growing up," Hunt said. "He's not such a dork this year."
The only way to get him to do what you want is to coax him patiently: "You can't raise your voice. If you raise your voice, he gets ticked," Hunt said.
A draft horse is not a mammal any sane person wants to see upset. These horses make even the tallest human feel like he's made of rice paper. And if you're short, it seems like his mere breath could send your puny frame flying to the ground. Their hooves are like four large dinner plates and a nostril is about the size of an adult's fist.
For anyone not accustomed to the monstrous mammals, sitting on one of their backs seems about as safe as riding a jumbo jet.
"You wanna ride Justice?" driver Jared Grover asked one of the female visitors, whose cherry-red pea coat and flimsy boots screamed of her urban roots.
As she contemplated a reasonable excuse, Shoat crouched with his gloved hands cupped over his knee cap, and Grover positioned himself behind her.
"Just step right here like it's a bucket, and we'll throw you up there," Shoat told her.
The math was not good. She appeared to weigh more than the two little wrangler-wearing cowboys put together. It was hard to visualize Shoat throwing her anywhere.
She positioned an awkward foot on Shoat's hands and made an ungraceful dive for Justice's back.
"You must be a city girl," Grover crowed after her failed launch.
Shoat explained that she needed to straighten her leg, stand up and then they would toss her over, instead of her climbing Justice like a rock wall.
The second attempt was much better and she landed stiffly on Justice's back. He didn't seem to care at first, and then he got a little restless. She made awkward baby-voice comments like those a city girl makes to a kitty.
"It's OK, Justice. You're OK."
He saw right through the act. He knew she was nervous. She laughed unnaturally at his rustling. After a few evidential photos were snapped, she slid off the enormous beast, and it was back to work for Justice.
When not guiding a sleigh, drivers rest in the sleigh shack. A 2-by-2-foot propane heater and four bottles of soda serve as decoration. Drivers reminisce as they thaw out.
"Remember when we got Nikki and Nelly's names mixed up?" Jenny asks.
Nikki and Nelly are contracted each winter from the American West Heritage Center. Two years ago they were the new kids on the ranch and the drivers confused the names. They were put on the opposite sides of the harness than where they should've been. At the end of the season, Jenny found out about the mistake.
"We'd been cussing out the wrong horse the whole year," she said.
Several of the horses get the lazy label. Horses are like people and have different personalities and work ethics, Hunt said. "Billy's attitude is 'if you're not gonna make me do it, I won't."'
Nikki has become a little lazy as well, but she is one of the most beautiful horses.
"It's just the way she stands," Hunt said fondly. "Some people train horses to stand a certain way so they look nice in photos, but Nikki just naturally does it."
Everyone in the shack complains about Justice, who is known to nip.
"He bit me, so I jumped up and bit his ear and he's never bothered me since," said Grover.
"He's never bit me, but he's got me with his lips," Hunt said. "If you let him, he'll suck your hair right off."
Johnson said Justice is always snooping for treats in her pockets. She jokes that he probably thinks she has treats because she smells better than the boys.
Like the horses, the elk have personalities in the eyes of the drivers. The female elk, or cows, often fight over the feed by standing up on their hind legs and boxing. "Typical women," jokes Pitcher. The males, or bulls, will spar for fun but the women are honestly fighting.
"The men just argue about who's going to win the Super Bowl," he said.
Keeper, the largest bull, always makes himself seen when the sled passes. He lifts his six-point rack solidly like a bodybuilder pumping weights.
"He's pretty proud of that set of antlers," Pitcher said.
"Wow, I want that one on my wall," a passenger says covets.
But the elk are only admired from a distance, even by the drivers. If a human were to walk through the field, it would spook all the elk and they'd likely jump the fence, Pitcher said. The real interaction is between the horses and the cowboys.
As impressive as the elk may be, visitors who leave without spending time getting to know the horses and the drivers miss the real spark of the ranch. They are like the dearly loved characters in a novel and they stay with you.
As Shoat, the cross between a sheep and a goat, said: "The elk are just a bonus."