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40 Horse Hitch - It’s Tough, Expensive and Just for Show

May 11, 1989

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ Hitching 40 Belgian horses to one wagon is like killing a mosquito with a bazooka, but Paul Sparrow says that’s beside the point.

″It’s the spectacle of the thing,″ he said.

The original 40-horse hitches were developed at the turn of the century to advertise the circus and at the time, he said, ″It was the most spectacular thing they could do.″

Sparrow is putting together a modern version of the big hitch, and the Zearing farmer says it’s still spectacular. ″Sometimes I almost get mind boggled by it,″ he said. ″I wonder, am I in over my head?″

After months of training the animals, Sparrow gave them a practice spin today on a 300-acre plot on the Sparrow farm. ″It went off real well,″ said his wife, Sandy Sparrow.

Sparrow said the last time family attempted a 40-horse hitch was in 1977, when his father, Dick, did it.

Since then, sponsoring money ran out, the Sparrows sold the animals and went back to farming.

″We went all over the country, Rose Bowl, coast to coast,″ said the son.

Now, thanks to a $120,000 grant from General Foods Corp., the Sparrows assembled a new team. The grant covers expenses of training and transportation to the only planned public appearance, the Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee in July.

Sparrow, 34, said it takes patience and practice to arrange the animals correctly.

″It’s like assembling a football team,″ he said. ″Some animals are interchangeable and some aren’t.″

Hauling the wagon takes just a fraction of the horsepower available, meaning there’s more than enough energy to cause trouble, Sparrow said, especially in a crowd.

″There’s no way you can make them crowd proof, but you do the best you can.″

Sparrow said the animals are trained to think nothing of it when a balloon pops nearby or a band blares or a car horn sounds.

″When you stop, you have to stand there and not get spooked,″ he said. ″We drive right up to them in cars with the horn blaring.″

Sparrow said he can shout loud enough for the lead animals, 115 feet away, to hear the commands, but the hitch requires two pairs of mounted outriders as well. One pair flanks the lead animals and the other is midway.

″We had a 4-year-old one time who darted right toward the hitch and would have gone under if it hadn’t been for one of the outriders cutting him off,″ Sparrow said.

What if an animal midway in the pack wants to bolt right and the command is to hang a gradual left? Not to fear, he said, the other horses will provide the correct influence.

″If one horse doesn’t want to turn, the others will push him and he won’t have any choice.″

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