Jesse and Michael, Frying Pan Farm Park’ s Percheron draft horses
Have you ever dreaded a day because you fear change? You have something great, but it has to leave, and you are not sure if you will like the replacement. A year in school, a new teacher, a boyfriend or girlfriend. How often was your fear replaced with gratification, and you even had trouble remembering why you were worried?
That happened at Frying Pan Farm Park with the arrival of the Jackson boys.
Years ago, when I began working at Frying Pan, there were eight Belgian Draft horses walking those fields. Kidwell Farm housed two aged mares named Kit and Kay. All the other horses were their offspring. There was a huge, light blonde gelding named Dusty, his younger brother Sam, and a cousin named Pete. Their color favored toward sorrel with white manes and tails. They had two younger sisters, Sara and Leigh. Kay was nursing a young gelding named Major when I arrived.
Over the next couple of years, for a number of reasons, the demonstration farm sold all the males and kept the team of mares and the team of fillies. Kit and Kay performed traditional work and powered interpretive wagon rides. They were huge draws, especially during special events. There were several attempts to train Sara and Leigh to eventually replace their mothers; however they just couldn’t be trusted in a public atmosphere under harness. Some said they were spoiled, and others said they were just too ornery. They were eventually sold to another farm, and Kidwell Farm faced a dilemma.
The farm needed a new team.
Kit and Kay were Kidwell cornerstones and beloved by thousands. They were valuable for routine farm tasks and special events; however they couldn’t perform in a routine and continual manner. They were forced into retirement and landed out west on another farm. Sarah and Leigh were still on hand, but more for show than work.
The task of finding another team that could perform so many duties with a staff of people who didn’t grow up working draft horses on a regular basis seemed impossible. Staff traveled through three states and looked at a dozen teams of multiple breeds — Belgians, Clydesdales, Suffolks, and crosses.
Some could pull hayrides well but couldn’t do field work. Some were great except in public. Some teams had one horse that was calm, well trained and could do everything, but its partner wasn’t as good. I remember traveling through the hills of West Virginia and viewing the most beautiful team you ever saw, but they scared me to death, and that was on their own farm. We saw one team with a lame horse. The farmer told us that would get better. We didn’t think so.
My biggest concern was finding a team that would not get spooked. I wanted them bombproof, a term used in the equestrian world to represent an extremely calm horse that can handle any surprise.
I got a call from someone in the Virginia Draft Horse Association who told me there was a team in Manassas we should see. Honestly, I thought Manassas? How would a decent team of horses be in the urbanization of Manassas? They were geldings, about 15 years old, and Percherons. I’d never worked with Percherons, and we wanted to stick with Belgians because the park had had success with them. However, I didn’t want to seem unappreciative, so I said we’d go take a look.
A few of us travelled to Catharpin, near the battlefield in Manassas, and arrived at a small farmette with some paddocks, a barn, sheds and a nice house. We saw some ponies and a few riding horses. As we met with the farmer, he showed us two large, solid black draft horses with little stars of white hair in the middle of their faces. Jesse and Michael. The farmer told us that you could only tell them apart by the gray hair around Jesse’s nose. They looked very healthy and in great shape. They were comfortable with us walking around for close inspections and petting them. I picked up hooves, and the horses cooperated. The farmer told me they were named after Jesse Jackson and Michael Jackson. Jesse was more muscular and a little heavier than Michael. Michael was taller, better balanced and better looking.
The farmer hitched them up and began answering our questions. Jesse and Michael came out of the hills of Tennessee, had done some logging and farm work, could plow, rake, hay, disk fields, and had occasionally pulled hayride wagons. If they had a problem, it was that they were almost always trained better than their drivers. My ears perked when the farmer said he took them to the annual Christmas parade in downtown Manassas – a public experience.
The horses didn’t move as he harnessed them up and connected them together. As he drove them out behind the barn, the farmer said he loved them but needed to sell them because he was losing some acreage that he used for grazing. He hitched them up to a wagon that he used for the parades and drove us out to a field, telling us stories about Jesse and Michael. We came to an open gate and a few feet of dirt road, then nothing. You couldn’t see anything. The road disappeared. As we neared the entrance, I saw the road dropped sharply about 100 feet. It was an old dirt path crossed with windy ditches of obvious erosion. My fellow Frying Pan staffers looked at each other. Nobody spoke. We were thinking, “What is this nut going to do with us?”
The farmer talked on. Jesse and Michael started down the hill. We held on. Then, something amazing.
A team of horses is the “stop and go” of a wagon ride. They’re the engine. The team works side by side and even with each other. But this was beyond just working side by side.
As they began to go down the hill, Jesse and Michael swung their butts out and away from each other, stretching the harnesses out as far as they could. They turned their backsides out so far they were looking at each other. Then they sidestepped all the way down the hill, controlling the wagon speed. Our eyes were bigger than the ones on the horses. The farmer said he didn’t train them to do it, it was just their instinct.
I started thinking that I bet they’re not as good in public situations as promised. As we came to the end of the field, the farmer said we’d go back to the barn. Again, we looked at each other and wondered about climbing the huge hill we’d just descended. Instead, the farmer pulled up to busy Route 234 where cars were crossing the horses’ faces at about 60 miles per hour. The horses just stood there. Then a slap of lines on their backs, and the team pulled out onto 234 in a gap between cars. Our mouths looked ready to catch bugs. The horses started trotting and remained under great control. Cars flew by, cars turned, cars passed us. Jesse and Michael could not have cared less.
I was sold.
Michael and Jesse arrived at Frying Pan shortly after Sara and Leigh departed. The public instantly loved them, and the horses became famous. We worked together like I had driven them for a long time. Michael loved to start off fast. I would hold him back for about 10 minutes until he calmed. Other times I would let him trot to burn that energy off a little, although that may not have pleased his partner. Jesse was calmer and conserved his energy. About a half hour into their work, Michael would drop back and Jesse would wind up pulling most of the load. I often wondered if they spoke about that back in the stall. I learned a lot about teamwork from watching those guys.
Draft horses Jesse and Michael after a December 2009 blizzard.
Years went by, so did wagon rides, demonstrations in the crop fields and thousands of hands rubbing the long faces of these gentle giants. As they aged, the team went into a semi-retirement. They would get hitched up for special occasions and events, and each December they’d pull Santa around with anxious kids and their parents. One year, Jesse decided he was done providing that service, and he made that decision in the middle of a ride. I could not persuade him to finish. I disembarked the wagon and led the team back to the barn. They never pulled Santa again.
The last public time Jesse and Michael were hitched was in 2010 to haul some dignitaries around the site as Fairfax County Park Authority celebrated its 60th anniversary. The boys didn’t pull a wagon again. They went into retirement and were often the first things people saw as they arrived at the park. They remained some of the very few animals referred to by name rather than species. I am sure there are more pictures of Jesse and Michael than of any other feature at Frying Pan Farm Park.
I visited Jesse and Michael in the late summer of 2013. Surpassing 35 years of age, Jesse resembled an old man with muscle tone absent and simply not looking as tall and powerful as before. Michael still looked in great shape with his body confirmation still intact. His eyes weren’t as clear as they once were, his face had some grey, and veterinarians had told us there were internal concerns.
As when anyone or anything gets older and is no longer with us, we feel sad. I was, that day. But I found myself remembering all that these guys had done for thousands of people over the decades. They were an era of Frying Pan Farm Park, a huge part and attraction to the site during a burst of park visitation and growth.
In my 22-year park career, including days at Frying Pan and now at agency headquarters, I have had hundreds of great days. But the best days are by far the ones spent behind the butts of those gentle giants. Taking Jesse and Michael out to the field to work or driving them on the road for a wagon ride for the public, I felt like the type of farmer my dad and his dad were. Those days allowed me, for a while, to make my life journey parallel that of my father, grandfather and my heroes. So I thank Michael and Jesse for that and for so much on behalf of thousands who forged their own experiences because of the team. I am proud to say that I was the first person to drive those horses at Frying Pan Farm Park and the last one to have them in harness there. Drive on guys, you will be missed.
Shortly after author Todd Brown wrote this remembrance, Michael died on September 12, 2013, at age 34. Brown is the Operations Branch Manager in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division and a former site manager of Frying Pan Farm Park.