Shire six-horse hitch to be featured in Tournament of Roses Parade

IONA, Minn. -- A team of six Shire horses trained and boarded on a rural Iona farm will grace television screens in homes across the country Friday morning as Pasadena, Calif., celebrates New Year's Day with its 127th Tournament of Roses parade.

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The Dakota Thunder six-horse hitch competes during a show this summer in Britt, Iowa. Joe Biren of rural Iona has control of the reins, while his niece, Kennedy Deuschle, goes along for the ride. (Photo courtesy Stacie C. Lynch Photography)

IONA, Minn. - A team of six Shire horses trained and boarded on a rural Iona farm will grace television screens in homes across the country Friday morning as Pasadena, Calif., celebrates New Year’s Day with its 127th Tournament of Roses parade.

  Joe Biren, an agriculture teacher at Murray County Central who trains draft horses in his spare time, will lead a six-team hitch down the 5.5-mile parade route for Dakota Thunder Shires. The team is slated to appear as the 22nd entry in the parade.

The horses are owned by Houston and Judith Haugo of Sioux Falls, S.D. It’s the first time either the owner or the trainer have had horses appear in the parade televised across the country. In fact, this was the first time Haugo applied for entry.

“I said he could go ahead and apply - I didn’t think he’d get in,” said Biren with a laugh.

Biren has competed with the Shires in shows from Lansing, Mich., to Oklahoma City, Okla., and Denver, Colo., but the trek to California is the farthest they’ve traveled.


Transporting six horses - and another spare or two - along with the wagon, feed, bedding and equipment took a lot of planning. As Biren said, “You just don’t pull into a Motel 6.”

The horses can be on a semi trailer for only so many hours a day, and Biren mapped out a course that had them stopping at stables equipped to handle that many horses - large horses - for a night. Joining the caravan were an RV, a truck and camper and an assortment of other vehicles as Biren and numerous family members and friends made the journey from southwest Minnesota to Los Angeles County, Calif.

They left last Wednesday, bound for the L.A. Equestrian Center in Burbank, where they will remain until Jan. 2. On Tuesday, the horses are slated to participate in Equestfest at the center with all of the other equestrian participants in the Tournament of Roses parade.

Late Thursday night, Biren said they will leave Burbank to enter the parade’s staging area, and the horses will be unloaded by about 3 a.m. Friday. All parade entrants must be in place by 4:30 a.m., for the 8 a.m. parade start.

Plans are to leave Burbank early on Saturday, and be back to the farm in rural Iona in time for Biren to return to his ag classroom at MCC on Jan. 4.

Showy Shires

Biren and the Haugos have been building up their team of Shires since 2010, when Biren was asked by the horse owner to put together a Shire hitch.

“I tried to convince him to do otherwise. I tried to convince him to go with a different breed - either Belgians or Percherons or something that was a little more readily available,” Biren said earlier this month. Shires, particularly registered Shires, are difficult to find - considered, even, an endangered species, he said.


Biren soon found what is now their lead team - a young team with a lot of potential - and he has been building on that team ever since.

“It took us probably a year, year and a half, before we went to our first show just because of trying to find enough horses, enough quality horses,” Biren said. “I was kind of picky.”

Today, Biren has 14 Shires on his farm, some hailing from Canada, while others were purchased from North Carolina, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota. He’s always looking for additional Shires to add to the mix.

“It’s kind of like a football team - you are always looking for that one next player,” Biren explained.

“Your competition is always going to be getting a little bit tougher.”

With a television show dedicated to draft horses and shows, interest in raising and showing Shires, Belgians, Percherons and Clydesdales has increased - and competition has become extremely tough, Biren said.

“The group of horses I’ve purchased for (the Haugos) … we’re not at the top-top of the level, but we are right there in the mix,” said Biren. “We’ve beat some pretty prominent Belgian and Percheron hitches this year, so that kind of put a little feather in our hat.”

Dakota Thunder Shires boasts a two-time national champion Shire six-horse hitch, and Biren said his team is the only Shire six-horse hitch in the history of the North American Classic Series to make it to the top in back-to-back years.


“I really think we’re going to be well on our way to a third year,” he added.

Accumulating points

At one time, the draft horse show season ran for about two and a half months during the summer, but Biren said shows are now offered year-round, and there are hundreds of them throughout the United States. Dakota Thunder participated in eight or nine this year, and plans to compete in 13 or 14 in 2016.

During each show, teams collect points to earn their way into the finals at the end of the show season.

“We do multiple classes at the shows - ladies cart, mens cart, team, junior driver team, unicorn, four-, six- or eight-horse hitch,” Biren said. “The granddaddy of them all is the six-horse hitch. Everyone wants to win that one.”

The six horse hitch requires six horses that will work together - be in step, pull evenly, be animated and maintain uniformity.

It doesn’t happen overnight. Biren works with the horses for hours each day, staying in the barn until midnight most nights during the school year, and working the animals outside throughout the summer.

He uses a free-flow walker for the horses to develop their aerobic conditioning. They are also used to pull loads to build up muscle, and there are days when they are working on their animation and motion.


“We train these just like athletes,” Biren said. “They have days on and days off for rest.”

The horses get complete dental work each year in the spring, they are kept current on vaccinations and have a strict feeding program.

“We bring a chiropractor in three or four times a year,” he added.

After the horses return from California next week, Biren said they will go into their period of rest for a few months, and he will have five new horses he will begin to train.

“In March, we’ll start putting shoes back on and we’ll start building their muscle and their aerobic ability back up.”

Lifetime tradition

Biren grew up with draft horses on the farm, and purchased his first team with the help of his dad when he was in seventh grade. He trained the team, sold them and then started with another team - doing that throughout high school.

About the time his classmates were earning their driver’s license, Biren began driving multiple hitches in competition. His family still owns a competitive Belgian hitch with four horses.


Biren said what he can teach a Belgian team to do in 30 days takes about six months with Shires.

“But when they (Shires) get to that point, it just really stands out,” he said. “They’re really pretty -tough to beat.”

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