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Heinz Hitch is great show of horsepower

Sunday, April 14, 2002

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

My favorite ancestral portrait hangs in the rumpus room of the Michigan farmhouse where I grew up. In it, four teams of draft horses stand facing the camera in front of our big red barn. A ninth horse is hitched to a buggy.

The black-and-white photo is printed on a postcard, and we can't quite make out who the people are. Gramp, maybe, and his brother, Alfred, and is that great-grandpa Mose Garner in the natty straw hat? A couple of kids are there, but no sign of Gram, who once piled her five children into the buggy to drive a high-stepping mare named Lady seven miles into town to buy groceries.

Those were the days before my family sold their last workhorses to buy a tractor, when horsepower didn't refer to lawn mowers but to the hay-burners that pulled plows, walked carefully between rows cultivating beans and corn, and drew the combines of wheat. They didn't work on Sundays, either, and, in words passed from father to son, my dad always said, "We don't eat until the horses are fed."

Maybe that explains why I was so excited on Monday to climb four steep steps and scramble up into the driver's seat of the Heinz Hitch, on display on Federal Street outside PNC Park at the Pirates home opener. The air was heady up there, with our heads 12 feet above the ground overlooking eight shiny, black Percherons. (They've been denuded of their shaggy winter coats by the fine teeth of a hacksaw.)

Just like Gramp, Heinz showed off four teams of two, but theirs are hitched end to end in a true show of horsepower. Although the eight geldings appeared docile and in control on the outside, I felt the tension, as though they could explode into a thunder of roaring hooves at the slightest provocation. The horses get more worked up by pompom girls than planes.

Alternating at the reins were John Dryer, and his son-in-law, Rabo Nijenhuis, who travel, along with three others, coast to coast with the Heinz Hitch. The Hitch has been drawing crowds since 1984, though it might be lesser known in Pittsburgh than Pasadena.

For the short trip on General Robinson Street, the horses are shifted into gear with a call to the lead horses, "King! Cracker! Step up!"

This was their first outing this spring and they were feeling frisky. "Easy, boys, easy," the horses hear as they prance past the ballpark.

It was one of the happiest two-block rides in my life. Soon the hitch is parked, its wagon chalked, but like little boys on a sunny spring day, the horses can't stand still.

It's meet and greet time. Though the horsemen are polite, they cringe when passers-by ask if the horses are Clydesdales, the hairy-legged horses in that other hitch. No, they're Percherons, and they'll outweigh a Clyde by maybe 300 pounds. Each weighs more than a ton.

Bigger and, they imply, better, though not easier to handle. A Percheron tends to be spirited, a trait that evolved from their ancestors, Arabian stallions crossed with Flemish mares. Other fans guess Belgians, though they are never black, and these horses are as dark as coal in a Pennsylvania pit.

I had met the teamsters and the horses last fall, the first year for the new Heinz Field. Given its name, it seemed appropriate to spotlight the breed of horses that H.J. Heinz once drove around the city, delivering early products, such as pickles and vinegar. In fact, there's a picture of a circa 1900 Heinz team and wagon on the side of the trailer, and the founder is invoked in another way, too -- a Dalmatian named H.J. that snoozed atop the wagon.

The black horses stood for an hour and a half in the warm sun to absorb the admiring glances of baseball fans who may have never been this close to a horse. Many took advantage of this unusual photo op.

John and I share a common goal: American eaters ought to be taught where food comes from and how it arrives on their plates. Some youngsters are shocked with the realization that horses once trucked the tomatoes -- and, later, the ketchup.

Most probably have no idea how much work it is to care for these big beauties, whose feet are the size of dinner plates. Their sheer strength and weight is why admirers aren't allowed near enough to pet them, though many try to sneak in a quick pat. And who could blame them for reaching out to touch the muzzle of a horse named King?

You think it's challenging to back an SUV into a tight parking space, you ought to sit up there next to Rabo and feel him turn eight horses heading toward the Roberto Clemente Bridge north in the opposite direction. This rig is 65 feet long.

"Step haw, Cracker!" he calls to the lead horse, who shares that honored spot with King. "Good boys." To the big black geldings, this means, "Turn left" and they do it without scraping the curb.

Cracker, "my rock up there," Rabo says, is fast becoming his favorite, though don't tell the high-stepping King.

I know enough about horses to know that I shouldn't ask to drive. This is not power steering, but a task that combines finesse with brute strength. There's a 3/4-inch leather line for each horse, and these reins are wound through the driver's two hands like strands of silk connecting him to a moving tapestry of muscle. But this tapestry moves only with the help of an artist with horse sense. A driver can change direction with a flick of the wrist.

"They have to have absolute trust in you," says John, who keeps them at his farm near Avella, Washington County. "They'll go over a cliff if you asked them. But you only lie to them once."

They are a handful. On the drive to the event, the lines from eight bits exert 80 pounds of pressure, but it's 125 pounds going to the barn (or, in this case, the trucks). Horses always know when they're heading home.

There may be 75 people in the country who can drive a hitch like this, and I rode with two of them. On Monday, life couldn't have gotten any better than that.

John Dryer's Favorite Baked Beans

The driver of the Heinz Hitch and the PG food editor have something in common besides a love of horses. He loves baked beans, and her family grows navy beans. Though it's not known whether any Garner Farms beans end up in Heinz products, Suzanne has eaten plenty of Mom's baked beans. John's recipe is also delicious.

1 can (16 ounces) Heinz Pork & Beans (we used Heinz vegetarian beans)
1 can (15 ounces) red kidney beans, drained
1/4 cup Heinz ketchup
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon cooked bacon bits
(we used three pieces, trimmed, chopped and microwaved)
2 teaspoon dried minced onion
2 teaspoons Heinz mustard (we used Heinz spicy brown)

Combine all ingredients in 1 1/2-quart casserole. Bake, uncovered, in a 350-degree oven about 45 minutes.

"Knowledge in a Nutshell on Popular Products -- Heinz Edition "by Charles Reichblum with John Dryer

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