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Horses of a different culture

An Odessa couple love and raise breeds of horses not often seen these days, except for a similar breed popularized by a famous beer company.

By JOSH ZIMMER
Published June 18, 2004

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[Times photos: Mike Pease]
Showing one of the roles their horses can play, David Hanson drives a brace of American Belgian draft horses hitched to a carriage at Thunder Ranch, where he and his wife, Stacey, breed and raise the horses. When he’s older, Kodiak, a 4-month-old American Belgian, front, will do similar work.

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Stacey Hanson helps 11-month-old Eva (pronounced “Ava”) acclimate to her new home in Odessa. Hanson traveled to Belgium in September to buy Eva and two other rare blue roan Brabant draft horses for shipment to the United States where they will be bred when old enough.
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It seems every good horse ranch also is home to at least one dog. At Thunder Ranch, this Jack Russell terrier gets acquainted with one of the newer ranch residents, the 4-month-old American Belgian draft horse named Kodiak.
photoWaiting to go to work, these two American Belgian draft horses soon will be hitched to a carriage for a ride around Thunder Ranch, the spread owned by Stacey and David Hanson for breeding and raising draft horses.
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And they’re off! Kodiak, left, an American Belgian, and Eva, a blue roan Brabant, make like thoroughbreds. The two draft horse colts won’t be going to Churchill Downs for racing, though, they might appear in a parade or two later in their lives.

ODESSA - Stacey Hanson loves horses and breeds them. It's nothing for her to load up a trailer on short notice and deliver an equine to a new owner in Florida or places beyond.

But this was different.

Last September, she jumped on a plane to Belgium with a good friend and fellow horse devotee from Brooksville. For more than a week, they traveled that country's pastoral backwaters on a mission: find high-quality draft horses and bring them back for breeding.

What they returned with is shaking up the draft horse world.

* * *

Hanson and her husband, David, own Thunder Ranch, 30 acres of open fields and woods in northwest Hillsborough next to the Brooker Creek Headwaters Preserve. Countless cars whiz by on Tarpon Springs Road a couple of hundred yards away, but on the ranch there's silence.

"I wouldn't trade this for the world," Stacey Hanson says. "When I come home from work, I don't want to leave."

The Hansons kept horses at their old home near Clearwater. Moving to Odessa more than 15 years ago - and buying land before property values shot through the roof - gave them room for more of them.

By this time, the Hansons had fallen for draft horses.

Draft horses once helped power America. Even as engines took over daily life, many farmers and horse lovers often found uses for the amicable, hardworking creatures. But now, except for the Amish, people buy them mainly as pets.

Of all the breeds of draft horses, the Hansons are passionate about the Belgian line consisting of Americans and Brabants.

"They have an incredibly gentle nature," said Vicki Knott, secretary-treasurer of the American Belgian Horse Corporation of America, which registers about 4,000 purebred Belgians a year.

Brabants sport hairy lower legs similar to the popular Clydesdales that star in Budweiser beer commercials. Experts trace their origins back centuries.

American Belgian horses are a hybrid created in this country. While sharing the essential Belgian characteristics - a stout body and laid-back nature - they were bred to be a bit taller and have smoother legs.

As for their weight, it's a matter of big and bigger. Adult American Belgians are lighter but still hit the scales at 1,900 to 2,200 pounds. Brabants can weigh up to 2,500 pounds.

Call them outdated, but draft horses remain popular at parades and other public events. The Hansons recently showed their horses at the Little Everglades Steeplechase in Dade City and are regulars at Dunedin's annual Christmas parade, among others.

People also pay them for private parties, which might involve organizing an Easter egg hunt or hitching up one of their antique horse buggies for a wedding procession, either at Thunder Ranch or somewhere else.

"I just passed there on my way to work and I heard they did hayrides," said Rob Connolly, a New Port Richey resident who recently paid to have his son Rocky's 16th birthday party at Thunder Ranch. "It went real well."

These activities and horse breeding help the couple break even on horses, Stacey Hanson said. They work other jobs to make a living.

Over the years, the Hansons have bred and sold more than 80 American Belgians. The prices vary. Thunder Ranch offspring usually go for $4,000 to $5,000, although Knott said the national record for a Belgian is $100,000.

Each birth at the Odessa ranch is a moment of pride. The Hansons announce the event on a large field sign visible from Tarpon Springs. The last one read "It's A Boy!" in honor of Kodiak, a rare chocolate-colored American.

Not long ago, the Hansons discovered the plight in this country of a rare Brabant line called the blue roan. It's a typical Brabant except for its grayish-blue hair. Some consider the blue roan to be quite beautiful - if you can find one.

The number of purebreds in this country had shrunk to about 20, Stacey Hanson said. As far as she knew, only two of them were studs.

It was time to bring back the blue roan. For the Hansons and some friends, the only solution was the trip to Europe.

* * *

Their determined cadre made contact with the American Brabant Association, which put them in touch with a preservation group in Belgium, Le Cheval de Trait Belge.

Upon arriving overseas, Stacey Hanson and her friend, Joyce Concklin, met with the head of the group's regional offices. Each day, he would introduce them to different farmers and their blue roans.

"We'd eat breakfast and go off," Hanson said.

The Belgian families were hospitable, offering them snacks and tea with every visit, she said. After viewing the horses, they'd sit down to review the horses' bloodlines.

They finally narrowed the search down to three blue roans, one of which would go to the Hansons' good friend, Stavros Zoumberos, a former thoroughbred trainer. With a payment of about $20,000 for all three, the Hansons and Zoumberos had their horses.

Concklin, meanwhile, chose two Ardennes draft horses for herself. Ardennes horses form an even older bloodline dating back to the days of Julius Caesar, said Karen Gruner, secretary-treasurer of the American Brabant Association.

The horses were tranquilized and flown to New York City, placed in quarantine for several days and then transported to some Amish friends the Hansons know in Ohio.

The roans - Eva Van Bakergemshof, Leonine Ter Dieschoot and the stud, Pim De Balgerhoek - now live comfortably on Thunder Ranch.

They're too young to begin breeding, Stacey Hanson said. But just knowing the pieces are in place for the blue roan's resurgence causes goose bumps for Belgian horse lovers. Gruner of the Brabant Association recently visited from Maryland to see the horses and is ready to spread the good news to other Belgian owners.

Hanson figures Eva, Leonine and Pim need another 2 or 3 years before they can play their part. In the meantime, Zoumberos and David Hanson plan to learn about artificial insemination.

That would enable the effort to reach far beyond the confines of Thunder Ranch.

Said Stacey Hanson, "I'm very excited about this."

- Josh Zimmer covers the University of South Florida area, Keystone and Odessa and Citrus Park. He can be reached at 813-269-5314 or zimmer@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 17, 2004, 11:58:12]

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