In 1994, an event took place on the Elmer Lapp farm in Kinzers, PA that didn’t even have a name. It was the brainchild of several important figures in the Draft Horse Culture who determined it would be a good thing to show non-Amish horse people what was happening in the farm shops on Amish farms. They wanted to show that a need for horse-centric farm equipment was being fulfilled for horse farmers whose faith practices mandated that they use horses and mules to farm. These farmers would have been perfectly happy continuing to purchase their farming equipment from major manufacturers, even though the majors abandoned them for “bigger and better.” Eventually that 1994 event came to be called Horse Progress Days.
The 2024 event, back in Lancaster County PA, and only several miles from the location of the very first one, will mark exactly 30 years’ worth of events; with the exception, of course, of the year 2021 when conventional wisdom mandated postponement. The hype around that first event engendered speculation for an attendance of 10,000-12,000. In reality, the attendance was much less, but the seeds for future events had been sown. The first number of years Horse Progress Days sort of shuffled along with some uncertainty as to who was really responsible for it, and to whom did it belong? Maurice Telleen of The Draft Horse Journal was in on the dreaming stages that gave rise to the very first one. He had been the force behind the formation of a national Draft Horse and Mule Association under which it was thought this event could function. And for a time, it did, but then it nearly died. It is this writer’s observation that there is one word that has kept this event functioning, and not just functioning, but flourishing. That word is volunteerism. In every community where Horse Progress Days is held, volunteers provide hours and hours of time to it. At the national and local board of directors’ levels, hours and hours are freely given to it. For many years, board members paid out of their own pockets for their transportation to the event and to board meetings. In more recent years, there have been some funds for reimbursement, but no one has benefitted disproportionately.
There is, no doubt, a time and place for diligent planning and following through with plans, but Horse Progress Days defies that logic in some ways. While it is essential for local planners to think and follow through with their plans, it is becoming more and more evident that the Horse Progress Days has always had “a life of its own” as various components are introduced at various locations. When it seemed it could have, and conventional wisdom would have said that it should have, died, it lived on. In the early days this was in spite of good planning, rather than because of it.
So here we are, thirty years later. What will the event look like
thirty years from now?
The Amish way of farming allowed large farms to grow enough crops to feed 40-50 cow dairies with all their replacement animals and horsepower. Because of robust dairy culture, this Amish way that seemed antiquated and outdated to the “modern” world, was the norm in 1994. Thankfully, there are still many of these types of farms in operation, but there are not nearly as many as there were in 1994. However, our host farm for the 2024 event is just such a dairy farm.
For many years, big hitches hooked to big equipment, to cover as many acres as possible in a reasonable amount of time, have been reflected in the event. Interestingly enough, Elmer Lapp was always somewhat critical of these big hitches. This criticism in spite of the fact that he was a staunch breeder of Belgian horses and a fine manager of a good herd of Guernsey cows. He would be pleased, it seems, to see the horse farming culture returning to its smaller roots, and he would likely appreciate the movement that has been labeled “homesteading” in recent years. This movement was evident at the 2023 event in Shipshewana, Indiana where, for the first time, some of the farm work was done by light horses instead of all heavy horses. The homesteading movement within Horse Progress Days, introduced and well received in 2021 at Mount Hope, reflects a movement beyond Amish communities. This is a movement toward small and self-sufficient farming basics such as: backyard/outdoor chickens, grazing of cattle, sheep, and goats, a resurgent interest in things like beekeeping, soap-making, and bread baking. All these things, along with many more examples, were thrust to the forefront of people’s minds and plans as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic which has brought us together.
So we ask these questions: what will Horse Progress Days look like 30 years from
now? Who of us would have predicted 30 years ago that it would last this long? Will
it still exist in 30 years? Will it be able to maintain its original purpose, or will it
morph into something else? Nobody knows the answer to these questions, but one
thing it seems we can all agree on is that “This is our Father’s world” “It is God
who has made us and not we ourselves. We are His people and the sheep of
His pasture.” We look to God for our future well-being, because God will direct
our paths. ✸