In Chapter 1 of Eagle Talons, The Iron Horse Chronicles–Book One, Will Braddock runs away from his home in Burlington, Iowa, following the death of his mother, by riding the family’s Belgian draft horse, Chester. In the book, Chester is portrayed as an older horse that, unfortunately, does not survive Will’s almost month-long, 300-mile journey when he embarks upon his quest to determine his own destiny in 1867 by riding across Iowa to reach Omaha, Nebraska. Since Chester is not used as a riding horse by the Braddocks, they don’t own a saddle, and Will is forced to ride bareback, as I did when I first rode a Belgian. I chose the Belgian to be the Braddock farm horse because my Grandfather George Washington Polen used a team of these fine animals on his Pennsylvania farm when I was a boy. During many summer vacations, my family traveled from our home in New Mexico to Pennsylvania where my father helped my grandfather with farming chores. My first experience at “horseback” riding was when my Grandfather lifted me up to ride astride the broad back of one of those gentle giants he’d named Dick and Doc. I grasped the horse’s mane and hung on while Grandpa led the Belgian from the barn to the pasture.
The Belgian draft horse, sometimes referred to as draught horse or heavy horse, usually stands about 17 hands, or five and a half feet, tall, and weighs a ton (2,000 pounds). They can reach 20 hands in height, like the horse shown here. It is believed that the Belgian’s ancestors were destriers, a warhorse during medieval times. They had to be big to carry a knight in armor as well as bear the weight of the horse’s own armor. I remember my grandfather reminding me to stay clear of their big hooves when they were shuffling about in their stalls in the barn. Having a monstrous hoof tread on the foot of a small boy would have been devastating. Although there are some variations in coloring among Belgians, when I wrote about Chester I envisioned the typical light chestnut coat with a flaxen mane and tail. Dick and Doc were that color, and they each bore a white blaze from the forehead to the nose. They were beautiful, strong animals that my grandfather expected to work hard, since he refused to own a tractor. But, in return, he treated them with love and expert care. I had Dick and Doc in mind when I put Will on the back of Chester to make his escape from the unwanted threat of being forced into a blacksmith apprenticeship.