While Ocala is known as Florida's horse country, there's a pocket of Hernando County — back behind the scrub, approachable only on limestone roads, under shady oaks — engaged in an unusual horse enterprise: the breeding of European Ardennes. "They're a short, wide draft horse," said breeder-owner Joyce Concklin of Clover Oaks Farm, north of High Point in northwest Hernando. "They're heavy-boned, short-coupled, built for farming, built for strength."
But she mainly drives them, pulling carriages and carts in competitions and exhibitions. They also ride.
The Ardennes' legs look like pylons, their broad hooves almost gallon-sized, their backs broad, their hindquarters massive with muscle.
A Web page devoted to Ardennes states that they date to the Paleolithic Age. Roman emperors, including Julius Caesar, bred them, and knights of the Middle Ages found them strong and tireless charges, easily carrying the weight of men in full body armor.
But they are gentle. At Clover Oaks, each filly, mare and stallion pushed its head through the fence, seeking a muzzle nuzzle. Except for one. Five-year-old Katy de Chevemont buried her head in a hayrick, chowing down for the energy to produce milk for her 5-month-old filly, believed to be the first Ardenne born in North America.
"Possibly" she's the first, said Concklin. Since there is no North American registry for the breed, she can't be sure. She knows of only seven Ardennes on the continent: a gelding carriage horse in Florida, a logging gelding in Canada and her five-unit breeding herd. And she has done copious research.
Concklin's bay roan filly foal, COF Alexandra, carries the breed markings: black points on feet and ears, black tail, heavy legging feathers, shaggy coat and a double mane, meaning it falls to both sides.
Alexandra already has been sold to a horse enthusiast in Asheville, N.C. Ardenne foals command $15,000 to $20,000, Concklin said.
Alexandra almost didn't arrive as a purebred. Concklin and a friend, seeing another original European draft breed, the Brabant, at a horse expo in Ohio in 2003, were impressed. They traveled to Belgium to inspect the seed stock. Concklin's husband, Eugene, said he didn't want horses that big, up to 17 hands tall (a hand equals 4 inches). Joyce Concklin discovered the Ardennes and thought them "just right," averaging 15 hands tall, buying two fillies while her friend purchased some Brabants.
Back home, Eugene asked his wife to what would she breed her fillies. "The Brabant" of her friend, she replied. He demurred, and suggested she import an Ardenne stallion.
Joyce dashed to the phone and called Europe before he could change his mind. From two fuzzy photographs on the Internet, she selected Simba DuPont de Tourney, of champion bloodlines, as are all of her other imports. So expensive is shipping, she said, it doesn't pay to buy any stock but the best.
Concklin had been assured by the seller and shipper the stud would arrive by Christmas. He landed in New York on Dec. 21, 2007. Concklin got a call on Christmas Eve that he was in Ocala. She said her husband was a bit miffed that she insisted on driving to Ocala on Christmas morning to collect the colt.
Alexandra is the purebred outcome of Simba's coupling with Concklin's first imported filly, Katy.
Concklin is hopeful Simba has impregnated her other first-buy filly for a birth this year.
Concklin breeds stock at 4 years of age because they are still growing and will do so through 6 years of age. She doesn't want to impinge their growth by early breeding. At maturity, Ardennes will reach 2,200 to 2,400 pounds.
While the Ardennes are the rarest of Clover Oaks Farm inhabitants, also grazing there are a contingent of Norwegian Fjords, another European draft breed that Concklin has been breeding for 20 years. They are similar but somewhat smaller than the Ardennes, more dun-colored than roan. They ride and drive.
Concklin is pairing them with the Ardennes to teach the latter skills needed to pull a cart or carriage. Of Simba, still in teaching, she said: "He's a fast learner."
Concklin has been competing for several years in driving and conformation events at the Florida State Fair, where she will take to the ring again Feb. 10 and 11. She already owns a handful of ribbons.
She performs driving exhibitions annually at the Little Everglades Steeplechase in Dade City, coming up March 8.
Beth Gray may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.