Rockwell City - Bob Roby's six gleaming Belgian horses create a head-turning spectacle each time they stomp into an arena.
Crowds literally feel the earth tremble as the massive hitch rolls by. All eyes will be on these impressive equines when the Roby family competes in the North American Six-Horse Hitch Classic Series Finals in Denver, Colo., in January at the legendary National Western Stock Show.
"This is like the Super Bowl of draft horse hitches," said Dave Hoyt, of Eldora, a long-time friend of the Roby family, who will accompany them to Denver to help prepare the hitch.
"This is the ultimate draft horse show and there will be up to 10,000 spectators in the arena each day."
The Robys will be competing against some of the priciest hitches in the business, including one belonging to the owner of the Chicago Cubs.
While owners like this have been known to invest $20,000 to $90,000 per horse and typically hire professionals to care for the animals, the Roby's six-horse hitch is a much more fiscally conservative operation, guided by hard work and old-fashioned horse sense.
"Dad likes to find good horses that others may have passed up," said Justine (Roby) Baker, 31, who helps with her father's hitch.
Leveling the field
Bob Roby has been showing Belgian draft horses since the early 1980s, after his father, John, a lifelong farmer, bought a team of draft horses.
Roby, a Rockwell City-based regional branch manager for United Bank of Iowa, has a keen eye for horses, Hoyt said.
"This is a pretty tight community, and if there's a good hitch horse available, everyone will know about it quickly.
"Bob, however, has kept ahead of the trends and is willing to buy young, unproven horses. There's a real knack to discovering a horse that has potential, and Bob has that," Hoyt said.
Competing with the best
Each year, six-horse hitches across the United States and Canada compete at state and county fairs and agricultural exhibitions to accumulate points for NASHHCS, one of the most prestigious draft horse events in the equine world.
The Robys enter qualifying shows in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Missouri, said Baker, who noted that it takes four to six people to get the hitch ready for each competition.
The four hitches in each of three breed classifications (Belgians, Percherons and Clydesdales) that receive the most points are invited to compete for thousands of dollars in premiums at the NASHHCS championship.
The Robys' hitch will be among the 12 competing at the National Western Stock Show from Jan. 20 to Jan. 22, 2012.
"We'll show on three different nights for three different judges, who will compile their scores," said Baker, who added that the family will be taking eight horses to Denver, where they will also compete in the eight-horse hitch category.
"It's a huge commitment for us to compete, since it requires a lot of time and effort, but it's such an exciting opportunity, especially since draft horses have been such a big part of our life for years."
The judges will evaluate the appearance and conformation of the horses, along with how well the horses drive together.
"A good hitch must have a presence about them - almost a bit of a cocky attitude and a willingness to perform," said Hoyt, who noted that the horses also must have eye appeal to the common person on the street.
It's a huge honor to be part of the NASHHCS finals, which generate increased interest in all the draft horse breeds, Hoyt added.
"Knowing the kind of money we'll be up against doesn't intimidate us, because I know the Robys can compete."
You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.