April 03, 2008

Equine science program acquires one-ton 'mascot'

by K.C. Jaehnig

Becky 2

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Becky the Really Big Horse will become a really big Dawg April 18.

The donated sorrel Percheron, all 2,020 pounds of her, will make her Southern Illinois University Carbondale Saluki debut at the College of Agricultural Sciences' annual Agriculture Industry Day pulling a borrowed cart with, if all goes as planned, U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin inside.

"We're hoping to turn Becky into our mascot," says Professor Sheryl S. King, an animal physiologist who heads the University's equine science program.

"If we can get a donated carriage and harness, then we can start taking her around campus. She's majestic to look at — I know we'd attract a crowd!"

Becky "enrolled" at SIUC in January, a gift from Anna Percheron breeders Riley and Mary Ann Emmons, who have retired from the business. Although a champion in her own right, the 18-year-old mare had passed her breeding prime, and the Emmons didn't want her going just anywhere. King has, for years, maintained a teaching and research herd of donated horses at the University's farms, but she'd never had a horse as big as Hillcrest BeckyLyn.

"Horses are measured in 'hands,'" King says. "She's 17.2 hands — about 6 feet tall from the shoulder to the ground— and you can't weigh her with a regular scale. Before he brought her to the University, Mr. Emmons ran her over to the truck scales at the Anna quarries. She weighs 2,020 pounds — she's truly a one-ton horse."

Percherons, bred to be big, need that muscle and size for the heavy lifting they do. In less mechanized times, these draft horses pulled everything from coaches to plows. Nowadays, in addition to the work they still perform for small farm owners and woodlot operators, they also function as the muscle for hay cart, sleigh and city carriage rides and the WOW! in ad and promotional campaigns.

They're not as tall as the more famous Clydesdales, and they lack that breed's fancy foot feathers.

"They were bred for field work and long hair would get in the way," King says.

They are, however, horsedom's widest horse, a fact to which Becky's main handler can attest.

"Becky's built like a couch," says Ashley J. Maiero, a graduate student in equine science who is responsible for Becky's care and training.

"When I first saw her, she was still in the trailer (that brought her from Anna to Carbondale), and her butt was nearly touching the ceiling. He must have had to use a shoehorn to get her in there!"

Becky's dimensions have presented some challenges. Too big for a standard stall, the mare spends most of her time in the pasture. Her feedbag, which barely fits over her gigantic nose, had to be lengthened with bailing twine, and Maiero had to make a halter for her because nothing they had on hand fit.

"Everything has to be 'Becky-sized,'" says King with a laugh.

Big as she is, Becky's heart matches her bulk.

"Percherons are like the Great Danes of the horse world," Maiero says. "They're gentle and kind — you can see it in their eyes."

You can see those eyes — if you look way, way up — Friday, April 18, out at the University Farms during Ag Industry Day. The free event runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the beef evaluation and horticulture research centers on Rowden Road. Durbin's talk on energy and climate change takes place at 11:30 a.m. When Becky's done getting him where he needs to go, she will have discharged her first official job as the Saluki horse.

"From then on, she'll just be standing around being impressive," King says with a laugh.


Bigger than big — Ashley J. Maiero, a graduate student in equine science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, demonstrates just how large a Percheron can get. A gift from Percheron breeders Riley and Mary Ann Emmons of Anna, Becky will be on hand — all 17.2 hands of her! — to greet visitors at the SIUC College of Agricultural Sciences annual Agriculture Industry Day, set for April 18 at the University Farms research centers.

Photo by Jeff Garner