Snow was falling, children were laughing as a fresh-cut tree was loaded onto a horse-drawn wagon driven by Dan Brill, whose respect for tradition evokes memories of a simpler time
It was like a scene from an old-fashioned Christmas card — a family in a horse-drawn wagon getting a Christmas tree, snow softly falling, clinging to pine trees and covering the ground.
But this scene played out two weeks ago at Dan and Alice Brill’s farm in rural Cedar Grove.
Dan Brill, 56, who prefers a simpler life than most people, drove his team of beautiful black Percherons named Jerry and Dolly to take his son Levi, daughter-in-law Caity, their sons Wyatt, 1, and Eli, 3, another grandson Nolan, 3, and his wife to cut a Christmas tree from the woods on the farm. The family picked a large one and loaded it onto the wagon.
The Brills used to sell Christmas trees from their farm, taking customers to the woods in a horse-drawn wagon or sled if there was enough snow, but now only family members and friends do that.
Brill, who lives on the 120-acre farm that has been in the family for several generations, has always been around work horses. His grandfather and stepfather used them for various jobs long after they got tractors.
His stepfather Ken TenPas was the last farmer in the area to sell his team in 1964.
“It was hard to find horses by then. The last team he got wasn’t strong enough to do the work,” said Brill, who was 11 months old when his birth father died. “But my dad loved having horses, so he got a riding horse.”
Brill can’t remember not knowing how to ride a horse or ever feeling uncomfortable around them. He was barely walking when he was put on a horse.
“With working horses, as soon as you could hold the reins, you rode on top of the big horses,” he said.
Brill uses Jerry and Dolly when harvesting logs from the woods, hauling manure in winter, picking stones from fields and mending fences.
“They do a job a couple times and they’re intuitive. They know when to stop and go. I don’t know a tractor that can do that,” Brill said. “They don’t tear up the ground like a tractor does.
“In the winter, I like to get into the woods with the horses as much as I can. My grandfather used to say, ‘The weather is always nicer in the woods.’ You get into the woods and it’s always pleasant.”
His relationship with the horses is a partnership of trust, he said.
“I have horses because I like them. I appreciate their usefulness,” Brill said.
“I like to work with them. That’s a little different than them working for me. It has to be a partnership. They have to do something because they like it. They weigh a ton each, and I can’t force them to do anything. I respect their size.
“They have to respect me and my control over them and trust that I’m not going to push them into anything that’s going to endanger or hurt them.”
Most of his control is via voice commands, Brill said, but he also uses reins and bits.
Brill prefers Percherons because of the size and sturdiness of their feet, which do not require shoes. His father and grandfather had Belgians and Percherons.
Brill bought Jerry, now 16, and his sister Lightning, the mother of Dolly, in 2000. Dolly was born on the farm the same year.
“I worked with Dolly from day one, handling her from birth,” Brill said. “As soon as her feet were strong enough that she could walk long distances, she ran alongside her mama.
“She learned the commands from little on, so when I harnessed her with Jerry she knew what to do. She was a little sluggish on turns, so Jerry would push or pull her with his head.
“After a couple of weeks, I hooked Lightning back up, and I could see his whole body change. His whole body seemed to smile at her.”
Lightning developed arthritis eight years ago and died in 2009.
Jerry and Dolly are good harness mates, despite having different gaits and builds, Brill said. Having a male and female who sometimes react differently to jobs helps, he said, because the willing horse will reassure the reluctant one that they can do the work.
Brill likes to drive his team in area parades, particularly Christmas parades, and take them to Civil War re-enactments, including ones at the Wade House in Greenbush. Brill wears authentic garb for those events.
Work horses were attached to Civil War units to carry supplies, food and medicine, Brill said. Six horses were needed to pull a cannon, he said.
His wife joined him a few times, but she’s not into the era as much as her husband, who wouldn’t have minded living during that time.
People are often amazed at Brill’s driving skills and how well the horses respond.
He can parallel park the team and wagon, and loading the wagon and horses onto the trailer usually draws a crowd.
The wagon is 74 inches wide and the trailer is only 76 inches wide.
“Once in a while, I like to show off with the horses,” Brill said. “I back the wagon into the trailer with the team just as nice as can be, then unhook the team and walk them in.”
In addition to Jerry and Dolly, Brill has a mustang named Nevada, the last of eight mustangs he owned. Five were wild horses rounded up in Nevada and three were born on the farm.
Like his grandfather and stepfather, Brill said he can’t imagine living on a farm without a horse.
Image Information: ADJUSTING HARNESSES, Dan Brill hooked up his team of Percherons, Jerry and Dolly, to cut a Christmas tree on his rural Cedar Grove farm (above photo). In the photo below, Brill drove the team with the tree, grandchildren Eli, Wyatt and Nolan, daughter-in-law Caity, son Levi and wife Alice in the wagon. Photos by Sam Arendt