Montana State University students who drive draft horses for a hobby know their animals.
George, for one, is the cat that lives at the Miller Pavilion where students gather for their weekly practice. George is supposed to catch mice, but he prefers sandwiches and occasionally slips into backpacks to find them.
Omen and Juniper are the Blue Heelers that wait outside the pavilion when their owner is inside.
Brandy and Star are the Belgian horses that members of the MSU Driving Team say make them look good when they compete. Students describe the pair as voluptuous, beautiful and worth their weight in gold (approximately 1,700 pounds each), but not always perfect.
"They're very gassy," said Nick Ames, a junior who drove Brandy and Star at this year's Wild West WinterFest in Bozeman.
But the students don't know every animal well, specifically Babe and Ruth. New to MSU this year, Babe and Ruth are a pair of Shire-Clydesdale crosses that students can ride, jump, shoe, groom and vaccinate as part of MSU's Equine Science program. But the horses aren't ready for student drivers yet. Still skittish about pulling wagons, they're not used to the harnesses and gear that the MSU Driving Team needs them to wear for competitions and local appearances.
That's why, during a recent practice when it was warm enough to ride outdoors, nine members of the MSU Driving Team and the interim head of MSU's Farrier School rode in a wagon behind expert drivers Andi Shockley and Donika Shrauger.
Shockley is an adjunct instructor and equitation manager in MSU's Department of Animal and Range Sciences. She started the MSU Driving Team in 2009. Shrauger, who assists Shockley with the MSU Driving Team, competes in horse driving events throughout the United States.
On this particular evening, Shockley and Shrauger left the Miller Pavilion and drove Babe and Ruth down a dirt road past the building used by graduate art students, past the horticulture farm where MSU students grow vegetables, and around a muddy pasture.
Student passengers in the wagon observed Babe and Ruth, but they also made a running commentary about other animals they saw in fields and paddocks along the way. They knew which horses belong to fellow students, which ones went through MSU's colt training courses and which horse would rather die than run a few feet. They talked about horses named Herman, Lobo, Frodo and Maverick. They could tell that the cows were confused by the wagon.
"I'm excited. I have never done this outside," said Tessa Heinemann of Big Timber, a junior who joined the MSU Driving Team this semester.
The fact that MSU has a driving team delights old-timers who grew up farming with draft horses, Montanans who still use them, and approximately 20 students who drive horses as part of a group affiliated with the MSU Horseman's Club, Shockley said.
This school year, the MSU Driving Team carried MSU President Waded Cruzado and College of Agriculture dignitaries from the fieldhouse to the football stadium for home football games. The team also hauled Brandy and Star to the Bozeman Christmas Stroll, decorated them and had them pose for photos.
Students on MSU's Driving Team come from all over Montana and the U.S. Ames, for one, grew up in Seattle. Now a junior majoring in equine science, he had experience in dressage, but he had never driven a team of horses before coming to MSU. Looking for a challenge, he signed up.
"It's been really fun," he said. "Everyone is super chill. I love the team."
Heinemann said she was inspired to join because of a friend who used to belong to a driving team in Dillon.
"She always had so much fun that I wanted to try it," Heinemann said. "I did it, and I love it."