On a recent day, Melvin Bechtold sat in his golf cart on his farm west of Fort Wayne while five of his Haflinger horses milled about the barnyard.
Bechtold had a big smile on his face; a reporter had come to meet him and feed apples to the small herd of geldings. Six mares grazed in a pasture behind the barn.
At 84, Bechtold, who has had a couple of strokes, gets along with the help of a walker. A farmer most of his life, he no longer raises veal calves, and the farm machinery he once used now sits silent in a barn. The fancy cart he paid $3,000 for, to hitch the Haflingers up to and drive them competitively in horse shows — the one that was only used once — collects dust in the barn. Beside it sits a sleigh.
Bechtold can't hitch up the horses and drive them anymore because of physical problems from the strokes, but he's not planning to give up the horses and move to a retirement home anytime soon.
“You can't give up,” he said. “That's why those horses are out there. That's what keeps me going.”
His wife died in 2001. He has three children who live in the area and eight grandchildren.
Most days, he gets up in the morning, goes out to the barn and turns the horses out, mares and geldings in separate pastures. In the evening, he calls them in. They all go to their own stalls, where they'll find hay and oats.
This time of year, he lets them stay out and graze all night because there's plenty of grass. But he still goes out every day to fill their water barrels and check on them.
Although he uses a walker most of the time, Bechtold uses a cane and hangs onto the manger when he's doing barn chores. He uses a skid loader to clean stalls.
Bechtold grew up on a farm where Belgian horses were used to work the fields. When he became an adult and bought a farm west of Fort Wayne, at some point he got involved with Haflingers. Bechtold doesn't remember the year; he just says he's had horses for years.
“They used to sell pretty high,” he said. And he wanted horses he could harness to work as a hobby (he had a tractor for serious farming) and drive competitively.
Haflingers are short, between 13 to 15 hands tall at the withers — the top of the back directly over the front legs — but hardworking and powerful, according to www.haflingerhorses.com. So they were built ideally to pull wagons or farm implements.
Bechtold used to take a team and wagon over to Hilger's, a now-closed farm market and restaurant, to pull people around. He used to take his horses Jack and Joe to the state fair for driving competitions, where horses are judged on how well they pull a rider and a wagon.
In the past, he's hitched up his Haflingers to a wagon dragging a rake to rake hay, just for fun. He used to take a team and wagon to corn husking competitions, where people compete to see how much corn they can shuck off stalks and throw into a wagon.
Bechtold used to be president of the Draft Pony and Haflinger Association.
One of his horses, Bob, who is part Haflinger, is broke to ride, but Bechtold has never been on him. However, he believes if somebody knew how to saddle him and ride, Bob would “take 'em for a ride,” even though he hasn't been ridden for years.
But his horses' days of pulling wagons and raking hay are largely over.
Most are between the ages of 15-16. They live idyllic lives for horses, grazing, playing and dozing in the sun. They're friendly to strangers, particularly to strangers with apples. Their trademark flowing blonde-to-almost-white manes and forelocks blow in the breeze and when they run.
Bechtold said he used to groom them, but hasn't for awhile. A friend of Bechtold's, Luther Gross, found a brush in the barn the day the reporter was out and combed out the knots in Bob's mane and forelock.
Although Bechtold still gets around well enough to tend to the herd, there's one thing he wishes he could do if he were able to physically.
“If I could get around, I'd drive 'em once and awhile just for fun,” he said.