ASHLAND — At the 33rd annual Sleigh and Cutter Rally, it didn’t take long to parse out competitor from spectator. Folks in the 5-acre field adjacent to the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center bundled against the January cold in colorful synthetic fabrics, or wrapped themselves in fur and wool.
“Fur coats, horse hair coats, they’re going to keep you warm. You’ll find a lot of really nice clothing at antique stores,” said Don Rudeen, in a full-length raccoon coat as he rigged a restored single-pony Albany sleigh. “The more you look, the more you find. I came across a wolf coat in northern Minnesota.”
Rudeen — a Nerstrand, Minn., farrier — and daughter Kristin traveled to Ashland Jan. 12 to take part in the throwback rally that gave some 180 spectators an intimate look at century-old northern rural lifestyles. Participants were judged by the historic quality of their personal attire, harness, sled and horsemanship. Many used horse-hair lap blankets. For the Rudeens, the event is a continuation of a long family history traveling across Wisconsin and Minnesota showing horses.
“I was born into it. My great-uncle got my dad into it. Working with horses, showing them was very much a way of life growing up,” said 21-year-old Kristin Rudeen, who took home the Single Small Pony Award with her mare, Pippa. “Instead of going on vacations, my brothers and I went to horse shows.”
On this wintertime getaway, the Rudeens trailered a pair of Welsh ponies. Don’s rusty-white gelding, a recently retired hunter/jumper named Kitty Kat, made its debut in a second career as a sleigh horse. Intelligent and versatile, the 19-year-old eased right into driving, but it was the stylish Albany cutter that caught the judge’s eye and the Best Vehicle award for Rudeen.
The equine-drawn vehicles at the rally ranged from social rides to utility sleds, powered by everything from 34-inch miniatures to draft horses. Joining the compact Albany and Portland cutters, stout working sleds loomed large on the show field, offering spectators a feel for the sights and sounds of rural life at the turn of the 20th century.
Rally co-organizer Charlie Singler carved out time early in the day to provide rides aboard a two-horse bobsled. Grown-ups and kids of all ages climbed into Singler’s big green sleigh in sixes and eights for a family-friendly tour around the visitor center grounds. While the snowpack was a bit thin, below-freezing temperatures helped provide smooth sledding throughout the day. All told, rally organizers handed out 17 awards to competitors from across the region.
While a partial federal government shutdown threatened to eliminate the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center — home of the rally over the past decade — as host property, local officials worked to ensure the facility was staffed and ready for participants and spectators alike. Featuring displays and programs that highlight history, culture and natural resources, the Center is operated by a unique mix of partners from federal, state and local agencies.