DRIGGS — People out skiing and snowmobiling in Darby Canyon on Saturday were greeted with an unusual sight: a team of draft horses pulling a Ford F-150 off of the groomed trail.
Matt Sullivan, the manager at WreckerBoyz Towing in Driggs, got the call around 1 a.m. Saturday. Some college kids from Rexburg had bypassed the large warning sign at the end of 3000S that prohibits wheeled vehicles up Darby in the winter, squeezed through the access gate, and made it around a mile up the groomed trail before getting high-sided and mired in deep snow.
“When people do stuff like that, we don’t want to drive up there to tow them out,” Sullivan said. “The snowcat groomers are all up there busting their butts to make a good trail, and the Forest Service closes the road for a reason. Fortunately WreckerBoyz is going through a rebirth and we now have a partnership with AJ Woolstenhulme.”
Woolstenhulme, a valley rancher, is known around the country for his American Brabant Association Field Days that highlight horse-powered farm work.
An American Brabant is a sturdy, compact draft horse with Belgian bloodlines that was recently catalogued into a new breed registry, and Woolstenhulme has 11 of the muscular work horses on his multi-generational family ranch. He has joined the WreckerBoyz to offer towing in places where wheeled vehicles aren’t allowed.
The team responded after daylight on Saturday morning, and extraction took a couple of hours. Woolstenhulme managed the horses while Sullivan hooked up the truck. “It was a cool team effort,” Sullivan said. “With motorized towing, I can get right next to the truck, I don’t need pulling power. But horses are a different story, they’re not a stationary unit so you have to pay attention to the angles, and they can’t do a gradual pull. The vehicle has to be hooked up perfectly.”
Woolstenhulme said that the horses, which weigh between 1,800 and 2,000 pounds and stand between 16.2 and 17 hands tall, can drag their own weight extremely well for short distances. The Ford was no problem for the seasoned team of three (Clenny, Rueben, and Sylvan, named after Woolstenhulme’s great-great-grandparents and great-grandfather, respectively). “They’re very sensitive to subtle voice commands,” he added. “When I asked for it, they leaned into their collars together and picked up the load in a controlled explosion of power, then immediately stopped when I told them to. They could have pulled it to the parking lot.”
Once the truck was back on stable ground, Sullivan carefully reversed it to the plowed road, while the stranded passengers received a ride on the horse sled.
“Even though it took longer, we charged the exact same for horses as for a truck, because we want to take care of locals and the community, and support other local businesses,” Sullivan said. “It’s good work for AJ, and people love to watch.”
Woolstenhulme agreed. “People that approached, they were thrilled, they loved the idea. They were asking questions, we could have talked for an hour.”
The advantage of the horse team is keeping environmental standards in place while also being able to travel deeper onto snowy access trails. This was the first horse tow of the winter for Woolstenhulme and the WreckerBoyz, but might not be the last.
“You get people who have never seen a snowcat trail so they don’t know it’s not a road. We’d have to call the Forest Service for permission to take a vehicle in there. They’re happy that we have another asset to offer,” Sullivan said.
Teton Basin District Ranger Jay Pence confirmed that a horse tow was preferable, saying that any kind of wheeled vehicular travel on groomed trails leaves large ruts that can be dangerous to snowmachiners. The driver of the stranded truck received a citation for causing damage to the trail.
WreckerBoyz has been around 19 years under the ownership of Tyler Hammond, but the company is now expanding its offerings, with 24-hour service, portable winches for snowmobile extractions, and specialized big rig towing equipment.
“We’re revamping things to meet the needs of the community,” Sullivan said. “We have the equipment, we have the time, and we have the drivers.”
Woolstenhulme’s services are also available for hire; his horses are frequent participants in weddings, parades, birthday parties, sleigh rides, and other public events on top of their daily chores of wood hauling, mowing hay in the summer, and feeding cattle in the winter. He said his LLC, Working Horses for Hire, is more of a passion project than a career. “We like to keep them engaged in work year-round, because it keeps us connected to that lifestyle, that culture, that tradition.”