Renn Zaphiropoulos and his wife, Ree, are enthusiastic about the Shire draft-horse breed – so much so that they’ve dedicated their retirement years to the promotion of these strong, gentle horses. Their Diamond Z Shire hitch is appreciated by spectators at rodeos, parades and other events around the West, and they’re always looking for new show venues.
The couple lives in Cedar City, Utah, a place which Renn knew he wanted to live the first time he visited in 1988. Right away, he noticed an absence of traffic, an abundance of fresh air and a relaxing, pastoral quality to the area.
“We should think about moving here,”he told Ree at the time.
“I thought he’d lost his mind,”she recalls. “I asked him what he thought we were going to do in Cedar City.”
“We could move here and you could have your own horse to ride,”he told her.
Suddenly, their retirement years took a new direction.
Renn grew up in the Suez Canal area in North Africa, where his Greek father was a sea captain who piloted vessels in the International Canal Zone. Renn joined the Greek Navy, and after his discharge attended a Greek university, then immigrated to the United States in 1945. He attended Lehi University, majoring in physics. In 1969, Renn started his own business, Hi-Tech Imagery, which he later sold to become a senior vice-president of Xerox Corporation.
During his time in the high-tech world, he met and married Ree, a California girl who grew up with horses but had pretty much given up on the idea of someday having her own horse again. They built their home in the San Francisco Bay area, where they planned to spend the rest of their lives, but then came to Cedar City to visit Ree’s sister, and that’s when everything changed.
A Real Horse
That same year, Renn and Ree also visited England and came upon their first English Shire. Renn was impressed from the moment he laid eyes on the horse. “Now that’s a real horse,”he said. The Shire, they learned, was the warhorse of England, used by Knights in the Middle Ages. A large, athletic and powerful horse with plenty of stamina was needed to carry armored riders that weighed in excess of 400 pounds, and the Shire was up to the task.
In the more recent past, Shires have performed all manner of agricultural chores on farms throughout the English countryside, and have always shown a strong desire to form bonds with persons who handle them. Shires weigh 1,800 to 2,000 pounds or more when mature, and some measure more than 18 hands. In color, they’re typically black, bay or gray. They usually have a blaze face, and some white markings on their lower legs and feet. Another characteristic feature is abundant hair (called feathers) below the knees and hocks. The first Shires were imported from England to the United States around the middle of the 18th Century.
The Zaphiropoulos’ returned to the United States, found land west of Cedar City and proceeded to build a house, barn and corrals. They initially bought Quarter Horses, because Ree had always been interested in barrel racing, but kept thinking about Shires until they ran across Thomas Smrt, an English Shire horse breeder located outside of Chicago. Smrt provided them with their first Shires.
Once they had some draft horses, it followed they needed something for the horses to pull. “That got us interested in carriages and wagons,”Renn says. “And since I’d done a lot of wood-working in the past, I became very interested in building and restoring old wagons. Doing this has been a wonderful and enjoyable time of my life.%d3;
Enter Chris Hone, a Utah native who moved to the Cedar City area when he was a youngster and galloped racehorses on the track for local owners. He did some cowboying around the country, then became a professional jockey and racehorse trainer. Chris married and was raising a family, working for a sheet metal company when he met Renn and Ree while doing some work on their new place, which they called the Diamond Z. He learned they were in need of a trainer and driver for their Shires.
Chris hired on with them, though he had no previous experience with driving or harnessing draft horse teams. Enthusiasm counts for something, however, and he set about learning everything he could about driving draft horses. He did a lot of reading and visited with teamsters in the Cedar City area. There were four Shires on the ranch at that time; Chris hooked them to a training cart and the learning continued. Before long, he was taking the horses outside on the back roads of the ranch.
The goal early on, for Renn and Ree, was to put their horses out where the public could see and enjoy them. The Iron County Fair in Cedar City was coming up, and the Diamond Z hitch would be in it.
Their first public performance was a good one. The horses worked great and they were on their way. They expanded their Shire horse herd and upgraded their equipment, bought bigger trailers and trucks to pull them, and expanded their herd. The Days of ’47 Parade in Salt Lake City saw them with a six-horse hitch comprised of a stallion, geldings and mares. The horses got along fine.
Since then, the Diamond Z Shire hitch has appeared in Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, Idaho and Canada, in addition to Utah. The ranch has also participated in many community and educational programs, made a lot of friends along the way and undoubtedly created more fans of the Shire breed.
With a stallion and mares, the Diamond Z was soon in the colt-raising business, and needed someone to start these colts to drive. Chris stepped up, again. He had started some racehorses and ranch-horse colts in the past, so he tried his training methods on the Shires. He began by moving the colts around a pen, then catching and haltering them. There was a problem, at first, in using a round pen made of regular portable fence panels. The colts were so athletic, they’d simply jump over the panels. A higher, permanent round pen was soon built.
Chris was soon able to pick up the colts’ feet and climb on their backs. He got them gentle enough he could get a harness on. Then he hooked up the colts with an older well-broke horse. He called on his brother, Ron Hone, a horseshoer in Rawlins, Wyoming, to hot-shoe the horses, and to add barium to the shoes for parades, so they wouldn’t slip on asphalt or concrete. Chris taught the horses to stand untied for shoeing and harnessing.
As soon as the colts are working well inside an arena, Chris takes them outside. He puts a colt on the inside, next to the shoulder of the road, and they go down roads and highways meeting trucks, haying equipment and anything else that comes along. When the colts learn to ignore traffic and highway noise, they’re on their way to becoming good parade horses.
“To do parades safely,”Ree explains, “you must have horses and a driver you can trust, first-class harness and wagons with good brakes.”
The Diamond Z now has 15 Shires. The hitch horses are between six and 14 years old, and Chris has trained them to be interchangeable in the hitch. In other words, each horse is comfortable working in any position. This is useful because Renn and Chris enjoy working the horses in various combinations, such as: three on the wheel; two followed by three in the lead; or three and three. They also do a unicorn hitch – three on the wheel, then two and with one horse out front. They do use “out-walkers”or “out-riders”at some parades. These people walk or ride alongside the hitch for safety in case there’s a problem with horses, harness or wagon.
Renn has built and restored various wagons and carriages on the ranch, but the hitch wagon that is used in most parades was commissioned and built in Ash Grove, Missouri, in 1989. A special set of tugs in the middle allows three horses to be hitched up on the wheel. The wagon weighs 2,500 pounds.
The ranch began a crossbreeding program in 1997. They crossed the Shire with a Thoroughbred to produce some excellent horses. In May 2002, the Zaphiropoulos’ donated four Shire/Thoroughbreds to the United States Army, 3rd Infantry (Old Guard) Caisson Platoon at Fort Meyer, Virginia. This unit pulls the caisson that is used to put some of our nation’s fallen heroes to rest. Another Shire-Thoroughbred horse was donated to the Washington, D.C., police force for use in crowd control. All of these horses have worked well in their new homes.
Renn and Ree are enjoying their horse hobby, and admit they aren’t trying to make money with it. “Don’t try to make a business out of a hobby,”Renn advises. “It’s not something that’s efficient, and the emphasis isn’t on finishing it. One cannot charge enough money to pay for the time spent. In life, it’s not the end, but the journey you have that counts.”