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Old-Fashioned Horse Sense

Amish used-horse dealers drive some hard bargains at Eastern tracks

At 5:00 a.m. Chris Smucker is dressed and ready to travel the 125 miles from his house just east of Lancaster, Pa., to Freehold Raceway in New Jersey. Smucker, 53, is Amish. A gray-bearded throwback to the 19th century, he makes his living at harness racing tracks. He doesn't go in for gambling, which is forbidden by his religion. And though he looks like a Puritan preacher and appears less approachable than a Supreme Court justice, Smucker is something of a people person. He has to be. He is the Amish version of a used-car dealer.

Once a week Smucker surveys dusty paddocks at Freehold, looking for horses to buy. Many are claimers whose racing days are over. He buys about 30 horses a month and takes them back to Lancaster, where he sells them to fellow Amish. Most are used to pull buggies, but some become farm horses, and others, riding horses. Other Amish dealers do the same at other eastern tracks.

No one really knows when the relationship between horse trainers and the Amish started. Smucker, a distant relative of the Smucker's preserves people, says such dealings go back three generations in his family—which isn't all that far, given that the Amish first came to this country in the 1700s. The Amish fled Europe in search of religious freedom, and most of them settled in Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania and in Ontario, Canada. Today the largest concentration of Amish is in Lancaster County. Often mistaken for Quakers, the Amish have maintained their precolonial lifestyle into the 1990s. Amish women wear bonnets, the men do not shave their beards, and all Amish wear plain clothing in the style of the last century. "Being Amish ain't that bad if you don't know any better," says one of Smucker's former drivers, Nelson Bender. "They don't miss what they've never had."

Smucker's religion forbids him to own an automobile, so he pays his current driver, David Shenk, 90 cents a mile to transport him to Freehold and bring him back with new horses.

While their drivers rest up for the return trip, the Amish are hard at work. Robert Miller, 33, a used-horse dealer from West Farmington, Ohio, travels 150 miles to Ladbroke at The Meadows in Meadow Lands, Pa., each week to purchase horses for his community of Old Order Amish, the most conservative of the sects. Miller's straw hat is battered, and his black suspenders look odd with his ankle-length blue trousers. But don't be fooled; underneath Miller's plain clothes and passive demeanor is a shrewd businessman who knows what he wants. He prefers big horses that are black or deep brown. "Their hair doesn't show up on your black suit when you go to Sunday services," says Miller. He particularly likes harness horses because, having been trained to pull sulkies, they are good at pulling Amish buggies. And he isn't interested in a horse with a lot of miles on him. Once Miller spots an animal he wants, negotiations go something like this:

"How much do you want for him?" Miller asks.

"Seven hundred," the trainer replies.

Miller bows his head for a moment of contemplation. He puts his hand to his stiff beard, sucks in a deep breath, exhales, shakes his head and mumbles, "Oh, I don't know." Then, with his eyes fixed on the ground, he says nothing. The trainer lowers the price. Again Miller shakes his head, saying, "Oh, I don't know." He then turns to leave. Finally the trainer gives in at $500. Miller whips out his checkbook and makes arrangements to have the horse collected.

The trainers know they are at a disadvantage with the horse dealers. The horses they hope to "Amish"—as the practice of selling to the religious communities is called—often cost more money to feed and board than they earn.

But the Amish don't own all the horses they bring back to their neighbors. Sometimes trainers lend horses to the Amish. Wayne Hite, a trainer at The Meadows, sent a horse to the Amish for a year to strengthen its hind legs. The community got a free farm horse, and Hite got a free trainer. "I didn't have to feed the horse or look after it for a year," says Hite of the transaction.

Hite, who lives near Washington, Pa., says it is well known that the Amish are knowledgeable horse buyers. "They've been in this business all their lives," he says. "It's been passed down from grandfathers to fathers." Smucker, whose own grandfather Eli was the first in his family to deal horses, says he has never considered closing down his horse dealership. "I like it. It's fun," he says, although he admits he doesn't quite know why it gives him such satisfaction. Perhaps he unconsciously enjoys his twice-weekly brush with the Worldly (as those outside the Amish communities are known), his common bond with men he would otherwise never meet.