“You have to pay close attention to the temperature,” John Barker tells me as he slides the windows of the trailer open a little more. Even in almost-freezing temperatures, horses can overheat. Cloudy breaths spill from their nostrils and hover above them. With a slam of a door, we are on our way to West Palm Beach, Fla., for the Cosequin Winter Equestrian Festival.
The night before, Barker loaded 10 horses and rode all night from his farm in Middleburg, Va., to Savannah, Ga., where he met me at 6:30 a.m. I climb into the cab and discover two helpers asleep in the double bunks and Barker’s friend of 15 years, Rob Dow, sitting on the bottom bunk. Dow drove the first half of the trip, so Barker situates himself behind the wheel, and I take the passenger seat.
The all-stainless dash, with script-engraved dials and switches, catches the light as we maneuver through the hotel parking lot and chug onto I-95. A lot full of new Peterbilts gleams against the still-dark sky, but none of them compares to Barker’s 1989 Peterbilt 379, with its chrome finish, numerous lights and custom paint job. Barker flips switches, checks his mirrors and shifts gears. It’s clear that a good truck, like a show horse, is a finely tuned package of power that requires skilled, loving operation and daily maintenance.
About an hour into our trip, the sun opens the horizon and forces away the shadows of sleepiness that the purring 425-hp Cat induces. Barker rolls down his window. The crisp air pierces the thick heat of the cab, and the appeal of the open road shows itself: a burning winter sunrise, a clear sky and no agenda other than to chase the horizon.
Not only does Barker enjoy the freedom of trucking, but he also spends most of his days outdoors, riding and training horses. But getting a horse ready to show is hard work. “This is the biggest horse show of the year,” Barker says. “There are going to be more than 3,500 horses on site. It lasts 10 weeks, and there will be different competitions every week.”
“The créme de la créme of horse shows,” adds Dow.
There will be $3 million in prize money and some stiff competition, including the U.S. Olympic Show Jumping team. Getting horses ready to compete against Olympic athletes is like getting any other athlete ready for competition. “They have to be kept in proper physical condition, like any other athletic endeavor,” Barker says. The judges pay close attention to the overall picture and the style of jumping, depending on the category – hunting or jumping. “Hunters have to keep their legs up tight when they jump; it’s more about how they look, comparable to a diver or figure skater. With jumpers, it’s all about speed and not knocking down bars on the jumps.”
Barker rides almost every day, so he feels as comfortable on a horse as he does in a truck. He’s been transporting horses since he was 16. He learned how to ride at a YMCA camp when he was 7, and he rode in steeplechase races in his 20s. He even judges horse shows during the year.
Barker and his wife Kitty own Eight Oaks farm in Virginia, where he trains customers’ horses and then hauls them to about 30 shows a year. “There are commercial carriers that haul show horses, but you can never be sure how much the drivers know about actually taking care of the horses,” Barker says. “Instead of paying someone else to haul them to the shows, I earn the money myself.” Barker doesn’t have to worry about his cost per mile or the high cost of fuel because the cost of transporting the horses is included in the cost of the package for the Florida show – about $12,000 per horse. For other shows, he charges a daily fee, about $125, minus some expenses. He also doesn’t have to worry about cargo insurance because the owners insure the horses, which well exceed $1 million in value.
At about 9 a.m., we reach the Florida state line and the agricultural station, where anyone with any kind of animal or food is required to stop. Inspectors check each horse’s papers for proof of a Coggin’s test, ensuring against the spread of Equine Infectious Anemia. “If you even have one page that doesn’t have a vet’s signature, you could be sitting for hours, waiting for a vet to come out and check the horse,” Barker says.
While Barker is inside the station, his two helpers emerge with sleepy eyes. They crawl in the trailer, water the horses and check their hay. As Barker walks back with his papers all in order, we pile back into the truck. Dow tells us about a man who was waiting. “He didn’t have a vet’s signature on one page,” Dow says. “He’s already been waiting two hours for the vet to show up.”
Every so often, Barker recognizes a truck, and a familiar voice comes over the CB asking where he is headed. “John Barker, that’s a good-looking rig you got there,” says a fellow member of the horse-hauling trade. People in four-wheelers wave and stare; children pull on imaginary horns. “I don’t have to worry about people interrupting my thoughts to tell me that I have a beautiful truck,” jokes Dow, who drives a 1997 Freightliner. “My truck’s beautiful, but it can’t compare to this.”
Barker’s truck shows his attention to detail. You can’t help but notice the Peterbilt cutouts on the mud flaps and front bumper, the engraved door handles, and painted details on the sides of the tractor and the back of the trailer and even under the hood. The 48-foot all-stainless steel custom Streamliner trailer has a mirror-like appearance. “If you’re driving behind this thing at night with your headlights on, it’ll almost blind you,” Dow says. Barker won’t let enough dirt build up on it to dull the glare.
He does most of the work himself when he modifies the truck. He has changed all of the lights to LEDs, installed a train horn and replaced chrome with stainless steel. “Chrome rusts,” he says.
We turn off I-95 at the Forest Hills Boulevard Exit. Barker maneuvers through West Palm Beach’s traffic lights and rush-hour traffic.
As we drive through the West Palm Beach Equestrian Club, Barker’s truck dwarfs the other horse-hauling trailers. Friendly waves and yanks on invisible horns welcome him back for his second visit in four days.
Hay dust fills the trailer as Barker and his helpers coax horses around stainless steel poles, out of their solid oak stalls and into what will be their home for two months. Wads of hay fly out of the trailer doors as the helpers clean out the stalls. A wheelbarrow full of a special mix of feed that settles their stomachs makes its way around the stalls. The sun slips deeper into the sky as the last horse, Davenport, is unloaded. Barker chalks up another day of horse hauling and readies himself for a day of horse training.