Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

By Hope Quay

A horse called St. Nick

the friendly steed of Cowboy Claus


November 28, 2018

Roger Dey

Cowboy Claus heads out of town on Nick after making the rounds to ensure all the kid had a chance to talk to him.

Ovando's annual Old West Christmas Fest wouldn't be complete without "Cowboy Claus" and his trusty horse, St. Nick.

St. Nick has become a favorite of kids and families who come from the Ovando area and neighboring communities to browse the wares of the craft bazaar, take part in family-friendly activities, and have their photo taken with Cowboy Claus, Santa's Montana cousin.

An appropriately fuzzy and somewhat diminutive blond gelding with a gentle demeanor, St. Nick belongs to current Cowboy Claus Bill Hooker and his wife, Dena. Every year since 2011 (with a break in 2013) he has waited patiently outside of Ovando's Brand Bar Museum as Claus meets inside with dozens of local kids eager to tell him what they want for Christmas so he can pass it along to his cousin. When approached, the unflappable St. Nick is happy to pose for a photo or accept a candy cane and a pat from passersby.

"He'll eat anything," said Dena Hooker, "in fact, he always body sniffs everybody to see if you have a treat."

St. Nick, who goes by "Nick" the rest of the year and whose registered name is "Nickels and Dimes," is a fifteen-year-old registered Haflinger gelding originally purchased from a breeder in Ohio by Bill Hooker's father Jack, who bred Haflingers for a time.

"Jack never liked him because he never had as much hair as the other Haflingers, and he was always smaller," said Dena, who said she and Bill purchased the horse as a two-year-old, for their daughter. "Nick was actually Krystal's horse and...he's been subjected to everything," she said. "He was always really good with kids because he was in the fair all of the time, and he was over at the school...he's a good little horse with kids, so it's not a problem to ride him downtown and stand there with a bunch of kids running around him. He's just really...he's a nice horse."

Roger Dey

Mandy Miller keeps an eye on St. Nick every year while Cowboy Claus visits with kids in the Brand Bar Museum.

A European breed, Haflingers were developed in Germany and Northern Italy in the late 1800's but trace their ancestry back to the Middle ages. Developed for use in mountainous terrains, this versatile breed is influenced by both Arabian and light draught bloodlines and are known for their hardiness, distinctive gait and relatively small size. They were active as pack animals in both world wars, are still used by the Austrian and German armies in rough terrain, have registries in several countries and currently number more than 250,000 animals. A kind and gentle temperament has also become a part of the breed standard.

The original Cowboy Claus, Ben Harbour, rode a retired roping horse. When that animal became too elderly for the job, Nick took over on loan from the Hookers. In fact, it could be said that Nick influenced Bill Hooker's eventual installation as Ovando's resident Cowboy Claus.

"Ben actually rode Nick for quite a while, but then he moved away. One year somebody else did it, and then he got sick, so it was like an emergency fill-in that Bill did it, and then he just kept going as Cowboy Claus," said Dena. She said Nick is the ideal mount for Ovando's uniquely western incarnation of Santa Claus.

"He's a good horse, and he's really cute, so he's been perfect for this job," she said.


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