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Duane and Connie Roland of Grinnell know their growing season is coming to an end when they have to wait for the sun to peek up over their corn fields and then dip below the corn before actually setting. The change in season also signals the close of another passion—harness racing.
The family’s purchase of one Standardbred horse in 1968 changed the lives of the three generations to follow. Growing up in What Cheer, Iowa, Roger Roland often visited the track and took an interest in learning to drive harness horses. He grew the harness racing business with the help of his brother, son, cousin and nephews. Today, they all actively race. Even though they compete against each other in races, they appreciate the family tradition that binds them together.
Harness racers compete at nine different tracks across Iowa every weekend from Memorial Day through the end of September. “In Iowa, most people say their harness racing is a hobby,” said Duane. “Really though, it’s a second career. It becomes their identity.”
It’s easy to see why harness racing is a second career for Duane and Connie. Not only do they have 1,500 acres of row crops, they manage a total of 100 horses on 120 acres of pasture.Along with their farm help and trainers Frank, Elliot and Jason, the Rolands started training 23 horses for competition in February. With an average of 30 training minutes per horse, per day, Duane and Connie’s day starts early and revolves around training, nutrition and business operation decisions.Building on their knowledge of horse nutrition—identifying the right nutrients for the horses’ development—is something Duane and Connie plan to do this year.
Harness racing is labor intensive, and a lot of money can be tied up buildings, a practice track and horse health. Though the Rolands become attached to many of their horses, they have to remember that the horses must also perform. “One of the hardest things is to raise a horse, feed it and train it, then realize it’s not good enough for you,” said Connie. “We must make a profit in order to keep our business sustainable.”
The harness racing industry is highly competitive and has large winning purses. Racing businesses like the Rolands’ take horse and driver training seriously. Drivers can start racing at age 16, but they must pass a written and practical test in order to get their license. The Rolands’ halfmile, homemade track encircles their corn field and helps them achieve adequate training for both horses and drivers.
“Harness racing requires knowledge of breeding,training, driving, veterinary and a little luck!” said Duane.
Follow the Iowa Harness Horseman’s Association on Facebook to learn about harness racing and follow the Rolands’ racing season.
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