In the world of draft horses, Keith Woodbury was close to a legend, yet the stories of him are true. A man of many talents, his pride and professionalism excelled in breeding Belgian Draft Horses. After a lifetime of service to the draft horse community, he was posthumously inducted into the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America Hall of Fame in 2017.
A humble man standing over six feet, some referred to him as a “gentle giant.” Woodbury was the proud patriarch for over 50 years of the family business, but he was not a boastful man, which is why his family only recently shared his prestigious award with those outside the Belgian community.
“Nobody wants to know about me,” was his reaction according to wife Jenny when asked why the family had not made it local knowledge before now.
A testament to the humility of his character, Keith never left the family farm passed down to him even when his name was touted across the country. In fact, he was the middle man of six generations in the Belgian business.
“He mentioned many times, ‘this farm has never been without a horse and the farm is over 100 years old,’’ Jenny said.
Woodbury passed away in 2017, after devoting his entire life to the care and breeding of the Belgian Draft horse. His ‘horsey genes’ ran deep, back to his great-grandfathers. From an early age he learned from his elders, excellent horsemen, especially with Belgians and Percherons. They were the horse of choice for the family farm of 1000 acres.
The mentoring Woodbury received from his granddads, Woodbury, Madison and Schaffer turned him into a renown breeder and trainer throughout the United States and Canada. Even as a youngster, he was breaking and training horses daily with a multitude of hitch configurations.
By the age of 19, Woodbury purchased his first registered Belgian horse and took his high school sweetheart, Jenny James, as his bride. Even though Jenny was naive about draft horses, she jumped on board her husband’s passion and became an integral part of the Woodbury stables. Besides horses, the couple raised sons Dennis, David, Dean and daughter Connie. Together they tended to cattle, sheep and hogs, as well. Tiling the land was all done by draft horses.
As the family grew, so did Keith’s ability to judge caliber horses. By purchasing three mares that caught his ‘horse sense’ and wisely choosing stallions, he built a very popular breeding program that lasted almost 30 years. Thanks to mares, Molly37489, Linda 36399 and Cindy 36374, his high quality stables became well respected, especially in producing geldings.
“Broke to a fault” was the goal of the Woodbury operation, so much that it translated onto the family logo as “Home of Quality Belgians – Broke to Work.” Anyone who knew Keith knew his success was tied to his overwhelming work ethic, as well as his skill with horses. He believed every horse worked, whether it be on the farm or in training.
Over time and due to advances in machinery, expectations became less about the demand for a full farm day and more for show horse competition in hitch and halter. Once he made a name for himself in the arena, his mentoring expertise was in high demand.
Besides breeding, training and mentoring, Woodbury was hailed as a profound exhibitor at shows. There was a learning curve from his first outing in 1962 at the Ohio State Fair to his second show in ‘63,’ where he took a second place in the three-year old class and a third in a foal class. Throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties he commanded his horses to many awards and championships.
“Lucky might have been his favorite horse since he won just about everything,” Jenny said. “He was a two-year old gelding that won the Royal Canadian Show.”
The respect Woodbury garnered in the Belgian Draft community was even more profound considering his work was done with one hand and one eye. He hurt his eye in a pony accident when he was young and his hand got caught in a corn picker back in 1953. He never let his disabilities stop him in pursuit of his passion.
“Driving a six-horse hitch he never gave up,” Jenny said. “If anybody wanted to help him, he had the determination to do it himself.”
His work ethic was his greatest asset. According to son Dean, who along with his son Cody and their families continue the legacy today.
“The biggest lesson I remember was no shortcuts,” Dean recalled his father told him. “Do it right and stay working at it. We drive horses everyday, just like an athlete in the Olympics or Super Bowl. They have to stay in shape and we mainly shoot for a six-horse hitch.”
Of all the children to stick with the family business, Dean said he was about eight years old when he bought his own mare and it topped the sale of the state of Indiana.
“That’s how I always made a living all through school and ever since,” Dean said. “I would show horses and buy and sell.”
Now, his son Cody follows the hoof prints before him. Recalling what might have been Keith’s proudest moment, Dean said it was when Cody won an eight-hitch event at the Indiana State Fair.
“He was pretty proud of that,” Dean said.
Besides mentoring his family, Keith was sought out and gave advice to novices and professionals, sometimes at the farm or at competition. He also gave lectures at Purdue University, where he was inducted into the prestigious Purdue University Indiana Livestock Breeders Association in 2006.
According to Jenny, Keith also enjoyed helping young 4-H equine students. For over 20 years, Woodbury served as the heavy horse representative for the Hoosier All Breed Horse Show. Among all his students, his family remained his cherished learners, as he passed on the Woodbury tradition of showmanship and the passion.
Dean said he, Cody, and their wives, participate in 16 to 17 shows a year, which run on a point system. They normally go to the bigger shows where the points add up. Dean recently returned from national shows in Colorado and Florida where he came back with several winning awards. The Oklahoma Classic, where only the top winners in the world perform has been one twice by Woodbury Belgians.
With Keith’s passing before he could formally go through his Hall of Fame induction, Dean was the one to accept the honor on his father’s behalf at the Indiana State Fair Grounds. Featured in The 2018 Belgian Review, a seven-page layout expresses what Woodbury meant to the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America, where he once served as its Director.
When asked which title of all the ones his dad carried in his life, Dean responded, “Just being a good horseman. Everyone knew him as that.”