Saving the American Creams one horse at a time

Kevin Johnson of Le Sueur shows off two of his American Cream Draft Horses. The workhorse breed nearly vanished from the American landscape due to 20th century farm mechanization.

The American Cream Draft Horse is an endangered breed. That’s why you will find them in the farm exhibit at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley. That’s also why Kevin Johnson raises them on his farm west of Le Sueur.

“There aren’t very many of them,” Johnson said. “The breed needed some help. They need folks that will raise more horses.”

Right now there are about 375 registered horses in the United States, according to Minnesota Zoo farm supervisor Dean Treangen. There are also about 30 tracking animals, which may at some point have offspring eligible for registration.

Johnson’s young herd consists of two 3-year-old mares, a stallion and two foals. His entry into propagating the American Cream breed was a long, slow process.

“My cousin showed me an article in a farm magazine where they were talking about old breeds,” Johnson said. “That had to be in the 1970s sometime. They had a picture of American Creams. The article talked about the (American Cream Draft Horse) breed that had started in the United States and then had died off because they got ‘tractored-off’.”

Horsing around

Johnson has always been a horse owner. He bought his first horse when he was 9 — a Welsh pony purchased for $35 with money he had earned mowing the church lawn where his uncle was custodian. He has had horses ever since, but didn’t move into draft horses until 1995, when he bought a team of Belgians. He wanted his father, Jerry, to teach him how to plow with horses.

“We still haven’t plowed yet,” Johnson said. “We just got stuck with more and more horses.”

Six years ago he took one of those horses to a veterinary clinic in Sherburn. As he strolled through the barn, he noticed a cream-colored mare and foal, and wondered if they might be American Creams. He got their owner’s name and visited with an elderly Iowa man, a Cream enthusiast.

“Four years ago, my Belgian stallion died, so I thought I would look around for a Cream horse, and I found some over at Lake City, and I purchased my first one there.”

That one was a young stallion. He subsequently purchased two mares, one from a gentleman in Puposky and the other from Michigan. “They’re related,” he said. “They both came out of the same herd.” Their two foals have brought his total to five.

American made

The stallion that Johnson purchased from Lake City came from the herd of Bill Cronin. Cronin has a large herd of horses, of which he says 16 are “actual Creams” that can be registered as such. He figures it was at least 16 years ago that he started raising them, maybe longer.

It is hard for him to recall because horses have always been a part of his life. His grandfather farmed with Percherons, and his great-uncle, who never bought a tractor, had Belgians. Cronin saw an article about a couple in Iowa who owned American Creams, and he went to visit them.

“I had never seen any before that,” he said. “I just kind of liked them. They weren’t a real big horse.”

He has trained them to pull and farms a little with them. He has all the equipment he needs for horse farming. “I’d like to do more farming with them,” he said, “but I don’t have the time.”

Cronin did not know the dire straits the American Cream Draft Horse was in until he first went to look at them, but he is doing his part to preserve the breed.

He has sold horses from his herd to people from as far away as Vermont and Las Vegas, Nev. But his first attraction to them was their beauty.

Johnson also likes their attractive color, and he likes the fact that they originated in the United States.

“They’re American made,” he said. “And there aren’t very many of them.” He decided he wanted to help their comeback.

History of the breed

According to Johnson, a draft-type mare was sold at an Iowa farm sale back around 1911. She was cream-colored with amber eyes and pink skin.

In the words of the American Cream Draft Horse Association pamphlet, “She has left her stamp on the horse world as the founder of a breed of horses distinctly and consistently resembling herself in color and type. By mating her offspring to other well-known draft breeds, the type and quality have been improved while the color has been maintained.”

“A couple of veterinarians down there, as the story goes, liked the foals and they convinced a couple of guys to keep a stallion here and there,” Johnson said. The numbers of cream-colored draft horses grew. “Then in the 1930s, a gentleman by the name of C.T. Rierson started buying up horses and recording their ancestry.”

“A few foresighted men began line breeding and inbreeding with the hopes of establishing a new draft breed,” the pamphlet states. In 1944 they were granted a charter as the American Cream Horse Association of America, under which registrations and transfers are made. After the death of Rierson in 1957, the association languished until a few members reorganized in 1982. In 1994 the name was changed to The American Cream Draft Horse Association.

“I believe they had only some 20 horses in 1982, so to have over 300 now is quite an increase,” Johnson said, “and the success of it will depend upon whether more and more people become interested in it.”

“I really like horses”

The standard for coloring is “light, medium or dark cream color on pink skin, white mane and tail, and amber or hazel eyes.” Since they are still trying to build numbers, the books are not yet closed to outside breeding and mares with dark skin may be registered. However, stallions must have pink skin for registration. Although some of them have palomino coloring, the ACDHA stresses that American Creams should not be confused with other light colored breeds. They have strictly draft breeding.

Johnson’s 3-year-old mares have not yet been trained to pull a wagon.

“Between you and me, I really like horses,” he said. “And if I never drove them or did a thing with them and could just go out there and talk to them and feed them and just be around horses, I’d be happy with that. It’s good therapy.”

But Johnson does plan on driving them. Learning to plow and doing some farming with them is also on his agenda, “if I get a little more organized.”

However, being part of the restoration of the American Cream breed is also what it’s all about.

“I’ve always had horses,” he said. “I figured if I’m going to have horses, I could just as well have American Creams. They need more animals.”

For more information, contact Kevin Johnson at (507) 246-5073; Bill Cronin at (507) 753-2336 or the American Cream Draft Horse Association at

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