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Boone County horses seek fame in Costa Rican animal park

Sunday, September 23, 2007 | 9:48 p.m. CDT; updated 9:51 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Jeff Swank, left, and Bernardo Zamora, center, get advice from John Hagler during the Boone County Draft Horse and Mule Sale at the Boone County Fairgrounds on Thursday. Swank bought about 80 Missouri horses for a domestic animal theme park in Costa Rica. “It feels like Noah’s ark,” Zamora said.

COLUMBIA — For a few small-town horses, last week’s Boone County Draft Horse and Mule Sale was a ticket to a starring role in a Central American country’s new national attraction.

About 80 horses purchased at the Horse and Mule Sale on Thursday and Friday will board a 747 in early November for Costa Rica’s new domestic animal theme park, Parque Natural de la Cultura Agropecuaria.

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“They are the main attraction,” said Jeff Swank, an exotic animal breeder and executive director of the Southern Game Ranchers’ Association, who was chosen to be the buyer of the park’s 96 horses. Swank owns an exotic animal zoo in Louisiana.

The Missouri horses, which include French Percherons, Hackneys, Haflingers and ponies, will be used to carry visitors and pull horse-drawn carts around the park. Some will be in arena shows while others will be in petting stalls. The park tries to find pairs of mares and stallions of every type for its breeding program.

The park, which is planning to open in December, will also include numerous breeds of cows, pigs, dogs, sheep and goats.

“It will be an interactive park. You’ll be able to milk your own cows and feed baby pigs,” said Bernardo Zamora, manager of the park’s horse department.

It was Zamora’s love for horses and memories of his younger days growing up on a horse farm that got him involved in the park.

“Horses are my passion,” said Zamora, who attended the auction last week.

The Costa Rico park gave Swank $600,000 to buy the horses at his own discretion. Swank chose the Boone County Draft Horse and Mule Sale as the place to acquire most of the animals because the horses sold are well trained and already broken, he said.

“Columbia has one of the best horse sales in the country,” Swank said.

The draft sale, which has been around since 1988, auctions not only horses but mules, saddles, harnesses, wagons and carriages. Customers include the private owners, breeders and funeral directors who need horses to pull carriage hearses.

George Harris, president of Heartland Management, which manages the Boone County Fairgrounds, said that Columbia is a good place to buy horses because it caters to breeders who want to sell their horses’ offspring. These horses are usually safe to ride and work with, Harris said.

Harris said that many of the buyers at the auction have similar backgrounds.

“There’s a lot of people who grew up on farms like me. Now, they are businessmen who have money and acreage and want to buy horses to remind them of their childhood,” Harris said.

Swank will have the horses’ blood tested for diseases. Then they will be shipped to Louisiana for a monthlong training course on riding and performing. The horses then will be shipped to Miami, before they are flown via a 747 to Costa Rica.

“We want to be the biggest and best domestic animal park in Latin America,” Zamora said.


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