|By CECIL E. DARNELL
MASON, Mich. — During the winter months, when Michigan’s ground is frozen, many draft horse owners will use their animals to skid logs. Areas where there are growing trees, the ground is often too wet and unstable to be worked - except when it is frozen and will support the activity.
Working in the woods in the winter, and competing as pulling horses during the warmer months provides a year-round program to keep draft animals in condition.
The winter months are busy for the various horsepulling associations, too. It is the time when most do their official business - because once the county fairs start, their schedules are too tight to accommodate these details.
More than 30 states host horsepulling events. There are usually 200-300 pulling teams in these pulling states. The sport generates a level of quiet power that often goes unnoticed in the noisy response to running racehorses.
Horsepulling, by the nature of the animals, is not a speed event. It is the controlled expenditure of pure power.
Horsepulling is unique in competitive events in that it observes total silence while the horses are working. Only when the work is completed is applause appropriate and appreciated.
There is a vast difference between a pulling team and hitch horses. Pulling teams in the Midwest consist of two animals. Hitch teams can include many more animals. On rare occasions, 50 animals are hitched to a single load for demonstrations. Hitch horses need to be well trained, look pretty and pull an empty wagon while wearing an elaborate harness with long shiny hames.
Pulling horses wear shoes with steel corks an inch deep on them, for getting a foothold in the dirt. They don’t normally move faster than a walk because it is difficult to move fast wearing those steel corked shoes.
Beauty isn’t a requirement for pulling horses. Their harnesses need to be stout to handle the intensity of starting and pulling the load.
Only a few horses have the characteristics required for being pulling horses. The animals need to be strong, conditioned, and most of all, they need to want to pull. If they don’t want to pull they will not do it. That “wanting to pull” is what makes pulling horses desirable.
Dangerous for animals?
One of the misunderstood factors about horsepulling is how hard it is on the horses. A casual observer might think the horses are being abused when they are asked to pull heavy loads.
A pulling team requires between 6-10 seconds to pull the load 27 1/2 feet, which is the distance of a full pull in the Midwestern states of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky.
Each competing team has three opportunities to pull each load.
In most pulling contests, the load is increased 5-6 times. If there are six loads and each load requires 10 seconds to pull it, the actual working time for the horses is about a minute.
Spread during 2-3 hours, that actual working time of one minute isn’t really a bad assignment. It is certainly better than working in the farm field all day.
There are different weights used in Midwestern horsepulling. The first is called a stone boat, which is simply a sled carrying large, cut stones; and the other horsepulling weight is a dynamometer. The latter is a mechanical testing device that is mounted on the back of a truck.
Teamwork involves more than just the horses. The teamwork also includes the teamster driving them and the two hitchers handling the eveners.
This team of three people and two draft horses must be coordinated to make things work. Mostly there are two different classes of pulling contests. Lightweight teams are 3,300 pounds, and the heavyweights are teams weighing more than that.
Different pullers prefer different weights.
As one puller noted, “First, we want to have a pulling contest, then after that we have a choice of weight source.”
Some people might describe the horsepulling community as gypsies moving into a community. They pull into an area, parking their variety of horse hauling vehicles wherever there is room. They often do not even leave their own little mobile area until the pulling contest is over.
Because there are so few horsepullers, they tend to work together. Surprising to some spectators, there are a large number of young drivers participating in horsepulling.
Certain pullers sometimes develop a following of spectators who will watch them pull and follow their favorites from one town to the next.
Many believe Clydesdale horses would participate in these events, but that is wrong. Clydesdales are known for pulling beer wagons. Belgian horses make up 98 percent of the pulling horses - with just a sprinkling of Percherons.
The Michigan Horsepulling Hall of Fame was established in 2005 in Prairieville, Mich., alongside the Michigan Farmer’s Hall of Fame, the Michigan Country Music Hall and the Antique Tractor Puller’s Hall of Fame. Among the initial inductees into the Horsepulling Hall were Jack Fowler of Fowler Brothers, Ward O’Boyle, Fred Herr and Don Johnson.
For additional information on horsepulling go to Horsepullresults.com
This farm news was published in the March 22, 2006 issue of Farm World.