I arrived at Hunt Horse Complex on the North Carolina State Fair Grounds early. I walked around the barn area looking for my friend who had insisted I bring my camera to the Annual Southern National Draft Horse Pull. It was a warm day for February and I was enjoying the outing. When it got close to time for the event I headed over to the entrance gate to buy my ticket. I was surprised to find two long lines of people strung through the parking lot waiting in for the same reason. This was the first time in my thirty years working in the horse industry to see this kind of interest in a horse competition.
Once I was inside I found the arena packed. I walked down to the in gate and found some more friends I'd made while writing The Book of Draft Horses. They were standing near the end gate. The pre-show parade of draft animals included not only various breeds of draft horses, but also a team of oxen (man, those guys are huge) and a team of Miniature Horses (those guys are tiny) pulling a buckboard wagon.
Then the first competing team of draft horses entered the ring. The jingle jangle of harness chains made me think of a time when these noble giants of the horse world did the grunge work of the world. Pulling was one of their jobs, whether wagon loads of goods from farm to town, pulling logs out of the forest, or even barges up canals. Somewhere a couple of teamsters or farmers made a wager that his team could pull more than another and the horse pull was born. There are horse-pulling contests documented as early as 1876. Where horse racing had been made illegal at some county fairs the horse pull took its place.
Contests take place all over the county at fairs and farm shows. Top dollar is paid for proven pulling teams, some into the five-figure range. Teams and drivers travel across the country competing. Rules vary from region to region. The contests are usually divided into two weight divisions. Lightweight teams weigh in at 3300-3200 pounds, heavyweights are 3400 pounds and over. Horses are weighed on the grounds before the contest begins. The contest is open to all breeds of draft horses and mules, but Belgians seemed to dominate the field.
The contest is run one of two ways: using a dynamometer, a machine used to measure horsepower, or with weights on a stone boat or sled. A horse pull is an elimination contest, with successful teams moving on to the next round until there are only two teams left. The winner of the last round is declared champion.
Horses must stay within the boundary lines drawn in the dirt or will be disqualified from the round. Hookers are assistants whose job it is to hook the horses to the sled or the dynamometer. Once they have done this they are required to stand back and not speak to the horses or drivers. It is against the rules to slap the horses with the lines or strike them in any way.
If you've never watched a horse pull you owe yourself the experience. To witness the power of these 2000-pound animals strain against the harness and pull thousands of pounds of dead weight twenty-seven and a half feet (the official distance) is an amazing sight.
I would have loved to been in Syracuse, NY at the 2006 Pull of Champions where records were broken right and left. Chris Hatfield and Terry Yoder broke that record twice. Terry Yoder and Chris Hatfield had already claimed the world heavyweight record. In 2006 Hatfield and Yoder broke that record twice at the Pull of Champions in Syracuse, New York. Their team Roger and Oscar pulled 14' 2" on 5000 pounds, and then they drove Mike and Smuck to 20'5" on 5000 pounds. But imagine the excitement in the stands when both those teams records were beaten at the same event by brothers Rick and Scott Brown of Acme, Pennsylvania, when their team, Jim and Fred, pulled over 5000 pounds and set the new heavyweight record.
Oh yes, you will find some genuine excitement at the horse pull. To read more about horse pulling excitement visit www.horsepull.com. That website has schedules, records, and video clips of pulls. I'll bet you will find a contest near you.