Until the age of 14 I lived in what now seems the 19th century, in a small county seat of 1,500 people in Northern Michigan. My father was the government agricultural agent in the area, and it was his job to dispense advice to farmers in a hopelessly unfertile countryside of jack pine, scrub oak, cedar swamps and fields.
Part of my father's job was to run the annual county fair with Francis God-bold, the director of the 4-H (head, heart, health, hands) Club, and he loved his work. The fair was always held in late August on three invariably hot and dusty days. There were produce and crafts tents, where prize vegetables were stacked neatly. There were canning, needlework and sewing exhibits, and the inevitable judging of milk cows, beef cattle, calves, pigs, sheep and chickens.
In my youth I took less interest in these than in the small midway, where there were games of chance and a few rides, a Ferris wheel and merry-go-round, plus at least one implausibly frightening whirl-and-puke sort of machine. And a freak show, where one paid an extra dime to see a hermaphrodite—an experience, I might add, that didn't mar my young farm-bred psyche.
For the adults the most exciting spectacle at the fair was the heavyweight horse pulling contest. The small grandstand would fill early in the afternoon with farmers and their wives talking and shading their eyes with the mimeographed programs. Out in the infield and across the track from the grandstand a dozen teams or so would be standing, their owners since midmorning having gone through the involved process of unloading them from trucks and putting on the harness and "working them out" a bit. I was always out in the infield, too, but I watched the action with no great interest. Horses were simply as common as dogs or hogs to me.
At last the pulling teams would be marched out and people would clap for their favorites. The contest consisted of each team in turn attempting to pull a loaded stoneboat a certain number of feet. A man with a clipboard would mark its progress, weight would be added and contestants eliminated for what I thought was hours and hours until a champion would be proclaimed.
As I have said, none of this struck me as particularly entertaining when I was a boy. Yet now, like many of my generation who reached maturity during the lassitude of the Eisenhower era, I feel lost within the energetic radicalism of the young and so I have come back to horse pulling. I go to horse pulling contests, few as they are, whenever I get a chance. I stand in the infield, take my clumsy pictures and talk to the farmers. The teamsters' beasts look huge and magnificent to me now. In reverse of the usual childhood memory, they have become grander with time rather than diminishing.
For the insider, the sport of horse pulling has intricacies that remind one of fly-fishing or grouse hunting, subtle and arcane strategies and superstitions that would fail any vaguely scientific test. There are cruelties, too, that reflect badly on a very small minority of practitioners.
Of all the breeds of pulling horses, the Belgian, with origins that date back to William the Conqueror's war-horses, is the strongest and most popular in the heavyweight class. The Percheron is the most frequent breed in the "lightweights," the cutoff point being a combined weight per team of 3,200 pounds. But the largest team does not necessarily win. Conditioning is a vital factor, as are natural strength, daily workouts and how well the horses pull together as a team. A well-trained lighter team often beats a stronger and heavier one. As with dogs, there is a great variation of size within each breed. At present there is an attempt being made to breed "more light" under Belgian pullers, to sacrifice a bit of their compactness for a rangier horse.
Pulling horses are nearly always geldings or mares for obvious reasons. One scarcely can tell a sexed-up bull elephant to calm down if there's a female in heat in the area, and an elephant's strength could not be much greater than that of these huge animals. It has been accurately estimated that a team of championship quality can pull the equivalent of a rolling load of 110 tons or a deadweight stoneboat of around 10,000 pounds.
Nowadays a device called a "hydrometer" mounted on a truck is often used in major contests for absolute accuracy, but such a device would find little favor at the old county fairs. Much of the audience's pleasure lay in the visual drama of the pig iron being gradually added in the stoneboat as the contest went on. Usually there were many arguments and much stalling. False passes were made at the hitch in a subtle tactic designed to allow the bottom of the boat to cool, thus reducing the friction of heat caused by the previous contestant.
Today, as yesterday, most teams are keyed to start pulling by the sound of the clank of the hitch when the hook drops in, rather than by the shout of the teamster. Two assistants carry the ends of the eveners as the team swings up to the boat, the teamster seats himself holding the reins tightly; then with the clank or the shout their flanks lower, and the horses strain forward against the weight, tearing out clots of earth with their hooves. When the 27½-foot distance is reached, a whistle is blown. No well-trained audience ever claps until the distance is covered, as the horses associate applause with success and will stop short.
Horse pulling is still an extremely expensive sport, and the prize money so pitifully small as to make it virtually amateur. Top prizes rarely go over $250. A pulling team which will be in its prime for only about five years can cost anywhere from $400 to $20,000, and to this initial expense must be added the cost of hauling a team from contest to contest, the feeding of animals that eat four times as much as racehorses and the considerable price of the custom harness.
Like much that our parents believed in, horse pulling as a sport will, I suspect, disappear—probably in my own lifetime. Breeding the animals will no doubt continue, but the sport, I'm sure, will suffer a natural degeneration as organic to our time as the death of jousting was to the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, back at the fair, the audience grows older and sparser. Today the grandstand at a pulling contest, admission to which is free, looks like a retirement colony on holiday. Horse pulling cannot compete with DAN'S HELL ROARING DEVIL DRIVING CAR SMASHERS, the feature attraction of this year's fair.