By Bob Jackson
Horse-pull enthusiasts say they’re in it because they love and respect the animals, not for the money.
CHAMPION — Just a week ago, Bob was a hard-working farmhand, sweating and toiling in the fields on an area Amish farm. But on Sunday, his farming days apparently behind him, he found himself strapped to a huge sled laden with cement blocks, lugging the load forward 27 feet at a time.
Bob is a horse, of course. And on Sunday, he was one of several horses participating in the Trumbull County Fair’s horse pull.
“Bob’s pretty new at this,” said 65-year-old Bill Vines of Ravenna, who owns and drives the team of Bob and Mike. “He was pulling a plow last week up in the Amish country. These two are still figuring out how to pull together.”
Vines said Bob is also a bit on the svelte side for a pulling horse, tipping the scale at a lean 1,630 pounds.
“He needs another 100 pounds or so on him,” Vines said, rubbing the horse’s nose. “Then he’ll really be ready to go.”
Bob is 6 years old and Mike, who has pulled many times before, is 8. Both are Belgian horses, which is the most common breed used for pulling, said Jeff Young, president of the Buckeye Horse Pullers Association of Ohio.
That’s because Belgians have strong, muscular bodies built for hard work and toting heavy loads. “The animals all love to do this,” said Young, who lives in Urichsville. “They’re like natural athletes. You can’t force an animal to do this. You hitch them up, and they just know what to do.”
Indeed, the 15 pairs of horses entered in Sunday’s contest knew exactly what was expected of them. Hooves digging, nostrils flaring, most were itching to take off down the track before their harness could be hitched to the weight-bearing sled. Their drivers, or teamsters as they are known among horse pullers, had to strain at the reins to hold them back until the harness hooked the sled.
“Sometimes they anticipate that hook. They just want to get going,” Vines said. And with a hearty laugh, he recalled a horse pull in Middlefield where his helpers missed getting his horses hitched to the sled and the horses took off with Vines still hanging on to the reins.
“They pulled me all the way down the track on my belly,” he said, laughing and pointing to where his elbow got scraped.
Horse pulling is an exercise in teamwork. Two horses are harnessed together and must work in tandem, while the teamster requires two people to help him or her by making sure the harness is hooked onto the sled.
Once the connection is made, the horses drive forward under the strained guidance of the teamster. The goal is to pull the sled 27 feet, which is considered a full pull. If a team pulls the sled the whole nine yards, it comes back to pull again with more weight added to the sled.
The competition continues until one team has pulled the sled farther than any other. Competition is divided between heavyweight and light-heavyweight teams, with light-heavyweights being teams with combined weight of the horses at 3,320 pounds or less.
Sunday’s contest started with 4,500 pounds on the sled and kept going up in 1,000-pound increments.
A good horse can cost anywhere between $3,000 and $30,000, Vines said. Some people will pay as much as $50,000 for a strong Belgian to enter into pulls. A good harness will set you back some $1,200, with another $250 for a collar and $100 for horseshoes. All this to participate in an event that generally pays a few hundred dollars if you win.
“The purse today is $250,” Vines said, laughing again. “You don’t do this for the money. It’s just an expensive hobby. Or maybe just stupidity.”
Vines, a North Carolina native who is retired from AT&T, said he started in horse pulling in 1980, getting interested after watching his neighbor pull.
But Young said the high cost of fuel has caused participation in the association’s pulls to fall off sharply this year because people are not willing to travel as far, and as often, as they once did.
“The cost of gas is hurting us, it really is,” he said. “Having 15 teams here today is huge.” He had expected the gas prices, and the rainy weather, to drive down attendance in the show area and in the stands.
Only a dozen or so people dotted the grandstand Sunday to watch the pull, with another two dozen sitting or standing along the makeshift track.
Heavy rains left the area in front of the grandstand too muddy for the pull, which had to be moved to an area just north of the grandstand.
The rain caused a two-hour delay in getting started. That didn’t dissuade Charles and Nancy Reed of Kinsman, who were the first ones in the grandstand Sunday morning.
“I was waiting in line when they opened the ticket office,” said Charles, 71. “I love this. We come every year.”
Actually, the Reeds have come to the horse pull every year for more than 30 years. Charles developed his love of horses at a young age in West Virginia, where he grew up. When he was 7 — yes, 7 — he got a job working for a logging company, “skidding” logs out of the woods using teams of horses much like the ones used Sunday.
“I was the oldest” of nine children, Reed said. “Back then, money was tight. If I didn’t work, we didn’t eat.”
Nancy said she enjoys watching the light-heavyweights, which she called the “little horses.”
“They dig in their hooves and they just go,” the 60-year-old horse fan said. “Then afterward they walk around with their head high like they’re really proud.”
Young said he’s thankful for the support of people such as the Reeds, who support the pullers wherever they go.
“It’s good, family entertainment,” he said. “It’s people in the stands who keep us coming back.”