Oregon State Fair Pulling Contest

Alas, if only the arena-photography conditions were better. I had a wonderful time watching the draft horses participate in the pulling contest and would love to have better documented it to share.

There were divisions for light, medium, and heavy-weight horses in both single hitches and teams of two. In each round, the horses would take turns pulling a loaded sled a specific distance.

It was particularly fascinating to note how the harness is designed and used for this event. The harness traces connect to the whippletree, or equalizer, which is a bar that evenly distributes the force of the pull. The whippletree for pulling has a big metal hook on the end. As one teamster maneuvers his horse(s) into position in front of the sled (not an easy feat!), another deftly drops the hook through a slot on the front of the boat. At the same moment, the horses lunge forward to create momentum for the pull. If the horses are too eager or difficult to position, they can end up using up their energy with false starts before they are connected to the load. It’s not just a contest of strength, but of the willingness, heart, agility, and training of the horse, and considerable skill on the part of the person holding the reins!

A contestant in the single horse pulling contest

A pair of Belgians straining to pull in the team contest. This picture gives a good view of the whippletree- it’s the metal bars in front of the drivers knees.

A lovely pair of matched Belgian/Percheron geldings…

…who did not always behave! This team was somewhat new to pulling contests and they were difficult to position and connect to the load. The teamsters were working very hard to keep everything under control!

After each round, the FFA kids would load another 500-1000 pounds into the sled. The loads were immense- around 3000 lbs for the single horses, and 7000(!) lbs for the teams!

I can’t wait until I can attend another pulling contest. It is just fascinating!

2 responses to “Oregon State Fair Pulling Contest

  1. I went to a draft pull a couple years ago, It was really interesting, but I wonder how long those horses stay interested in their jobs. When I was still hanging with the big time hunter jumper crowd, the jumper trainers were careful not to show their horses what they couldn’t do. You always wanted the horse to think he could jump anything. In contrast, it seems like draft pulls are all about showing the horses what they can’t do. After all, only one pair in each competition walks away without a failure… I really have no idea if this makes a difference to the horses long term. It’s just such a contrast in training philosophy!

    • I was lucky enough to be sitting next to a guy who knew many of the competitors and quite a bit about pulling contests. He was explaining many things to his friend, and I happily eavesdropped. I was intrigued to hear, and then see in action in the arena, that usually the teamsters forfeit when they think their horses are about to quit, or pull to heavy a load- to avoid showing them what they can’t do, just as you described with hunter jumpers. Sometimes it happens, I’m sure, but I did see many of the teams forfeit even after a round where the team did move the load. When you saw a contest did the teams go until they couldn’t go further? That does seem like heartbreaking work for such loyal beasts.
      Most, if not all, of the drafters competing were actually working horses, and I assume that their day to day work is varied and interesting, since they have many jobs around the farm. Most of the loads they pull are probably a lot lighter than what they tackle in the pulling contests. My neighbor was proudly telling about one Belgian in the team pull who must have been about 20 years old- he was still half of the reigning Canadian champion pulling team from way back. I was very happy to hear and see how careful the drivers were with their charges.

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