Nearly 100 horses and their handlers competed for a share of $10,000 in prize monies offered at the Festival of Horsepower held Aug. 12-13 at the Schaghticoke Fairgrounds in Rensselaer County, New York. This was the second annual Festival of Horsepower, which featured three days of horse powered pulls, antique tractor pulls, a car show a bounce house for the kids and fair food vendors.
Teams traveled from as far as Kentucky, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to compete according to Carly Reyna, Schaghticoke Fair Manager.
“The significant prize money is a big draw for people to travel here and compete,” she said.
Ten different classes were available for pulling horses of all sizes from miniatures to pony draft and full-sized draft horses. Pony and draft horse classes were divided into three different weight classes and each single horse or team had an opportunity to prove they were the strongest and most determined to drag the heaviest load.
“We have team and single horse classes and classes for youth,” she added.
A sled was loaded with steel weights. After all contestants in the class completed a qualifying pull, additional weights were added and each team started over until only one proved the strongest. Qualifying pulls ranged in distance based on the horse’s size. For miniature horses, it was 10 feet, for ponies 12 feet and between 20 and 27.5 feet for full-sized drafts depending on if they were in the lightweight or heavyweight class.
“The pony teams where the horses weigh less than 1,450 pounds combined, can pull a little over 5,000 pounds,” Reyna explained, “the big horse teams can pull nearly 15,000.”
The highlight of Saturday’s events was the Calcutta Auction. After each team completed a first pull, an auctioneer “sold off” each team in the competition in two groups. The winning bidder for the first group is betting that his/her team will finish either first, second or third. The winning bidder for the second group is betting that their team will finish fourth, fifth or sixth.
After all the teams are sold, pulling continues to determine the placings. The teams of horses aren’t actually sold, instead the bidding is for a share of the money raised. After the class is over, the money is divided among the organization hosting the event and the winning bidder based on a percentage payout.
“It adds to the prize money they can walk away with,” Reyna said.
The horse pulls were once an integral part of the third oldest agricultural fair in New York State held at the Schaghticoke Fairgrounds, but were dropped from the annual event several years ago.
“When I was hired as the fair manager, I made it my goal to bring back the horse pulls,” she said, “we didn’t add it to the fair, but instead created a weekend long event prior to the fair.”
First inspired by friendly competitions between neighboring farmers, horse pulls originated when one farmer challenged another to see whose horse or team could pull the most weight. Over time, it has evolved into an organized competitive event. Although pulling horses originally served the main purpose of working on the farm or in the woods, many of today’s horses are specifically raised and trained for competitive events and do little work in the fields or woods.
“I don’t farm with my horses anymore,” said competitor Dan Smith from Cummington, MA, “but I do work them every day so that they stay in shape.”
Smith, like many of the competitors, has been around horses all their lives. He pulled with his first pair of horses when he was 13 years old. Today, 50 years later, he’s equally enthusiastic about the event. “I always hope that my horses pull the last load, whatever that might be,” he said.
For many, pulling is a family tradition. “My dad and my granddad before that pulled horses. I started pulling with a pair of ponies when I was eight,” said Jerry Voohis from Chenango Forks, NY.
Like Smith, Voohis doesn’t use the horses in traditional fieldwork and instead conditions and trains them specifically for competitive pulls.
“I just them to do a little bit of mowing, but that’s it,” he said, “once it gets in your blood, it’s always with you,” he said.