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Pulling their weight

Published: Saturday, September 3, 2005

                        This week in photos
Ike Mitchell of Lyndonville (right) and his Belgian draft horses, Duke (left) and Bob, back up to a sled carrying 5,000 pounds in the first round of a horse-pulling competition Thursday at the Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Junction.

                        This week in photos
Dave Mitchell of Lyndonville prepares his Belgian draft horse Duke for Thursday morning's horse-pulling competition at the Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Junction.


By Sally Pollak
Free Press Staff Writer

ESSEX -- Dave Mitchell, 75, a wiry logger from Lyndonville, raised five sons and many draft horses. He believes in a certain amount of discipline bringing up both species.

"Ain't much difference raising boys or raising horses. They do something wrong, you straighten 'em out," Mitchell said Thursday morning in a stable at the Champlain Valley Fair, giving rear-end pats to his 3,100-pound animals. "My kids mind me and these horses mind me."

Raised on a farm in the Northeast Kingdom, Mitchell has been around horses all his life. "Horses are in my blood," he said.

Then Mitchell, 148 pounds, led his horses outside to hitch up their harnesses for their morning labor: Bob and Duke, yoked together, were preparing to compete in the under-3,400-pound horse-pull competition at the fair.

In the horse pull, teams of horses are hitched to a flat-bottomed "boat" that holds stacks of cement blocks -- blocks that weigh 500 or 1,000 pounds. In the Thursday morning event, the horses had to pull the cement boat 15 feet, hauling ever-increasing amounts of weight.

"I don't pray," Mitchell said, chewing a wad of tobacco just before the competition. "They know what they're supposed to do."

Mitchell, a horse-puller with 57 years' experience, was teamed up at the fair with one of his sons, 47-year-old Dwight Allen Mitchell. Dwight goes by the nickname, Ike. As with his four brothers, Ike's (real) first name begins with the letter "D" and his middle name begins with the letter "A," giving him the initials D-A-M. "That's five damn Mitchells," his father said.

Ike Mitchell brought his own team of horses to the fair, a pair of rookies who compete in the over-3,400-pound weight class. He was also helping and hanging out with his father, and "driving" his father's horses. The driver, with help from two other people, backs the horses up and hitches them to a bar, called an "evener," that is attached to the weight-filled boat.

The helpers jump out of the way when the hitch is made, as the horses launch quickly into their pull. They step high and almost jaunty on the lighter weights (4,000 pounds); they squat and (sometimes) strain to pull as the weight mounts.

While two of the hitchers jump out of the way, the driver stays behind the horses with a pair of reins, guiding them down the dirt track.

"Why, hell fire, I imagine they know what's going on," Ike Mitchell said. "And the fourth or fifth time, they know it's getting heavier."

On his first run, with the animals pulling 4,000 pounds, Ike Mitchell drove his dad's horses with a Marlboro Light hanging out of his mouth. Later, he took the reins and drove for a competing team, after that team's driver was smashed in the leg by the evener when a chain broke lose.

"To tell you the truth, I ain't got it all figured out, what got me doing this," Ike Mitchell said, "but I used to ride horses in the woods at 13, doing the logging. And that started me pulling."

Now he and his father, trailing their horses behind a pair of Ford pickups (which Ike slept in at the fair), travel to northern New England fairs during the summer, competing in the horse-pull. They hang out with buddies at these events, other horse-pullers on the fair circuit.

A good fair depends on several factors, said Charles Stone, 60, a puller and farmer from Cornish, N.H.

These include:

Whom you "bull- - - - " with

What goes on in the competition

How much beer you drink

At the morning event, the drink of choice appeared to be coffee. But the b.s. was flowing.

Art Connolly, 67, of Brownington, a horse-puller in his own time, had come to Essex to cheer on his friends, the Mitchells.

"You haven't got to be foolish to pull horses," he said, "but it helps a lot if you are."

He recalled that he purchased his first team, including harnesses, back in 1959 for $225. Now a fine pair of draft horses costs thousands of dollars, even tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

Dave Mitchell bought Bob and Duke at the Fryeburg Fair in Maine two years ago. He won't reveal the price, but he gives a sly smile, indicating he got a steal.

On the track, Ike Mitchell was having some luck with Bob and Duke. The horses were one of four pairs left when the weight was up to 7,000 pounds. The team had three tries in five minutes to make this weight. On the second attempt, Mitchell's horses pulled the boat the desired 15 feet, advancing to the 7,500-pound pull.

Ike Mitchell, hitching a ride behind the horses by standing on the bar, glided up to his father, who was watching in a folding chair.

"That's enough, Dad," he said. "I'm not going to hitch it."

The horses are tired, he decided. Ike Mitchell wouldn't put them through another run. His father didn't question the call.

"Tired, ain't you, boys?" he said to his horses, stroking their noses. "You'll be home tonight in a nice pen, no noise. We pulled the piss out of 'em, didn't we?"

The Stone family horses, driven by Derek Stone, went on to win the event, the only team to pull 7,500 pounds of cement. The horses, Tony and Shorty, seemed to do it with ease, squatting forward as they hauled the boat and covering the distance in their first try. The pair had looked strong all day.

"They had a good day today," Derek Stone said. "They're like athletes. They have good days and bad days."

Charles Stone, who says he pulls for the competition, not the money, nonetheless pocketed $160 with his blue ribbon.

The Mitchells and the Stones plan to be in Lancaster, N.H., today, competing at the fair across the river.

"They pay big money at Lancaster," Dave Mitchell said.

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