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[Fri Apr 30 2004]

DU QUOIN -- Jerry Harp of Paris, Ky., sat on a folding chair and barely touched the lead rope holding his team as they waited their turn at the sled. The pair stood quiet and still, even when a toddler came by to tickle their tummies in his version of petting them.

Then Harp stood up and signaled the human part of his team. It was time, and the quiet pair of blonde Belgians turned into a snorting, prancing extra-helping of horse power.

Harp's team won the heavy-weight pulling division at James Outback Stables in Du Quoin that Saturday night, April 23, for a meeting of the Illinois Horse Pullers Association. They pulled about 11,000 pounds of concrete on a pulling sled. When it was all over, they went back to standing at docile attention, waiting for the next time they were asked to give it all when the hitch drops onto the sled.

"This isn't like horse racing," Harp said. "You can't whip your horse around the track. We can't even touch them at all."

Horse pulls are divided into heavy and light weight pullers. Teams weighing less than 3,900 pounds are light-weights; teams weighing more than that are heavy-weights.

Each team gets three tries to pull the sled 27.5 feet. They have to pull the sled straight down the pulling main between two ropes. If they go out of bounds, or if the human part of the team misses the hitch when they drop it down onto the sled and the horses pull air, or if they just can't quite do it, they have two more tries to make it right.

Weight is added in 50-pound increments. Eventually, no team will make it the whole 27.5 feet. The team that pulls the heaviest weight the farthest wins, and the next best is second and so on. A typical competition pays out to 10 places.

Harp said most pullers prefer Belgians because "They have more power, they have more stamina, they are a stouter horse ... They are shorter in the legs and that gives them a stronger build."

However, Percherons show up from time to time. Fancier, showier Clydesdales and Shires just don't get it in the pulling circles.

Harp said the biggest challenge is finding two horses that have the same way of going. "You can't put a fast horse with a slow horse," he said. "They have to move together, and you have to have two hearts."

IHPA president David Cox said a puller can work for months with a team only to find that when the pulling gets heavy, they just can't work together.

"It's like with people," he said. "If we start out walking together, probably one of us is going to walk faster than the other. With a team, they have to go the same because they have to work together when it gets heavy."

Cox said the harnesses used are a heavy duty variety of a standard harness. Anything less than heavy and the horses will pull right out of the leather.

"It's heavy duty, but we still tear stuff up," he said.

Harp said the only other equipment is a special pulling shoe with a cleat on the front for traction. The rest, he said, comes from team work and the hard-working attitude of the horses.

The next IHPA event in Southern Illinois will be held in Sesser on June 18. Check the horse events schedule in The Southern Illinoisan for more. In the meantime, call David Cox at (618) 783-8034 for more information.

Story courtesy of the The Southern Illinoisan


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