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Horse pulling boasts long tradition at fair
by Felix Doligosa Jr., Portland Press Herald Writer

Fryeburg - Barney's and Dan's lower back muscles strained and contorted with every step they took - at times they lost their footing.  Dragging 5,000 pounds on a sled wasn't only a test of strength for the Belgian horses, but also for their owner, whose forehead and hat were drenched in sweat after whooping and whipping the animals for five minutes.  "It's a workout," said Mark Tolman of Linclon.

At the Fryeburg Fair, the sport of horse pulling showcases the strength of these massive animals and represents a livestock rivalry once found among farmers at the turn of the century.

"Horse pulling was mainly used to transport lumber in the woods," said Jim Deschambeault, the fair's livestock superintendent.  "It comes down to arguing about my horse can pull more then your."  Horse pulling began in the early 1900's, when farmers would bet neighboring farms that their animals could pull more weight.  The sport gained popularity and even prompted concerns from some animal rights activists.  Today, horse pulling has become a sport that can be found at almost every fair. 

"Competitors come to Fryeburg from all around the country, like Michigan, Connecticut, Pennsylvania," Deschambeault said.  "It's quite an event."

Competing in pairs, the horses are strapped in harnesses and drag a sled carrying anywhere from 500 to thousands of pounds of concrete.  The horses are judged on how far they can drag the weight in five minutes, and teams at the Fryeburg Fair win cash prizes ranging around $500.

As Barney and Dan took 15 second breathers from dragging the weight in Saturday's event, the packed pulling ring arena responded with claps.  Tolman kept shouting and pushing the horses to cross the white chalk line.

"I enjoy it.  It's a hobby for me," he said.

To suggestions that the sport is inhumane, many pulling contestants argue that the Belgian horse is built to drag large amounts of weight.

"These horses are born to pull," said horse owner Jessica Tibbetts of Livermore.  "If they don't, they will get fat.  It's like a couch potato who watches television and eats all day."

Bigger then show horses, Belgian horses are the sport's athletes, with some weighing in as much as 2,700 pounds.  Like a weightlifter hitting the weights, preparing to get stronger for the clean and jerk, these equines build their strength from spring until summer.

"I work my animals dragging weight around 10 miles a day," said Bob Tibbetts, a horse owner from Jay.  "Like any athlete, this is their conditioning.  When they train, they eat 50 pounds of grain in a day.  When they vacation all winter, they just eat the grass."

Standing six feet tall to the back of its neck and weighing 1,700 pounds, the horse called Batman with its enormous hind legs, had fair onlookers ooing and aahhing.  His regular partner, Robin, is just as big but did not make it to the fair.

"Batman is a big baby," Jessica Tibbetts said.  "They're all big babies."

These horses may be babies, but most of them are not riding animals.  It would take a small ladder to mount some of them.

Barney and Dan didn't look like they were ready to ride after dragging their heavy load 384 feet.  After competing the run, Tolman brought the animals back to the stable to rest.  "It's a lot of work," he said.

Article appears courtesy of the Portland Press Herald online

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