Lisa and Bill Hanson show off their Belgian draft horses.  GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Lisa and Bill Hanson show off their Belgian draft horses.

Bill Hanson is riding the stone boat to 27.6 feet with a couple of Belgians.

It’s a Rocky and exciting ride, especially if there’s also a Don on the team. 

“The required distance is 27 feet, 6 inches for each pull. Pulls start at 4,500 pounds, or 180 cement blocks, and they add 1,000 pounds and keep adding. You get three attempts to make the full distance. You have the option once to spot and put the stone boat anywhere you want on the track,” said the award-winning draft horse puller. Hanson recently returned from Inverness, Fla., with a first place prize earned when his team of Belgians, Rocky and Don, hauled a sledge, or stone boat, the farthest in the competition.  

Hanson’s first ride on a stone boat was nearly 40 years ago. He’s never gotten over the thrill of watching his horses give it all their muscle, taking on the challenge of dragging concrete to the finish line or hitching his teams to trucks with hydraulic resistance systems meant to counter the horses’ horsepower. 

Mere inches can determine who’s the winner and who is the second place man in a contest that can involve numerous draft teams.  “The first time I pulled horses was in Dover on July 4 in 1977 or 1978.  One thing I like about horse pulling is that they measure by the chain, not by favoritism. Whoever pulls the furthest that day wins.  It’s just watching the horses pull, getting set up to get started, bringing young horses to the top. The people we meet are from all over and become friends with the thrill of pulling. It’s the competitive part.”

Draft horse pulling isn’t an unusual sport in rural areas, and most certainly not in the Hanson family. Raising draft horses, mainly tall, muscled, shiny-coated, coal-black Percherons, is a family tradition. Bill’s grandfather, Herman Hanson, showed them, and Bill’s father did as well. 

“I’ve always had a horse.  My dad farmed with horses, I grew up with horses, and my son and I still raise horses. It’s a Hanson family thing to raise registered Percherons.  It’s what my grandpa did and what my dad did when he farmed.  My dad showed at a few county fairs and pulled some, too. I’ve always had horses, and I hope I have them until the day I die.  ”

Bill’s wife, Lisa, knew that horses were in her future if she married the man.  “When we got married, I had horses.  Lisa and I went together in high school, and she knew that they’d be a big part of our life. She wanted a diamond for our anniversary, so I bought Rocky, and she was happy with that.  We grew up with draft horses as kids, and when I was probably 17 or 18, I bought my first draft horses…Belgian mares and Percheron mares so I could have a team of draft mares.” 

The Hansons’ sons, Jordan and Jared, don’t know what it is to live a day without equine company. Both have become involved in the equine industry, one in buying, selling and pulling, and the other in training. 

“Jordan pulled horses, but he wanted something do to for himself, so he’s buying and selling over 300 horses a year,” Bill explained. “Jared is breeding and raising Percheron colts.  I’m glad one of them took over the Percherons…it keeps the Hanson family name alive.”         

Hanson, who owns a local garbage hauling company, used to help Lloyd Greenlee pick up garbage on rural routes over 25 years ago. It was then that he found the family’s farmstead southwest of Chatfield, just off County Road 7.  “We used to pick up garbage here for the Perry sisters, and I asked them if they would sell,” he explained. The sisters took a while to consider his offer but ultimately chose to sell the land. 

“It’s 60 acres, and in 1997, we built a new house here.  I pulled a little bit before we had the land, but it just made it easier to have horses.”  He prefers to purchase his horses from private parties and from the Amish.  “There are a lot of good horses in Davis County, Indiana,” he commented, observing that he’s also become friends with some of the sellers there but never actually hitched his team to a stone boat in Indiana.   

Hanson’s draft pulling hobby has taken him all over the United States and North America to compete in draft horse pulls in Iowa, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, and most recently, in Florida. He’s also taken his team to the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Canada.  “The biggest was the Oklahoma State Fair. I got second there.  I think I got beat by about three inches.  I had taken a team to the Calgary Stampede, and the pair I had should’ve won, but I lost a horse there and Jordan won with a team.”  

The horses’ weight makes a big difference in which pulls he can enter, as various pulls are meant for lightweight and heavyweight horses.  He stated that he works his horses and feeds them so that they’re muscled and lean like wrestlers, quick to pull and built for endurance.  That might have some bearing on whether he sticks around for a pull nearby or takes his team to Pennsylvania this late spring. If his horses weigh 3,200 pounds, they can enter one of the pulls, but if they weigh 3,400 pounds, they can enter the other.

The pulls in Florida were important enough that Hanson took time ahead of the events to acquaint his horses with the grounds and work them until he was satisfied that they had a strong chance of winning.  “The trip to Florida, I took Rocky and Don, and I was in Dade City first, then the next day in Arcadia, then Tampa, then Kissimmee, and the last day, we were at The Villages, a retirement community where about 2,300 people came through the gate.  I had two seconds, a third, a sixth, and on the last day, a first.  The young pair I took did a good job. They were pulling against 23 other teams, the best out there, so I’m happy with how I did.”

Hanson likes bringing home the trophies, plaques and prize money, but he finds that it’s meeting new friends, visiting with old ones and knowing that his family’s in the stands. 

“Everybody’s friends at these pulls.  Everybody wants to win, but they’re all friends.  In Florida, it’s amazing, with calls from home congratulating me, even calls from Canada.  Lisa came down with the kids for a week.  People who come to those pulls are serious about horses.  Ours is a family event. My wife and kids always go.”  He continued, “We got offers for Rocky, but we kept him because it’s too hard to get super good horses like him.  This is what we enjoy, and it’s no different than having a fishing boat.  It’s our hobby.” 

The Hansons’ pasture is a busy place each spring, as presently, Bill is awaiting the arrival of several Percheron foals.  “It’s about the time we put in them. We have mares foaling, and someone’s got to be here. I want to raise them to be the best.  We’re not raising them to be farm horses. We’re raising them to be the very best hitch mares and geldings.  This will be the very first time we have Belgian mares to raise pulling horses.” 

He maintained that his tall, proud Percherons will remain the Hanson family’s signature equines, but he’s anticipating what will happen once his Belgians have produced the heavyweight pullers he’s hoping to take to important pulls such as the ones in Florida, Michigan and Calgary. 

Essentially, the challenge of finding the right team to carry the weight of the stone boat as close to or over the 27.6-foot line will keep Hanson hitching up the Belgians as long as he can, be it at the Fillmore County Fair or across the country.  He concluded that even when he’s unable to take the reins, he’s going to be in the stands, hopefully watching the next generation give it a hearty try.  “I’ll be pulling until I can’t pull, unless Jordan takes over.”