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Muncie family works, and wins, with pulling horses

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Tom Humbert and his dog Fred take a couple laps around their track to give his team a workout. The Humbert family men have competed in horse pulling for years. Monday they spoke with The Star Press in their horse barn on W. White Road. / Kurt Hostetler/The Star Press

A knowledge of horses, especially huge horses, comes naturally to Tom Humbert.

“My daddy logged, and I was always in the woods with the horses,” he recalled. “We still get a lot of logs out with the horses.”

As he spoke, he was in the cavernous barn of his southside property, dressed in coveralls with a well-worn straw hat topping his bald head. Against a nearby wall, meanwhile, about five tons of massive Belgian horses named Tony, Tom, Marvin and Maynard stood passively in their leather harnesses, their short golden tails swishing flies away.

Two of those horses, driven by Tom’s son Timmy, recently took top honors in the Indiana State Fair pulling contest, having dragged 11,500 pounds of sled loaded with concrete bricks across more than 27 feet of dirt.

Winning that contest is nothing new for Tom, whose horses also won it in 1982, 1983 and 2000, and who also recently won a national championship pulling 13,000 pounds more than 23 feet.

Then there were near-misses for state titles in 1986, 1987 and 1988.

“One year we lost by an inch,” said Tom’s other son, Tommie. “The next year we lost by two inches. The next year we lost by a foot.”

Looking up old records, Tommie thumb-flipped through horse-pulling websites on his cell phone, an incongruous-looking convenience in this place where the presence of giant horses, Tom’s faithful dog, Fred, and these friendly, down-to-earth people amounted to a scene that could have come from a century before.

Of course, the goats helped set the mood, too, piercing eyes checking out the visitors as they lounged placidly outside the barn, where their mere presence is said to somehow help keep the horses within it healthy and at peace.

“It does make a difference,” Tommie said.

Centered on their horses, the Humberts seem a remarkably tight-knit group, from the family patriarch to granddaughters Lexi Humbert, 10, and Delci Reeder, 8, who also pull, albeit with ponies.

“It’s a family thing, really,” said the soft-spoken Tom, whose father won championship titles as well, noting they travel to competitions as a clan and enjoy the company of fellow pullers. “We’ve got a lot of friends from just all over the world.”

“It’s a bad addiction,” joked Timmy, of their passion, which is also shared by older grandchildren Margee and Brea Reeder, aged 23 and 17, respectively.

“Margee can drive the horses just as good as anyone,” Tommie said.

Like everything else these days, what was once a pretty simple hobby, or addiction, is becoming more and more costly, with top pulling horses fetching as much as $125,000. A true mark of the family nature of the Humberts‘ involvement, however, is that when a man recently made an offer for one of their horses, Tom wanted to sell it, but had to defer to check with the family.

They took a family vote, and Tom lost.

No sale.

In exercising the gentle, towering beasts, Timmy and Tom took the reins on the primitive-looking sleds to which they were harnessed, then steered them from the barn and through the farm lot onto a nearby track of dirt and rock, the metallic knobs on their collar hames gleaming in the sun. With the horses’ massive haunches knotting with muscle, they pulled the sleds around twice with ease, then back into the barn.

The key to winning pulls?

“Have good horses,” Timmy said with a laugh.

Come cooler months, Tommie added, this barn with its loose dirt floor and scores of spent, dusty horseshoes racked on a cross beam is a place of horses and basketball, the Humberts’ other passion.

When it’s time to work, though, into the winter woods they go, preferred by many land-owners who say hauling out logs with machinery is too destructive, and driven by men as tough as the horses that work for them.

If you think that image harkens to a simpler time, a better time, even a more beautiful time, Tom would agree.

“It’s going back to the old way, but you know what?” he said, gazing at the horses he loves. “It’s peaceful.”

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