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Cracker and cooter

By Neil Campbell

The Brown Dog Jiggs and I stand tight against the wall of the announcer's booth at the Kinmount Fair, sheltered from the rain falling on the light-horse draw.

We have the best place on the grounds to watch, because teams and teamsters are lined up side-by-side just behind us, horses and men calm, indifferent to the weather.

Mike Wessell strolls by, trailing Cracker and Cooter, all three as focused as professional athletes before a big game, vision tunnelled on the task ahead. In a moment, 3,400 tons of horseflesh will haul almost five tons of concrete 20 feet to triumph.

Though the horse draw might be my favourite Haliburton sport, I know little of its rules or of its history, but I have watched enough to begin to understand that calm always wins.

No muss, no fuss is the path to victory. Teams that rear and stumble and lurch and won't back up to be hitched, that have to circle around for second tries, won't last long.

The also-rans provide the drama and excitement. At Kinmount, round, a teamster is dragged skidding on his heels, 50 feet or more, time and time again, before he hooks up on a third try. He quits in the second round.

It is the plodders who survive. Team and teamster are walking proof of traditional Canadian values. The less you're noticed, the better you do.

You pull together to win. Hooves dig in and push forward together. From the side, you see only the near horse's legs, the team is in such perfect step.

On the dirt track that cuts a diagonal across the dimly-lit paddock at Kinmount, Mike Wessell will make a clean sweep, winning both the light- and heavy-horse divisions.

It's in the family genes for Mike, whose family has been settled in old Lutterworth Township since the 19th century. His dad, Ingram, has been a horse puller from way back and now his nine-year-old son, Cody, is starting out in the pony pull.

Ingram still trains the heavy team. Most days you can see him on the reins in the Wessell fields on Highway 35, just north of the Haliburton County line.

Once the horse pull was a game for loggers, a weekend contest for bragging rights, full of booze and violence. Skidding logs in the woods took care of the training.

Now there are hardly any horse loggers left; Mike says there weren't any at Kinmount. The horse pull has become a demanding hobby for countrymen who love working with animals.

Mike spends two hours a day with Cracker and Cooter. Spends money too, money for feed and harness, for gas and a horse trailer and for trips as far away as Lansing, Mich., to compete a couple of dozen times a year.

Folks watching their first horse pull sometimes think they're watching animal abuse. Watching unrestrained physical effort can be unsettling.

But draught horses were born to pull. It is the thing they enjoy most in the world, enjoy so much that they have to learn not to start pulling before they're hitched.

In competition, they're hooked up to a flat-bottomed stoneboat loaded with formed concrete slabs. A chain at the back of the stoneboat reaches 20 feet to a peg.

When a team pulls its load far enough to jerk the peg free, it goes on to the next round. The load gets heavier with each round and teams drop out until only one is left.

This is the first year together for Cracker and Cooter, raised since they were colts by the Wessells. Mike thinks that's the key to their success, and so do I. They must believe in him, even love him.

I have not been a great success training The Brown Dog, but most of the time he is so good-natured it hardly matters. When I have him on a leash, I can yank him out of trouble.

You can't yank back a pair of animals that can skid five tons. Your control is almost spiritual, built entirely on trust and on the teamster's will. Reins are for communication, not restraint.

Between team and teamster, there must be the kind of perfect intimacy and trust that make a good marriage. Or so I imagine.

Article courtesy of the Minden Times

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