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Pulling power

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

By Bobbi Mlynar


Curt Ellis, of Iola, and his horse team May and Bud compete in the Draft Horse Pull at the Lyon County Free Fair Monday, Aug. 4.

Photo by Adam Vogler

Curt Ellis, of Iola, and his horse team May and Bud compete in the Draft Horse Pull at the Lyon County Free Fair Monday, Aug. 4.

Curt Ellis of Iola had reason to be optimistic Monday evening as he waited for the horse-pulling contest to begin at the Lyon County Free Fair.

Ellis’ team of Belgian draft horses, Bud and May, were on a winning streak.

“I’ve won the last two with mine, and that pair right there got second last week,” he said, gesturing toward his brother Terry Ellis’s team of Belgians, Lucky and Barney. “... Last night, it came down to the two of us.”

By the time the pulling had ended Monday night, Bud and May again had placed first, with Terry Ellis’s team coming in third. Osawatomie resident Larry Oldham’s team placed second.

“We’ve been doing it for the past four or five years, maybe longer,” Curt Ellis said of the pulling competitions.

The brothers and their teams travel together, pulling 6,800 pounds of horses in a four-horse trailer behind their pickup truck.

Participation dwindled a little this year because of the high cost of fuel, he said, though they remain enthusiastic about competing. They come from a horse-pull family; their late father had draft horse pulling teams for years, and their uncles continue to participate, Curt said.

The Ellises spend considerable time with their horses, practicing for competitions that they travel to across the state, and from Oklahoma City to Iowa.

“They get worked, exercised, every night — two to three hours a night,” Curt said. “... We just spend lots and lots of time with it. According to our wives, too much.”

Curt serves as blacksmith, removing and nailing on new size 6 horseshoes as they are needed; Terry’s team wears size 7. The shoe “soles” resemble cleated athletic shoes, with oversized metal heels and toes that can dig down into the dirt for traction.

The nine teams entered in the contest Monday evening all started by pulling their own weights. Bud and May, at 3,200 pounds total, were required to begin by pulling a 3,200-pound sled; Terry’s team, which weighs about 3,600 pounds, started at that level.

With each round, the weights on the sleds were bumped up significantly.

“You’ll start out with 3,200 pounds, and each round they’ll add 1,000 pounds until it starts getting too heavy,” Curt explained. “They’ll cut it back to 500 pounds.”

The pulling is done on 12-foot lanes, with each team required to stay within the rope boundaries that marked the lanes.

“When they add the weights on each round, the team that can pull the weight the furthest that round is the winner of it,” he said before the contest. “Sometimes they’ll go six, seven, eight rounds.”

The teams need to pull their sleds at least 15 feet without stopping to remain in competition. As the teams are eliminated and only two remain, the contest can become a matter of feet. During what becomes the last round, Curt said, at least one team will not make the full 15 feet; sometimes neither team can pull its sled that far. In that case, the team that comes closest to 15 feet is declared the winner.

On the track, the competition is intense but prior to the contest, team owners and often their families take time to socialize.

The Ellis brothers intentionally arrived in Emporia between 3:30 and 4 p.m. for the 8 p.m. pull. Other pullers did the same, and relaxed in circles of lawn chairs and talked until it was time to harness the horses and get serious about the pull.

“It’s kind of like one big happy family,” Curt said. “We try to help one another as much as possible.”

Other teams that competed were owned by: Kendall Hutton, Welda; Larry and Justin Woolery, Thayer; Jeremy Johnson, Westmoreland; Marvin Hall, Redfield; and Orval True, LeRoy. True organized and managed the event for the Lyon County Fair Board.

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