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"Pull of Champions" draws horse pulling enthusiasts from all over the country

Spring Horse Pull

SYRACUSE — For 27-year-old Sherrie Hartwell from Utica, horse pulling isn't just a hobby—it's a time-honored tradition. Hartwell has been pulling for 10 years, and "worked horses" the same day she went into labor. When her son was only nine days old, she took him to his first pull.

"We're going to get him a pair of (mini horses) when he can walk," she said. At the New York State Horse Pullers Association's annual spring pull Saturday, she decked out her now 7-month-old son in a horse-themed hat, shirt and shoes.

This "Pull of Champions," held at the N.Y. State Fairgrounds' Toyota Coliseum, drew an early crowd of people to the lightweight competition from as far away as Michigan, New Hampshire and Indiana.

Horse pulling is exactly what it sounds like: Draft horses are hooked up in pairs to a dynamometer—a large machine specifically built to measure their maximum pulling power—and scored on how far they can pull it, right down to the inch. The sport originated on farms at the beginning of the 20th century and still enjoys a loyal following today, explained the association's secretary Melody Dodge, 58.

Pulling enthusiasts wore baseball caps and cracked open Bud Lights in the arena, leaning forward to cheer as the horses strained to pull increasingly heavier loads of several thousand pounds. Most attendees placed bets on how each of the five teams would place.

"For someone to win the championship, it's like a NASCAR driver winning the Daytona (500)," said Charles Blanchard, a 42-year-old farrier from Franconia, N.H. "You put a lot of time into it, and a lot of money."

Within the horse pulling community, which often comprises several generations of families, "everybody knows everybody," said Dodge.

She discovered the strength of this network last year when she was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently found her barn on fire: Horse pullers rebuilt the barn, brought over food and donated anything she needed.

"They're good people," she said. "They compete, but if you notice, they're all helping each other."

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