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Houston man in Horse Pulling Hall of Fame PDF Print
By Craig Moorhead
Special for the Argus

It’s haircut day. Nineteen year old draft horse Chester stands in the shade of a tree, steady and calm, a mountain of muscle. Leonard Tostenson, clippers in hand, steps up on a big block of wood, so as to reach the top of Chester’s head.

How big is Chester? “About 2,450 or 2,500 (pounds),” Leonard of rural Houston says. “There’s horses that weigh 2,700.” He looks at Chester’s massive frame. “He don’t (sic) weigh that now, but he weighed 2,600.”

Nearby, Pete watches with interest. He’s Chester’s team-mate, and they’ve already been through their workout for the day, held in the cool of the morning. Leonard looks over at Pete. “I raised the black horse,” he says. “He’s out of a spotted stud and a Belgian mare. He’s been pulling since he was four years old. He’s 13 now.”

Tostenson has just been inducted into the Wisconsin Horse Pullers Association Hall of Fame. All of the 62 previous hall of fame inductees were from Wisconsin.

“I never figured they’d let me in there because I’m from out of state. I started pulling over there.” Over there was Arcadia, Wis. and the year was 1958.

After the haircut, Leonard leads the horses over for a photo. “They’re like me,” he says, “they’re getting a little age on them.” He nods towards Chester, “I don’t pull him all the time,” he explains, I’ve got another younger horse.”

It’s been a tough year for all three competitors. “I haven’t done much pulling this year at all,” Tostenson notes. Both horses have had lame spells. He’s been sick as well, with Lyme. “This year I’ve only been to four contests,” he explains.

For those who have never seen a horse pull, here’s how it works. Two draft horses are harnessed together to form a team. They have trained long and hard together, and know how to work as a unit. They’re hitched to a heavy load called a sled. The team pulls the sled a set distance. Teams continue to pull heavier loads in each round, and those that can’t pull the distance are dropped. Eventually the weight becomes so heavy that none of the remaining teams can manage the full distance. At that point the length of pulls are measured, and the team that made the longest pull on the heaviest load is declared the winner.

Teams compete in three weight classes. Chester and Pete compete with the heavy weights, so they can weigh as much as Tostenson thinks they should. That’s one reason Leonard gets up early on summer days. “These big horses, you don’t want to sweat them,” he explains. That would drop their weight.

“I work ‘em an hour and a half a day,” he says. “I’ve got so many rounds that I make on a sled that I start out with 2,500 pounds. I make four or five rounds. Then I’ve got a load of about 8,000 pounds that I make one round with. You don’t just go with that. You rest ‘em, and go again, rest ‘em, and go again. Like lifting weights. Just like a man lifting weights.”

In 1976 Tostenson set a Wisconsin record for the most weight pulled with a light team (2,800 pound weight class) which still stands. “They quit that class,” he says with a smile, “otherwise they would have broke it by now… probably.”

Leonard has always had draft horses. “I’ve been a logger all my life,” he says. “I used to use ‘em in the woods, skidding logs and farming with them.” He’s bred draft horses on his farm for many years. “I’ve always tried to raise my own horses,” he says. “I had a hundred head of horses here at one time.”

Along with Lowell Clark of New Mexico, Tostenson developed a breed of draft horse that is now popular. “I always liked the spotted horses. I started with a Percheron mare and bred it to a Morocco stud (a heavy breed of saddle horse) and got a spotted colt,” he explains. “That was the first North American Spotted Draft.”

With his love for horses, getting into competitive pulling came naturally to Tostenson. “It’s just something that I liked, he says. “The competition, and the horses…I enjoy watching a good horse pull. It’s just like watching a game. I don’t really go for ballgames, but if the Vikings are playing I like to watch them… there are people that won’t miss the games, and that’s the way I am with the horse pull. I like to see a good horse work.”

Tostenson said that people should appreciate what work horses have done for humans. “They don’t realize what these old horses have done for the world. Before it all got to be engines and tractors, which is not that long ago. I’m not that old, and I can remember when we planted all the corn with horses…we paid for the farm (using horses). I could still farm with horses but I’m too old for that now.”

Leonard tells how he took Pete and Chester to Cashton to be shod recently. The Amish gentleman who did the shoeing had set his family to work making hay with horses. Tostenson watched the big horses work, and told the blacksmith, “You don’t need two or three hundred thousand dollars worth of machinery to fill that silo, do you?” The man looked up from his work with a grin. “No” was all he said.

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