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Horse Power


Saturday, September 11, 1998, Raber Township, Michigan - Welcome to the Stalwart Fair, "Michigan's Biggest Little Fair, since 1911," where the only thrill ride you'll find is behind teams of Belgian horses, and the heavy competition is around four sets of horseshoe pits. Enter your prized pumpkin or pie here for a quarter and maybe win a blue ribbon. Life is good here, just take it easy.

Joe Harrison is getting ready to compete in the Heavyweight Horse Pull competition - the original tractor pull. This event gets as exciting as a double-ringer and twice as dusty.

Belgian horses have a long tradition around here, working hard in the lumber industry as well as in farming. Many horses from nearby Mackinac Island (a popular, historic island with no motor vehicles) spend the winter here.

Harrison and his wife, Rene, keep a home for mentally disabled people and he owns two horses, Doc and Bud, strictly for a hobby. "The first time I pulled horses, I was fourteen," he says. "I've been hooked ever since." He trains them well and has so far won fourteen of his last sixteen pulls and placed second in the other two. He is favored to win today.

Not that there is betting going on here, at least not officially. "They have a Polish fair up here that is a lot of fun," Rene says. "The food is wonderful, the beer is free and you can bet on horse teams - It all goes to charity - it's a great time."

Harrison bridles his horses and rigs the "evener" a steel yoke the horses pull behind them with a hook in the center, which will attach to the "boat" filled with weights. Doc weighs 2,310 pounds and Bud weighs 2,440. I place Joe at about 170 soaking wet.

There are sixteen teams competing today. The "horse pullers" have drawn numbers for their order and Harrison is twelfth. The competition is simple. Each team will try to pull the boat 27 feet with a mere 4,000 pounds of concrete loaded on it. When they all do this, another 1,000 pounds will be added for another round...

The boatload of concrete-filled barrels.
Could you pull this for 27 feet?


The event official first offers a trial pull as a warm-up, but most of the pullers pass. "If they're not ready now, they never will be, Joe's father, Everett, says.

The first round goes quickly, with each team dragging the boat - about the weight of a pickup truck - right across the limestone track. These guys even make this look easy. The track, or "tug line" is eighteen feet wide, marked by ropes pinned to the ground, and the team must stay inside the tug line. After each round a man with a tractor loads another barrel on the boat.

Several rounds later, the boat is now loaded like the minivan of a family of five on vacation, and teams are starting to drop out trying to pull the 7,000 pounds. It can be tricky, as the track is getting pretty dug up; the surface is like a sandbox and the boat is very hard to pull. Joe Harrison's team is still in there.


Bud and Doc pull Joe Harrison "out of the hole" with 7,000 pounds of concrete.

Two "hitchers," holding the evener, flank the puller as he takes a seat on the boat. They drop the hook onto the boat and the puller hollars something tough and the horses take off. If this isn't done just right, the horses may take off anyway, or they'll jump one at a time. The entire team will then walk around the boat and try again. They have only three attempts in each round before they are out of the competition.

Nine teams, including Doc, Bud and Joe Harrison, pull the 7,000 pound boat, so another 1,000 pound barrel is added. At 8,000 pounds, two more teams drop out and the competition is getting tough. Harrison is still in.

The audience is very quiet. The official warns people not to shout during the pulls, because too many words in the English language sound like "whoa!" By this round, people are applauding and cheering after each pull. Girls walk the stands, selling raffle tickets for a Purple Princess Beanie Baby.

The tractor loads only 500 pounds this time, and the boat weighs 8,500 pounds. This will be like putting forty-two, 200 pound men on a sled and pulling them down the beach.

Three teams remain; Larry Reed, from Bear Lake, Michigan, Randy Hall, from Pickford, Michigan, and Joe Harrison. Reed takes to the tugline first and has trouble lining up his horses. He has to circle the boat once, and on his second attempt he can only move the boat one foot. He will wait for the other two finalists to try before he gives his third attempt.

Randy Hall is second and he moves the boat on his first try, but only one foot, ten inches. His second attempt fails and he heads for the paddock with Reed. They still have one more chance.

Third up is Joe Harrison. Doc and Bud approach the boat. Harrison has a quick, well-timed style. Where other pullers will get into position and stop before pulling, Harrison prefers to approach the boat, get his team in front of it, drop the hook and take off all in one motion. This keeps the momentum up, but it is very difficult.

The timing is off and Harrison fails his first attempt. He yells to the horses; "Bud! Doc!" trying to get them in sync, but he can't. He gives a nod to his hitchers and they pull up the evener and the whole team takes a lap around the boat.

As they approach the boat, Harrison is deep in concentration. With the horses in position, the hitchers drop the hook and he jumps on the boat. Doc and Bud dig in together and pull. "C'mon! Get me up!" Harrison yells, and they do. Twenty-seven feet later, Doc and Bud have all but cinched this competition.

In their third attempts, Larry Reed pulls the boat only seven inches, and Randy Hall pulls it one foot, eight inches. Joe Harrison, with his team of Belgian horses wins his fifteenth Heavyweight Horse Pull out of seventeen. Harrison brings his team to the center of the tugline and recieves a winner's purse of $400. An official gives his son, Cote, the first place trophy.

This was not the hardest pull Bud and Doc have won; the most they have ever pulled is 14,000 pounds, nearly three times their combined weight.
As the teams clear the ring, the official announces the winner of the Beanie Baby raffle, which brought in $325. Over the sound of horses stomping and the P.A. sputtering, you can hear horseshoes clanking against the spikes. Life is good here.

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