The Pocket Guide to Draft Pulls

What on earth is a dynamometer? Why are we calling those men over there “hookers”? WHY ARE THESE HORSES SO BIG? Answer all of your pulling questions here.

Top photo: A Belgian pulling team hooked to a dynamometer. Photo by Christine Cimala/Flickr Creative Commons

Draft pulls are fascinating, terrifying, awe-inspiring and impressive–the horses seem big enough to move the world. Here are your need-to-know facts:

How the pull works: Essentially, a draft pull is a contest to see who has the strongest team of pulling horses–teams typically compete in rounds following a draw order and weight is added at the end of each round. Contestants who fail to pull the load are considered out of the competition, but drivers–called “teamsters”–can also choose to pull their team if they feel the weight is more than they can handle or that their horses have had enough for the day. Teams are trying to achieve a full pull in each round–individual associations can set their own distance for what is considered a “full pull” and could be anywhere from 18′-26′. If no one team is able to perform a full pull on a weight, the winner is the team that has pulled the load the furthest.

What are they pulling? Teams are hitched (called “hooked”) to either a boat or a dynamometer. The boat is essentially a big flat-bottomed sled without runners which can be loaded with weight (usually in the form of concrete blocks.) Teams pull the boat back and forth on the pulling track. The boat usually starts out at about 1500 pounds, a weight that most teams are expected to pull. The dynamometer is a machine that adjusts the amount of weight resistance according to the strength of the team (if you’ve ever gone to a truck or tractor pull, you’ve likely seen a dynamometer in use.) A typical load at an average pull is in the neighborhood of 5000 pounds.

How many chances does a team get on a load? Teams can get two pulls (also called “draws”) per hook per load. For example, if a team initially pulls about 8 feet and then quits, the distance is reset and the team can try again as long as the horses are brought to a standstill before starting. If the team still does not pull a full draw, they are unhooked and the teamster has the option to come back again at the end of the round for his “third hook.” If the team cannot pull a full draw on their third hook they are considered out of the competition and their furthest draw on that weight is considered for their final placing.

What kinds of horses enter pulls? The most common horses to see in the pulling ring are Belgians, which are typically chestnut with flaxen manes and tails and occasionally roan as well. Percherons are less common but also seen in the United States.

Pulling teams are divided into weight classes (individual classifications may change at individual events.) Each pulling contest opens with a weigh-in session some hours before the contest is set to begin so teams can be classified–lightweights are generally under 3000 pounds of combined weight between both horses and heavyweights are over, but some competitions further break down into smaller classes.

These horses are shod with pulling caulks or studs that help them dig deep and grip the dirt of the runway. Generally, competitive pulling teams are not used for actual farm work, but trained and fed carefully to stay well-muscled and limber.

In addition to draft horses, contests are occasionally held for light horses, ponies and even miniatures (the latter are terrifyingly strong little balls of muscle and hair.)

Let’s watch a pull and break down what you’re seeing:

This team in Orangeville, Ontario, Canada, pull an astounding 18,000 pounds. The draw at this contest looks like it’s set pretty short, perhaps due to the length of the arena (or the immense amount of weight.)

At the beginning of the video, the tractor is just pulling away from the boat after adding more weight in the form of concrete blocks. Initially, at low weights early in a contest, teams take turns pulling the load back and forth across the track as long as space permits. When the loads increase in weight, however, the boat is reset at the end of the runway after each draw and teams will all pull in the same direction (this rule may change from location to location.) You know it’s going to be a good contest when the tractor starts having problems pulling the boat!

The team is then line-driven to the boat–at this stage in the contest, these big boys are getting pretty hot because they know they’re going to have to put their heart and soul into the load. Teamsters have arms the size of tree trunks from trying to hold these horses back. The teamster is aided by two evener men (also affectionately called “hookers”) who are responsible for carrying the evener bar (the metal bar that attached the horses to the load) and hooking to the boat. This teamster is working hard to try to back his horses to the boat, though it takes him several attempts for a successful hook with his anticipatory team.

As soon as the horses hear the sound of the evener in contact with the boat they are off and pulling. The teamster shouts encouragement to his team until the whistle blows, signaling a full pull. The crowd here does a great job of staying quiet until the whistle is blown–teams have been known to quit early when they hear the cheers of a crowd, thinking their draw is done.

But outside of the arena? The biggest, most intensely hot pulling teams go right back to the oldest of draft horse traditions, being “gentle giants.”

Pulling teams snoozing in the shade between rounds.

Pulling teams snoozing in the shade between rounds.

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