A little research would have told me what was in store, but I savoured the prospect of first hand discovery and was not disappointed.
The sign outside the Queens County Fairground announced simply ‘Horse Pull’, which to the uninitiated like me, meant very little. It almost certainly had something to do with horses, either pulling something or being pulled. One flight of fancy took me to a strongman competition in which a man tries to pull an unwilling horse, perhaps to water.
The pulling arena is in a huge barn with tiered bench seating 5 or 6 rows deep along each of the long sides. As I took my place there was an expectant buzz among the hundred or so spectators. Snatches of conversation were of weights of horses, previous performances, old and new talent. These were knowledgeable folk.
The announcers occupied a little illuminated booth beside a large stack of concrete slabs with a hefty tractor and fork-lift next to them. Parked in the middle of the arena was a kind of sledge placed between two lines marking the track.
The first pair of horses were brought in, harnessed together and dragging chains and the shackle that would be attached to the sledge. They came with a driver and two helpers. Carefully they were backed into place and hooked up to the sledge, the driver manoeuvring them while the helpers hooked them up and kept the chains out from under their feet. A mark was made in the dirt where the back of the sledge stood, then the driver was free to get the horses to pull the sledge a minimum distance of 3ft in one pull. A driver is allowed 3 tries to make the distance with a starting weight of around 1500lbs to be pulled. After a success the weight is steadily increased until the horses fail to move the sledge the required distance. With an allowance according to the combined weight of the horses, the winning team was the one that pulled the heaviest weight that vital 36 inches. Simple.
At first sight to a liberal-minded Englishman, this appeared to be no more than a circus act, cruel to the horses and dangerous for all involved. I shifted uneasily on my bench. Where was the safety officer (or the safety net)? Youngsters close to moving machinery? No helmets or high-viz jackets? No vet in attendance?*
Slowly the unease wore off, as successive teams did their stuff, the fork-lift loaded and unloaded the concrete blocks, the crowd cheered and applauded their favourites as much as every other competitor. There were boys and girls, men and women involved in every role, their families supporting their every move. The horses were driven with great skill and understanding. More than once when a team failed to pull 36 inches at the first attempt, the driver withdrew, knowing well when his team had reached their limit.
One team in particular caught my attention: between pulls, as extra weights were loaded on the sledge, the driver kept the tension on the chains so that when the horses threw their strength forward they would not hit the load after half a stride, instead they would take it on right from the start, as a tug-of-war team are required to ‘take the strain’ before the pull begins. All the control was by words and deft use of the reigns, keeping the horses still and calm ready for the pull. This was horsemanship to equal any dressage or show-jumper.
So the mystery of ‘Horse Pull’ was yet another Nova Scotia eye-opener, another surprise in what has become a saga of surprises in that province. And it took me into the company of people who live a very different life to many I’ve come to know and call friends, and I’m the richer for meeting them.
Next time I’m going to try something different again – an Ox Pull. I wonder what that could possibly involve?
*Please note there was a vet in attendance, as I found out later. And there are strict codes of personal conduct as well as treatement of the horses. But no high-viz jackets or orange safety helmets.