Draft Horse Pull in Illinois

It’s summer in the Midwest: go forth and find yourself a draft horse pull. At least that’s what we did when I was in Iowa a week ago. The Western Illinois Theshers tractor show was being held, and beyond a truly impressive array of tractor paraphelnia I knew nothing whatsoever about, there was also a draft horse pull.

A draft horse pull is a sport wherein a team of two very, very big horses and their owners compete to see who can pull the most weight. This sounds insanely boring, but it is actually not, especially when you realize that these horses can top 2,000 pounds each and are so uncomfortably enormous that you might conclude they belong in the zoo. Also, if the Giant Muscle Horses did decide to go on a rampage in the stands, it would be remarkably close to witnessing a rhinoceros attack in the flesh, and that gets everybody’s blood pumping. Go to a draft horse pull sometime.

According to Horsepull.com (which sells all-natural horse body building substances on its front page, in case you were in the market), the rules are somewhat more complex than you might expect, and there’s different weight classes for teams of horses that weigh over and above 3,200 pounds. There’s also quite a bit of prize money involved in certain horse pulls. In case you were looking for a lucrative side-job involving convincing really big horses to pull weight for you in a rural area. Which actually sounds way more appealing than call-center temp work.

The National Anthem started off the pull, because we aren’t savages at this draft horse pull affair. The announcer could sing quite well. Lest you deride him for reading the words off a piece of paper, I am entirely certain I couldn’t recite more than a couple of lines of the Star Spangled Banner if you held a loaded pistol to my head. Something about cannon’s red glare and bursting things, which in that context sounds sort of dirty.

This tractor is why draft horses aren’t often kept on farms anymore. It’s being used to haul the “sled” where the weight for the horses is piled up. This is a very, very big tractor. If you’re looking for more detail on this tractor, you are shit out of luck. It’s the kind of thing you could probably subjugate a small, depressed European principality with if you were in a mean sort of mood, though. Which people in Western Illinois and Iowa quite rarely are. (I make no promises for Missouri – they might be in the mood for a subjugation. Watch your ass, Luxembourg).

The “sled,” which you see above, is weighted with blocks – I believe they begun at 1,000 pounds, but I could be very wrong. Weight is added to the sled in increments, and when a horse can’t pull the weight after two tries, the team is cut from the competition. The last team standing takes the prize and a large, shiny trophy. And the pride and renown of Western Illinois, or at least the people who showed up.

Here the horses are hitched to the sled, before they’re given the OK to pull. There’s usually a false start or two, as controlling a couple of extremely excited 1000-plus pound animals when you’re merely a (usually older, slightly podgy) human is a difficult task. The draft horse owners often “surf” behind their horses to the sled when approaching from the waiting area, which looks like a lot of fun in a terrifying way, considering those animal’s hooves are like 4 times larger then my face. I like my face where it is.

Before you begin casting aspersions of animal cruelty, it certainly didn’t seem that way to me as I watched the event. These horses have been bred for size, power, and awe-inspiring pulling ability, and they certainly seemed quite eager to go up and move around some cinder blocks on a metal sled.

The whole affair is probably way more interesting for the horses than, say,  living their lives flicking their tails in a small pasture somewhere, although I admit that I am also not super well-acquainted with the profound emotional needs of horses. (Nor am I entirely sure that they have them).

This is Jack and Satan. The announcer hastened to tell us that the owner, a particularly solid 83-year-old, had not named them himself.

A local told me that there’s something of a seedy underbelly to draft horse racing, involving steroids and injections of pure adrenaline in the ass to make the horses REALLY WANT TO GO.

Which is probably perfectly believable, considering how pervasive this stuff is in every other physical endeavor on the planet in our era. You were paying attention to the Olympics, right? Horse doping, human doping, doping your mom, it’s all the same thing.

I’d certainly like to believe this draft horse pull is simply a touching, folksy look back at our not-so-distant farming past. Certainly it seemed that way.


The tack that’s used for these horses is very impressive. Also, huge.


See, this is way more exciting than watching golf. Everything is more exciting than watching golf. They should introduce a deathmatch element to golf, than maybe I’d watch it.


Jack and Satan, approaching in this photo, eventually won. It was a misty morning and sticky, and it rained like hell that afternoon. A pleasing development in drought-stricken Iowa, where the corn is crackling and brown. I was told it’s the worst drought year many folks can remember since the Dust Bowl.

A slice of Midwestern life, here. Mostly older folks. Iowa has a brain drain problem, but it’s easing up a bit as things get harder elsewhere in the USA and people realize that the simplicity (and low prices) of Midwestern life isn’t half bad. Certainly scenes like this draft horse pull could have come from 30 or 40 years ago, barring some small differences.


The other aspect of Threshers is a tractor-get-together, where farmers and tractor enthusiasts from all over bring their machines together. As I know exactly nothing about tractors, I mostly took photos, but it seems that tractor enthusiasts are a very serious lot. Antique tractors have as many fans as antique cars (there were some of those here, too, but a lot less).


A 1940 Farmall tractor. I sort of wish tractor enthusiasts painted their rides in, say, leopard print and rainbow colors. Or maybe attached hydraulic systems and spoilers. Not so much, but many modern tractor varieties do have impressive sound and video systems – the GPS is usually used for planting, though. Not really a great option for long road trips.

(I have heard that people will occasionally take their riding mower to the supermarket in Keokuk, but I haven’t seen this magical occurrence with my own eyes…..yet).

My Iowan boyfriend bought John Deere stock at the ripe age of 8, under the logic that people aren’t going to stop needing tractors anytime soon. He was right.

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