There’s horsepower and then there’s horse power.
On the final day of the North American Belgian Championships, a small crowd at the main arena of Brandon’s Keystone Centre witnessed a stunning display of men and heavy drafts testing the outer limits of muscle, bone and blood.
In the end, it was a combination of youth, discipline and “heart” that sent Jessie and Sam, a team of Belgian geldings tipping the scales at 5,380 pounds, home with the top prize in the heavyweight pulling competition.
With the slow, deliberate steps of plow horses in the furrow, the massive team owned by Dennis Weinberger of Cochrane, Alta., circled around to the sled piled high with 11,500 pounds of asphalt shingles, stood still as the heavy steel doubletree was hooked in, and then heaved it forward the full 14 feet.
On the lines was Scott Fisher, Weinberger’s longtime pulling partner and a third-generation teamster from Michigan. Post-match beads of sweat shone on his forehead as he explained that every time this team hitches up, records fall.
Their first competition in Pennsylvania last year saw them break a world record, and the second saw them set a Calgary Stampede record with a 13,400-lb. pull.
“If there had been another round, they could have set a record here today,” said Fisher. “And they’re only six and seven years old.”
Calgarian Nicholas Pouso drove Big Roy and Bob, a team of Belgians owned by Soderglen Ranches in Airdrie, Alta. Despite impressive grunts emanating from Bob, and Pouso’s whispered commands to Roy to “get up,” the 5,150-lb. team ended up in second place with a 76-inch pull on the same 11,500-lb. sled.
“They didn’t want to pull nothing!” complained the teamster originally from Uruguay, as he congratulated Fisher on his victory.
Apart from genetics granting them enormous power, daily workouts with the stoneboat and firm discipline are the keys to developing a championship pulling team, said Fisher. To maintain control over the Belgian giants in training and in the pulling ring, he uses bits of varying degrees of severity and switches as needed.
Soderglen Ranches trainer Kevin McGlashan, whose job was holding their bits at rest between pulls, said Big Roy and Bob “love to pull.”
“When you start harnessing them, they just vibrate. They know they’re going to work. In the arena, it’s all you can do to hold them,” he said.
All that horsepower needs fuel. During competitions, they get nine pounds of grain twice a day and half a small square bale of hay. In the winter off season, Soderglen’s six pulling geldings chomp through two round bales of hay every three days.
Training involves pulling a stoneboat three to four miles a day with a stop-and-go routine aimed at building cardiovascular strength.
The difference between the show horses and the pullers is like comparing professional basketball players to heavyweight boxers. Instead of the platform shoes worn by the high-stepping show ring performers, the pullers sport no-nonsense cleats made of heavy plate steel, he said.
Real “horsepower” shows an interesting dynamic, added McGlashan. Horses in the heavyweight class, defined as a combined weight of 3,501 lbs. and over, can generally pull twice their own weight on a dirt sled.
“But the lightweights pull three times their weight,” he said. “They’re 3,000 lbs. for a team, and they’ll pull 9,000 lbs.”