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Today it is difficult to fathom outside of a rare few draft horse pulling competitions just how strong these animals really are and how much they can carry - unless you are of course one of the lucky few to have seen horses pull your car, tractor, or even semi out of a ditch or snowbank. Just how strong are horses? How much weight can they carry? An answer that varies greatly by breed and circumstances, it is something we can all learn a little bit more about before hopping on the back of your boss's Shetland pony.
200 years ago if you had a fast saddle horse, you would race it against your neighbours and friends' to see whose was the speediest. The same occurred frequently among farmers and their draft horses. Whose could pull the most weight and how far could they pull it? These competitions spurred big egos, small bets, many quarrels and life-long bragging rights between their owners. What they also directly did was highlight the strongest, finest breeding stock and encouraged better breeding selection of draft horses such as the Percheron, Belgium, Shire and Suffolk Punch on a local and nationwide scale.
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Each year heavyweights line up from across North America to compete in one of the most famous horse pulling competitions in the world, the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede's Heavy Horse Pull. The Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, held in Canada's heartland every July is a perfect mix of equine events, livestock competitions and western tradition. But what could be more historically preserving than a draft horse pulling competition? Besides this, a rodeo, tractor pulling contests, working dog classes, breed classes for sheep, cattle and horses, cutting competitions, and even a livestock auctioneer competition ("canIgeta100...Sooold!") fill a large agricultural fairground with both thousands of exhibitors and spectators for ten days; preserving the hard-working agricultural history that developed Calgary and the North American continent we know and love today.
In Calgary, three different weight groups are designed- heavy, medium and light divisions, with pulling weight as much as five and a half times the weight of the horse! The fastest team to pull the most weight over the longest distance is declared the winner of their weight division. Besides being part of one of the most well loved equine events in North America, the Stampede's Heave Horse Pull contest offers the continent's largest prize purses for the most powerful pullers. How much do you think Big Jake, the world's tallest horse can pull?
In 2016 the winning heavy weight team, “Doc” and “Mark” with teamster (handler) Ron Sebastian began by pulling 6,000 pounds, a standard starting weight for all heavyweight teams. 8 rounds later, increasing the pulling weight by 1,000 pounds each round, Doc and Mark would win the heavyweight division by pulling 12,000 pounds just over 100 inches! Before the class began, each horse is weighed. Doc topped the scales at 2,291 pounds and Mark came in at a staggering 2,415 pounds. During the winning round, each horse pulled at least 2.7 times their weight if dividing the 12,000 pounds by 2, nothing short of the intensity seen with heavyweight lifters in the Olympics!
The device they use in all pulling competitions in North America is called an equine pulling dynamometer. If you are familiar to the machine tool, engine or a motor industry of some sort, you may have already heard of a dynamometer but in case you have not heard of this tongue-twisting term, it is a device which measures the power output of something.
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A horse pulling dynamometeter was created using a small flatbed truck and a variety of weights, vertical guides and an oil pump to divide the pulling weight and resistance evenly and gradually as the horse pulls. An agricultural professor for the Iowa State College in the 1920s invented the device to help improve and understand better the abilities of draft teams as vital plow horses both before and during the great depression. This device also helped the tension among competing teamsters low, before the dynamometer, arguments frequently broke out at pulling competitions over the pulling sleds or stones used and the ease some teams had in different footing conditions.
With this device, a set record of calculations were preserved across the country concerning how much a team of draft horses could pull and better breeding operations as well as harness designs were a result of the statistics. In 1924 the American draft horse pulling record was just 3,100 pounds. In 2012, a team of Belgians from Alberta, Canada pulled a record breaking 13,400 pounds!
Belgians have unanimously been considered the strongest breed in the world as teams of Belgians have been competing and winning pulling contests for hundreds of years. One scientific proposal as to why Belgians are the elite heavyweight champions suggests that the dense, wet farmland of their native land, the Belgium and Holland region demanded extremely strong work horses. As a result, Belgian's grew strong skeletal and muscular systems quickly; at 18 months Belgians could begin light farm work. That being said, Belgians, like all draft breeds, particularly draft crosses make the best large riding horse breeds for heavy riders or carts.
But what about saddle horses and ponies? How much can they carry? And how much can a donkey carry?
Researchers who wrote the US Calvary Manuals of Horse Management in 1920 agree with the veterinarians and scientists today. They all shake their heads in agreement that 20% of the horses total weight is an ideal maximum weight for them to carry. Yes, they're capable of carrying more than the standard 20% horse to rider weight ratio, but quickly muscle fatigue and stress occurs when they carry for any amount of time a weight over 25% of their body weight. This weight restriction for horseback riding also stands for mules, donkeys and ponies. For example, a small 900 pound horse can comfortably carry 180 pounds but a 1500 pounder can carry 300 pounds easily. Particularly young horses, pushed too fast through training or pressured by carrying or pulling too much weight, such as a heavy rider, can result in long term back problems.
This scientific idea is important in many equine situations. Families consider this calculation as a child outgrows their first pony, trail guides match clients to proportional mounts, responsible horse buyers as they search for their ideal horse and traditional farmers determine how many horses are needed to plow through thick, muddy or clay fields.
Most commonly this idea is seen in the racing industry and are called handicaps. Although the weight of the jockey may be well under 20 percent of the total horse's weight, the idea is that the more weight the race horse has, the speed at which they can gallop is affected and hindered. It is no surprise that children have been historically the some of the best, lightest jockeys; today barely-teenage boys still continue to race the famous Mongol Derby or Naadam races. The more experienced, or horse and jockey most likely to win is padded down with extra weight, making the race more equal among components. One too many times a strong duo wiped the racetrack clean with winnings and soured the atmosphere for waging bets among racetrack goers, a big turn off to race organizers, so the use of handicaps became widespread in horse racing in the 18th century.
Pony pulling contests have also shown the enormous strength that can come out of the miniature equines. On average, the contests prove that the pony teams can pull over three times their body weight. Pit ponies, or ponies used underground in mining operations from the mid 1700s to the mid 1900s are have said to pull over 30 tons of coal each workday. Most pit ponies were Shetlands due to their small yet robust stature; the weight of a Shetland pony is on average only 450 pounds! Today a variety of pony breeds and miniature horses compete in Pony pulling contests at fairs throughout the United States and Canada.
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The 18th and early 19th centuries were a time period exploding with scientific exploration, expansion and invention. Included was the creation of the first steam engine, a device that over the next century would wipe out the demand for work horses. Like so many of our modern units of measurement like hand or foot, horsepower started as jargon in a physics equation but sticks with us to this day. Coined by Scottish engineer and inventor, James Watt, he compared how fast his steam engines could produce energy compared to an average work horse. Could his engine outwork the strongest draft? He thought that it could, and it did. Horses could no longer rotate mill wheels for breweries as fast as a steam engine, or later on, plow a field. Horsepower continues to be the imperial unit of determining engine power to this day largely in part due to his extensive calculations and experiments. The 2017 Ford Mustang has a 330 HP engine; the first automobile produced by Henry ford used only a 4 HP engine!
“Look back at our struggle for freedom,
Trace our present day's strength to it's source;
And you'll find that man's pathway to glory
Is strewn with the bones of the horse.”
- Author Unknown
History books could not be written without mentioning how great the impact horses had both in warfare and urban development since their domestication over 5,000 years ago. It would take volumes of books to record every instance where they charged into battle, carrying either a skilled cavalry soldier, pulling equipment or lugging ammunition. It would take equally another lifetime to record just how many loads of brick they had carried to pave the early streets of our modern world or loads of logs pulled out of dense forests to build our ancestors' homes. Noted in 1690, for the Battle of Boyne in Ireland, it took 16 horses to pull one of 40 cannons for King William. Many of the horses used were early descendents of the Belgian and Shire drafts we know today. Before cavalry warfare, they pulled chariots or carts into battle. As they developed as a domesticated animal, they were bred bigger and stronger, allowing empires such as the Greek to use them as mounted warriors; a large advantage to dueling soldiers on foot. It is said that when large, heavily armored horses advanced on rival clans in England, horseless fighters on the ground retreated instead of battling the four-footed humans.
Outside war scenarios, carriage horses had to pull a minimum of 800 pounds before passengers are calculated into the equation, normally working in teams of two, four or six per carriage. Imagine a whole family traveling by carriage, even without luggage it is a heavy load to carry. Mill horses, or others that helped rotate a mill to grind everything from olives to grains in usually teams of two or four and walked all day long around a circular mill wheel until the mid 1800s when they were replaced by motorized machinery. Also, before tractors, a team of Belgians were responsible among racetracks to safely move the starting gate on and off the track. The list goes on and on of things horses, of all shapes and sizes have carried, pulled and even pushed for us throughout history.