Watching giant-sized draft horses pull weighted sleds is always a popular event at fairs, but pony pulling is just as thrilling – partly because the teams are pulling nearly four times their own weight.
Clint Jenny, of Rochester, PA, has been involved with pulling ponies for more than 10 years. “My dad did it for a long time,” he said, explaining how he became interested in the competition. “Then my brother and I got interested in it when I was about 12.”
For the pony pulling contest at the 100th Pennsylvania Farm Show, Jenny brought two teams: Duke and Diesel, a pair of geldings that qualify for the lightweight division with a combined weight limit of under 1,500 pounds; and Pat and Pete, a pair of Haflinger cross geldings that qualify as middleweights at under 1,800 pounds.
During the competition, each team has three attempts to make a full pull – a distance of 13.5 feet. Each successful attempt means advancing to the next round, with more weight added to the sled for that round.
How do ponies learn to pull? “We work with them at home, and if they want to pull, they’ll pull,” said Jenny. “There isn’t much you can do to convince them to pull if they don’t want to.” Jenny added with good training, a team will respond quickly once they are hitched to the sled. Although he can switch out ponies and create different teams, Jenny prefers to keep good pairs together as teams.
Training begins with groundwork and learning voice commands. “I have some that I’m just now training to lead,” said Jenny. “Then we put the harness and bridle on them. They don’t pull anything until they’re about two, and even then we don’t do anything with weight. The earliest we start them pulling weight is when they’re about four years old. They usually hit their prime at about eight or nine years old.”
Jenny explains part of keeping a pulling team ready for competition is making sure they stay fit. Although some ponies stay fit because they’re used for farming or logging, Jenny’s ponies are just for pulling. “We keep them in shape at home,” he said. “If you let them get fat and sloppy, they won’t want to pull.”
Each of the two teams Jenny brought for the competition won their weight division. His middleweight pair pulled a load of 6,300 pounds and the lightweight pair pulled 5,400 pounds. In addition to training ponies for pulling, Jenny and his dad Dean raise pigs, cattle and small grains on their farm.
Dean and some friends came along to help prepare the ponies for pulling, including daily grooming, feeding and caring for them after the pull. They also fielded questions from the many visitors who followed the ponies back to the stabling area after the pull was over.
Although Jenny’s teams stood quietly between pulls, it was easy to see that they knew when it was time to work, and were ready to move the instant they were hitched. “We like to keep them well-mannered,” said Jenny. “It makes life a lot easier.”