Shire horses Jay and Duke weigh more than a ton each and their hooves are the size of dinner plates.
Their faces are longer than a tall man’s torso and their muscle mass makes a moose look scrawny. Suffice it to say, Glen Kerr’s draft horse team are not called heavy horses for nothing.
Along with his wife Dolores and neighbour Anika Gattiker, Kerr is one of the organizers of the 10th Annual Heavy Horse Pull in Smithers on May 24. About 10 teams of heavy horses will converge this weekend for the annual test of horsepower.
Draft horses in competitions can pull more than four tons at the command of their driver, who uses their voice to signal the horses to throw their weight into the harness and pull.
In addition to size, Kerr said there were key attributes the horses needed to succeed.
“You want something that’s got some power in the back end,” he said.
“Good feet, that’s really important in a draft horse, same as any other horse as that goes, even saddle horses, if you’ve got no feet you don’t have a horse. Good disposition, good overall conformation.”
Draft horse teams were still used for logging in B.C. until the early 2000s, when Kerr says the last horse-logging contracts were handed over to contractors using faster, mechanized systems.
Kerr worked for 16 years as a horse-logger.
He said a working life was the best way to prepare a team for competition.
His most successful team, a pair of Belgian draft horses named Sabre and Guy, worked seven hours a day, five days a week for eight to nine months every year.
Although Kerr said it was difficult to develop the same level of strength in horses like Jay and Duke, whose training was simulated, they were still able to build an enormous amount of strength.
“A good, well-seasoned pulling team can pull over 11,000 pounds … Here they’ll pull eight or nine thousand.”
Horse pull teams consist of a driver and a hooker. The horses enter the arena to compete wearing only their harnesses until the hooker attaches a “boat” carrying shingles.
Once attached they must pull the load 14 feet to complete that round. A formula is used to determine how much the horses pulled above their own weight.
The moments before a pull can be suspenseful. A little too much weight on one rein or a little soon with his voice and Kerr can give the horses the wrong signal.
“You’ve just got to block everything off when you go to the boat, the noise, it’s like any sport,” he said.
He said the Smithers event was a spectacle to see the animals, which played such an important role in Canada’s heritage, show their strength.
“It’s a thing of the past really, it’s part of history,” he said.
“Horses built these countries, Australia and Canada, they built the railroads. It’s nice to preserve the history.”
Gattiker said she had always loved heavy horses. She became involved with the annual horse pull through Glen and Dolores.
“I’ve always loved heavy horses and I enjoy helping Glen and Dolores organize the horse pull,” she said.
“I have been fortunate to learn a lot of the driving involved with the heavy horses through Glen.”
Gattiker has her own draft horses and has also driven Kerr’s horses in a pull event. She said the appeal of the sport spanned generations, particularly in Smithers where it was part of the region’s history.
“There are also young people who enjoy it but it seems that it’s definitely more the older generation because it probably brings memories of farming with horses,” she said.
“And then of course there’s all the people who just love seeing the big horses because they are just so awesome.”