COLUMBIA — Bob Rucker leans along with his horses, trying to encourage them to pull the red metal sled stacked with cinderblocks to a first-place finish. Dan and Pete comply with their owner’s wishes, digging their hooves into the dirt and dragging the sled to victory.
Rucker, from Eolia, owns the team, but his son-in-law Ted Wilkinson drove the sled for him because Rucker’s back injury started to flare up earlier in the pull. So, Rucker assumed a spot alongside the horses in the dirt.
Cancer can't stop Charlie Kane. He has battled the disease, fighting back to compete in the thing he loves most, competing in horse pulls.
“It’s hard to give up. Your adrenaline gets a runnin’,” Kane said.
Charlie Kane and his wife, Angie Kane, are from Clarence. They made up two of the nine teams competing in the Boone County Fair's farm team horse pull on Monday.
After detection, doctors removed the cancerous spot from Charlie’s left arm and administered 35 treatments of radiation. Two weeks ago, Charlie Kane was notified that his cancer was in remission.
“The doctor asked him what keeps him alive and he said, ‘I gotta tell you its not my wife, it’s my four legged ladies at home,'” Angie Kane said.
Charlie Kane’s two ladies, Lacy and Tracy, are two black Percheron draft horses. Harnessed together, the two weigh 3,300 pounds.
Cancer struck back at Charlie Kane on Sunday. A phone call from Illinois informed him that his son had been diagnosed with cancer of the liver, lungs and colon.
After receiving the news, Kane said he almost decided not to compete in Monday's event. But, he changed his mind and dedicated the pull to his son.
Lacy and Tracy tower over the thin man as he sits in a folding chair inside the arena, waiting his turn to pull. Other owners walk around the arena, leaving their teams tethered to the arena’s fence. Charlie Kane prefers to sit next to his team and holds the reigns in his hand. The rope shows plenty of slack, but the horses stand still.
When it is his turn, he guides the horses to the sled, comforting them with encouraging words.
“Easy girls. You can do it,” Charlie Kane told his team as they hooked onto the sled for their final pull. The horses failed to drag the 11,200 pound the full 20 feet, but the effort resulted in a fourth-place finish.
A brief round of applause rose in the arena, just one sign of support the Kanes have received from their friends.
The horse pulling community has rallied around the Kanes in their time of need. Their friends provided a benefit event, helped with the horses and called to check in.
Charlie Kane compares the friends he has made in horse pulling to an extended family. His wife agrees.
“I couldn’t say I could have had a better group of friends or family,” Angie Kane said.
— Ben Frederickson
Nine teams competed in the Boone County Fair's farm team horse pull Monday. Rucker entered three teams into the event, but his combination of Dan and Pete pulled their way to their second consecutive first-place finish. The team also won the event last year.
The actual pull is an explosion of power centered between two moments of calm. The team of two horses stands still for the most part as they are hooked to the sled. The handler touches the seat for barely a moment before giving the command to start. Instantly the horses lunge forward, leaning into their collars as their legs pump like pistons. Dirt flies behind them, often landing on the driver’s shirt. The person on the sled is along for the ride, gripping the reigns with straight arms. The most important part, however, is in the hands.
"It’s all in the hands. You see, that’s the only control you got, is that pair of lines and the bit in their mouth,” Sam Murrey, from Honeywell said.
Each team gets three chances to pull the weight 20 feet. Two yellow ropes are spaced out 15 feet apart on the soft, raked dirt. The team is required to stay inside the ropes. Stepping outside equals a canceled run.
“You won’t see that happen until the sled gets really, really heavy,” Murrey said.
After each successful run, weight is added to the sled. The weight is calculated in cinderblocks. Each team receives a weight proportionate to the weight of the horses. Dan and Pete, who together weigh 3,650 pounds, successfully pulled 12,150 pounds on their winning run, dragging the sled less within less than 2 feet of the 20-foot stretch. It was 2,000 pounds more than they pulled last year.
With the horses doing the hard work, the human element can be hard to notice. Drivers must know the relationship between the horses. Which horse pulls first determines which side they will be on in the harness. Owners call out the horses by names during the pull to keep tabs on them.
“If you understand coaching, you understand this,” Murrey said.
There is no prize money for the farm team class.
“Mainly bragging rights is what we compete for,” the only female driver, Angie Kane said.
The lack of prize money is not the only difference between the farm team class and professional pull horses. These horses are gentle giants, and have a demeanor that would allow them to be fully usable on a farm.
“All these teams you could go into the field and work with,” Murrey said.