Tradition of pony pulling present at Missouri State Fair

Saturday, August 17, 2013 | 9:24 p.m. CDT; updated 9:32 p.m. CDT, Saturday, August 17, 2013
Competitors travel across the state to take part in the pony pull during the Missouri State Fair on Saturday in Sedalia. Pound for pound, ponies can pull more than draft horses.

SEDALIA — Monty Kisner's first memory of pony pulling was spending time with his grandparents as a child and watching them load the ponies in the back of his grandfather's old '65 Chevy pickup.

"The ponies would jump on the back of the pickup truck, and that's how they would haul them," Kisner, 56, said.

Now, trailers are used to haul the ponies to competition, but a lot of tradition still remains in the sport of pony pulling.

A pony pull competition starts with a team of two ponies being weighed. The ponies pull a percentage of their combined weight each round of competition, starting at 200 percent. A pull is complete when the team pulls the weighted sled six feet from its starting point within three attempts.

The pony pull competition was held at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Mathewson Exhibition Center at the Missouri State Fair. Twenty-three teams competed for their take of the $1,200 prize purse.

The event announcer, Eddie Schmock, described the magic triangle of pony pulling to the crowd. It is made up of two ponies and one driver, who all must have the same goal, "otherwise ya can't get it done."

Most drivers smooch or whistle to signal the start of a pull to their ponies. Following that signal, the ponies dig in, straining in their collars to pull the heavy sled.

The strength of the ponies stands out during the competition. The small ponies even pull more weight as a percentage of their weight than huge draft horses. The total weight of the pony teams ranged from 280 pounds to 505 pounds.

Another noticeable feature is the unique trimming of the ponies' mane and tail. The mane is kept trimmed so the collar comfortably fits the pony during a pull. The unique tail trimming — a cone shaped tuft of hair at the end of a shaved tailbone — is a standing tradition. While not every competitor shaves the ponies' tail, the "pony pulling tail" is a way that pony pullers stand out.

The ponies also have special "pulling shoes" with toes and heels for traction, previous competitor Jim Beckman said. The shoes are made by different people in the local pony pull community.

"We do make our own; you can't, you don't buy these out of a store," Kisner said.

Pony pull competitions are held almost every weekend, and competitions become more of a reunion between friends and family than merely a contest to see who is best.

"For the most part, yeah, at the State Fair, everybody there's pulled with each other throughout the year sometime or another," Kisner said.

Family members sat on lawn chairs around the arena during the competition to support the competitors and socialize with their pony pull friends. The competitors also talked to one another between their pulls. Pony pullers form a close group but welcome newcomers to the sport and enjoy watching a younger generation drive a team of ponies in the competition.

Wyatt Collens, 11, was one of three young competitors at this year's State Fair. Wyatt is a fourth-generation driver from a family of pony pullers who have competed at the State Fair for about 30 years.

"I just like being with horses," Collens said. "I try to get a good connection with my horses."

Wyatt competed with his ponies Barney and Shorty, his first time at the State Fair. Although he was among one of the first competitors eliminated, in just his first year of pulling, he has beaten his dad several times and his grandfather once, and he placed fifth out of 36 at his second competition.

During introductions, the announcer said of Wyatt: "If he is like the others, he'll be a good one."

"Fourth one's the best one," said Tom Nichols, Wyatt's grandfather.

By the end of the competition, some of the teams had pulled 400 percent of, or four times, their weight. Training to pull such weight is done at home, where pony pullers use homemade sleds with chairs attached. The ponies pull the practice sleds around to build the muscle and stamina necessary to compete successfully.

Another important aspect in preparing for competition is creating the best team. Pony pullers compete with a team of two ponies but may have more at home. Kisner has five ponies he competes with, two pairs and an extra in case another pony goes lame or gets hurt. Additionally, a puller might not keep the same team indefinitely but would buy and trade with other pullers over the years.

Like watchful parents, a puller won't compete if he doesn't believe his team is ready.

"We love our ponies," Kisner said. "They're like our children sometimes."

Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.

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