DATE: 9/04/2004 05:23:00 PM
Get Up, Horse!
There are lots of things those teamsters do to get the beasts they drive to give their full effort moving a boat full of concrete twelve feet: press both hands to their wall-sized rumps and push; whistle, high, long and loud; hiss and chuff air through their teeth; slap the leather reins against their hindquarters; or yell things ranging from "Get up horse get up horse!" to "JackJackJackJackJack!" (this last meant for one member of a team that was slacking).
The former, "Get up, get up," is one I find myself murmuring under my breath as the weight nears five tons and the teams slam with great thuds of strength into their collars; as their massive hooves spray up clods of dirt, as the men push and lean and whistle and yell, it takes a completed hitch--the load dragged twelve feet, a terse, "Okay," from the announcer's booth and the rumbling of the tractor used to pull the boat back to the starting point--to make me realize I haven't exhaled since the eveners hit the boat.
I love this contest. I love the unassuming, raw-wood arena that houses it at the Hopkinton Fair; I love the potbellied men in overalls leaning at almost a 45-degree angle at the end of the reins. I also love the way it marks the beginning of autumn for me, year in and year out, the way these magnificent animals prance and stamp and lunge, boulder-sized shoulders flexing, thick necks with martial-cut manes straining, eyes rolling and nostrils flaring--a last exhibition, if you will, of life and vitality and animal strength before the winter humbles us all.
I've brought Kellie, Tim and Steve along; we've met my family in the top row of the wooden bleachers to watch this year's free-for-all class, which is essentially the superheavyweights--some of these horses resemble elephants or dinosaurs more than anything equine. Kellie picks out a team that matches her blonde hair, both golden Belgians, and later, my father joins her. I pick a mismatched team with a scrappy Percheron on the right, and my mother and Tim both pick teams and then forget which ones they picked in each round. My sister refrains from judgement until the later rounds.
There is some trash talk. My father stands, arms raised in the Nixonian victory symbol, when his team drags 9,800 pounds.
"You want to make a little wager?" I ask.
"Sure, I think I have a 4-H ice cream sundae on my team," he smiles.
My team makes a hitch of 9,800, drags the load 11 feet, 4 and a half inches, and head toward the wooden length of fence set as a backstop mid-arena. "That's one," the announcer says.
The Percheron is heaving, his keg-sized ribcage shuddering, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. A grizzled old man walks up to lay an assured hand on each of the horse's heavy bridles. The weary-looking men carrying the metal eveners clank them into the dirt, stand back. One of them leans on the horse as if it's a wall or a fence. The horses shift their weight from one side to the other, and gradually the Percheron's breath slows and evens.
The driver grasps the reins--one strap of leather for each horse--and pistons his arms back and forth, yanking one, then the other, then one, then the other, and the team shakes their heads and begin slowly backing up. Like an eighteen-wheeler making a three-point turn, they come to a slow halt, and after a flick of the reins, walk forward again.
They walk in front of the boat. The Percheron looks askance, ears twitching, toward the stacked load, and then there's a tense few seconds as the team holds a back-heavy Lippizaner pose while the evener-men drop the hitch onto the hook. Clank! "Geedap!! Geedap!" The Percheron's rear legs splay straight out, his coat glistening obsidian with sweat, and he plunges his sharp front feet into the ground. His brown partner follows suit. Finally, though, the two reach their final stride, leaning their full weight on their gigantic collars without any further forward motion.
They are soundly applauded as the driver, jouncing along behind the team, takes one hand off the reins to wave toward the announcer's booth. "All done," he says matter-of-factly, and I refuse to make eye contact with my father.
The ante is upped, and we're over five tons at 10,500 pounds. My father and Kellie's team have gone a dark shade of bronze with the exertion, but they dig and pull and haul a load the distance that knocks all but one other team out of contention.
"Yaaahhh!!!" my father yells, pumping his fist in triumph. "Araaaiiight!!"
Kellie has called Becki to get the Sox score. They're up 2-0 over the Texas Rangers, which calms my anxiety to know their fate somewhat, but my attention quickly returns to the non-human drama unfolding in front of me as the teams go for 10,800.
My father and Kellie's team drags that load again in the two-team playoff. Finally, it's impossible not to concede that they have been finer judges of horseflesh. But the other remaining team, my sister's favorites, have yet to take a shot at it.
At around a yard, it looks as though they will falter, but the evener-men and driver rush forward to shove on the team's flanks, and the driver hollers "Get up get up get up get up get up get up!!" for all he's worth. Slowly, the team finds its footing again, rocking forward, then back, then forward again with each methodical plunge, and in what feels like an hourlong struggle draw the dusty back end of the metal boat past the mark.
The crowd erupts. Men stuff fingers in their mouths and whistle. These animal competitors are being lauded as enthusiastically as any homo sapiens I've ever seen. The one on the left--the one with a white snip on his brown face--swings his muzzle up and down as if nodding to his fans.
But then, in a surprise twist, the team my father and Kellie picked to win forfeits, the driver leaving the tied horses to stand in the center of the arena and wave his doffed cap for the judges. They get the red ribbon, though I still owe my father ice cream. It would have been nice to see a more dramatic decision to end the competition, but, well, the horses are only human, after all.