Travis Woodson has brought two of his Percheron draft horses to the Botetourt County Fair before – to show the public what a pair of working draft horses look like and to tell about the breed and the work they still do.
He’s also talked about the competitions he’s had them in – including ones his horses have won in regional and national events.
Next Saturday, August 12, he’ll be back at the fair with that pair and maybe two pair, only this time they’ll be competing in the fair’s first Draft Horse Pull.
Woodson and Loretta and Andrew Cahoon have teamed up as co-chairs for the draft horse pull that will be held next to the Buchanan Town Park behind the Community House along the James River.
The free event will be an added attraction during the fifth year of the resurrected county fair and begins at 9 a.m.
Perhaps as many as a dozen pair of draft horses and mules will take part in the pulling competition that has roots in rural America when horses, mules and oxen provided the horsepower for farmers and loggers.
Woodson still keeps his Percherons in shape by plowing with them, a site not unusual to see along Rt. 43 near Eagle Rock on certain days. His horses have also won plowing contests in the draft horse world where Woodson is a member of the Percheron Horse Association of America.
This will be the first draft horse pull in Botetourt County in a quarter century, according to the Cahoons.
Andrew Cahoon’s father, the late Mac Cahoon, was well known in the region for his draft horses. He’s depicted with two of those horses on the Botetourt County Fair poster advertising the pull.
When asked to explain a draft horse pull, Loretta Cahoon turned to a description a friend, Jason Rutledge, had written:
“Horse pulling as a recreational sport evolved from neighbors wondering how strong their horses were compared to their neighbors. As the end of the season came, fall fairs were an opportunity to gather in communities throughout rural America.
“Folks would get together and have a contest to settle the question of who had the stoutest team on that given day. There has always been much concern for the humane treatment of the animals and rules were developed to prevent any abuse of animals in these contests. No striking with the lines or contact other that driving is allowed.
“The contest is basically a weight lifting contest for horses. The load is started light and weight added in increments agreed upon by the majority of horsemen. The load is pulled 27’6″ as a measure determined at Cornell University in the 1930s as the average distance a team can pull double their weight before blood sugar levels drop. This way they are only being asked to do what they can do.
“Each team gets three attempts to pull the load the required distance in a continuous effort, with the first two being while remaining hooked and third and final attempt being with the horseman choosing the direction of the pull.
“This sport is also a way to continue to display the usefulness of working horses on the farm and in the forests.”
The Cahoons’ interest in holding a draft horse pull goes back to Mac Cahoon.
“Mac was big into draft horses and mules. Andrew grew up around pulls,” Loretta Cahoon explained. “This will be the first pull in Botetourt County in well over 25 years. We have reconnected with quite a few of the older fellas that pulled with Mac. We just wanted to carry the torch in Mac’s honor.”
Loretta Cahoon said her husband and his father were best friends, and the couple was actually married in 2015 on Mac’s birthday, May 2.
When asked what spectators should watch for, Cahoon said, “The thing that always gets me is the ‘teamwork,’ not just the team of horses, but the horses, the driver, the hookers. They all have to know what the others are doing and where they’re at.
“The horsemanship is at its highest. The sportsmanship, all of these guys are friends, and always willing to lend a hand,” she continued.
“These are work horses and mules,” she said. “The handlers know their animals better than anybody. They would never ask them to do anything he/she doesn’t feel confident their animals can do safely.”
The Cahoons and Woodson are good friends, and Woodson is one of few folks in Botetourt who still has draft horses or mules. He also serves as vice-president of Virginia Percheron Association.
The Percheron breed dates to at least the Middle Ages when French knights used them as war horses, according to Alvin Sanders, author of “A History of the Percheron Horse.”
Over the years, breeding for what became draft horses evolved as they began to replace oxen on the farms of Europe. By the 1830s, the farm horses were being imported to America and by the 1880s, the Percheron breed that evolved in Le Perche, France became perhaps the most popular farm and logging horses in America.
Horses won’t be the only pullers at the county fair. A couple of teams of mules may also be on the field, Loretta Cahoon said.
The pull is a great opportunity to see how these animals contributed to farming and logging even well into the 20th century, fair organizer Kate Lawrence explained.
While there will be limited spectator bleachers, visitors might want to bring a lawn chair to watch the pull.
Admission to the fair is free.