OSHKOSH — Talk about pure horsepower.
The brute strength of mighty Belgian horses was on full display at the Winnebago County Fair during the annual horse-pulling event.
“It’s definitely competitive,” said Mike Wisniewski of the town of Black Creek. “You get to show how strong your horses are and show off your abilities and try to outdo the other teams.”
Wisniewski has been involved in horse pulling since the early 1990s. As the driver, it was his job to guide his two Belgian horses as they strived to pull a “sled” carrying several thousand pounds the full distance of 27½ feet. Horses need to be squared up to maximize pulling strength and minimize risk of injury.
Each team had three chances to pull the weights the required distance, with successful teams advancing to greater weights in subsequent rounds. Many competitions use 27½ feet as the standard, because in the early 1900s studies of horsepower at Iowa State University determined a horse loses maximum power upon reaching that threshold.
Wisniewski’s 5-year-old horses, Duke and Tony, weigh a combined 4,500 pounds and compete in the heavyweight division. Smaller horses vie in the lightweight division.
Wisniewski, who also has two younger Belgians at home, begins developing his horses’ strength when they are about 4 years old. However, every horse is different, he said.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with horses,” Wisniewski said. “They’re just like athletes. You put them on a workload and build up their leg muscles. It’s important they get air and build their stamina.”
His father and grandfather raised Belgian horses, but they were used strictly as work horses on the farm. Many Amish farmers regularly use Belgian horses in the fields, he said.
Although they’re competitors, horse-pulling participants share an interest in keeping alive the agricultural heritage of yesteryear, when horses did much of the labor on farms.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie. Over the years I’ve met a lot of great people through horse pulling,” Wisniewski said.
He was assisted at the Oshkosh event by David Wisniewski and Travis Rutter, whose roles as hookers involves hooking the horse gear to the apparatus carrying the weights.
Among the other competitors at the Winnebago County Fair was Amanda Traxler, 23, of Omro.
As the only female participant, she served as both driver and hooker, depending on the pull, for a team led by her father, Lee Traxler. Assisting them was her cousin, Josh Serron.
She’s a third-generation horse puller, having been involved in the sport for nearly a decade. Her father and grandfather also pulled ponies years ago.
“It’s great,” Lee said when asked about having his daughter on the team.
Amanda said horse pulling suits her personality.
“I like to just get out there and do it,” she said. “I like to get dirty. I don’t like to be sitting around all clean. I do it because it’s a lot of fun.”
The Traxlers own 11 Belgian horses. At the fair, they featured the lightweight team of Dan, 10 years old, and Clyde, 6, and the heavyweight team of Jerry, 13, and Champ, 10.
“Everyone treats me equally and is very supportive,” Amanda said about her fellow horse pullers. “We all just like to get out there and see what our horses can do.”