Ironic cowboy shirts notwitstanding, I'm pretty much an irredeemable city boy -- so much so that I'd never even been to a state fair before this weekend. Suffice it to say, then, that when I went to the Colorado State Fair on Saturday, I wanted the experience -- besides strolling the midway, riding the Ferris wheel and eating a lot of weird fried stuff, I wanted to see something that could in some way embody what a state fair is about. To that end, the spectacle of really big horses competitively pulling really heavy stuff seemed like a perfect fit.
Here's why: As a celebration of culture, it seems to me that state fairs are primarily about utility -- you're certainly not going to find anyone performing an interpretive dance to a John Cage composition plus Blue Velvet with the sound turned off, anyway. You might find some weird stuff -- like a bunny-rabbit dress-up competition, for example (sadly, that was going on at the same time as the horse-pull -- it was either one or the other) -- but at its root, the state fair operates on a spartan ethos that showcases people and things doing variations on what they already do. In this case, these horses pull things. What more pragmatic contest could there be than to have them, well, pull things?
How it works is that the horses are split into two divisions -- lightweight and heavyweight (just to give you an idea of how big they are, some of the heavyweights weigh about 5,000 lbs) -- and paired by their owners into teams of two. They also sometimes have interesting names, like Rock and Roll, or (my favorite) Roscoe and Enus.
"What a name, Enus," chuckled J.R. Rohrbacher, my impromptu guide, who was kind enough to humor what he obviously saw as dumb questions ("I feel for you," he remarked when he learned I was from the "big city"). Before, Rohrbacher had been a competitor, but today he was a spectator: "One of my horses got struck by lightning," he explained, "so I'm not doing it this year."
Basically, the horses pull a "sled," which is exactly what it sounds like except bigger, with enormous weights piled onto it that are placed there by a front-loader. They have to pull it 20 feet, and they just keep pulling more and more weight until they can no longer pull it that distance, and they get eliminated. The starting figure was 3,500 lbs.
After all the teams pulled that (the heavyweights pulled it first, then the lightweights), the front-loader added another 2,000 lbs. -- "Just about the weight of my first wife," the announcer quipped.
That made Rohrbacher laugh and lean over to me. "He's only been married the once," he explained.
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Even at a comparatively lower weight, it was pretty remarkable to see the horses strain to pull it -- the camera didn't really do it justice. They threw themselves at it, leaning in with their haunches in a way you don't often see horses lean, some of them almost hopping with their back legs to get leverage. As the weight increased, a lot of the horses would kind of stumble forward after being unhitched from it, as if surprised by the freedom. While they were pulling, though, the announcer request that everyone be quiet, so as not to confuse the horses, leaving only the quiet sound of the team masters yelling unintelligible commands at the teams in the middle of the ring, and an otherwise odd pall of funeral silence over the spectacle.
The eliminations didn't start to happen until about 7,500 lbs, and the competition went on up to 9,500 before it was over, but Rohrbacher said he'd seen horses pull 12,000 -- and perhaps they would; the finals were scheduled to happen the next day.
But I didn't need to see it all the way through to feel satisfied. Confirmed dude as I am, the difference between 9,500 and 12,000 wasn't going to mean an awful lot to me; all I was missing at that point was a beer and a giant turkey leg. And to be sure, the fair had both those things in spades.
The Colorado State Fair continues through Labor Day, September 6. For more information, visit www.coloradostatefair.com.