Pony pulling boasts deep cultural, family roots in Mississippi

PONTOTOC – The two ponies, Bo and Rowdy, pawed the dirt and shook their gear with anticipation.
Jackie Howard fastened the harness, connecting the team to the weighted sled. He nodded to the head man, John Brown, who was standing in front of the team. At Howard’s signal, Brown gave a firm tug on the reigns and the ponies jerked the sled forward with a violent burst of power.
When people hear the word “pony” they imagine some dumpling of animal, a doll, groomed to within an inch of its life, giving birthday rides to cake-smeared children. Ponies, however, are much more vigorous than they appear.
On summer Saturdays around Northeast Mississippi, teams of ponies – mostly Shetlands, with here and there a Welsh – show their muscles in an age-old sport called “pony pulling.” The sport, like the people who love it, is simple and straight forward and traces its beginnings back to the agricultural character of the state.
Working roots
“A lot of these people are second- and third-generation pullers whose families once worked horses on their farms,” said Eddie Stroupe, president the North Mississippi Pony Pulling Club.
The club’s 42 pulling teams hail from Tippah, Union, Itawamba, Pontotoc, Benton and Lee counties. Between March and October they’re pulling somewhere most every Saturday, often at county fairs and livestock shows. In early June they descended upon the Pontotoc County Agri-Center for their largest event of the season, Magnolia Day.
Royce “Rooster” Loague of Dorsey was among them. He’s been pulling ponies for 50 of his 80 years. He explained how his daddy once used horses to drag wood for his sawmill.
“We used big horses, and we treated them good, like pets, because they were a big investment for us,” said Loague.
The ponies like the ones that pull competitively aren’t used for farming, but pulling enthusiasts say the animals have work in their blood and the point of the sport is to appreciate the strength and discipline of a good team.
Pulling ponies, which compete in teams of two, are divided into three weight classes according to the combined weight of the team. The point is to drag the largest sum of weight the longest distance.
The teams first must pull double their own combined weight a distance of six feet. Then, more weight is added until a winner emerges. A good team can pull about four times its own weight and championships are often decided by a matter of inches.
Magnolia Day drew teams from several states, like Steve Davis who brought his lightweight team, Spot and Tarzan, from Missouri. “The people are awfully nice down here and the competition is pretty stiff,” said Davis.
Howard, who brought Bo and Rowdy all the way from Kentucky, said he’s pulled in Oklahoma, Tennessee and other states, but Mississippi’s pulling is the best.
“I think there’s just a long tradition of it here, and people have a real close relationship with the land and the animals that work it,” said Howard.
Fun for all
At the Agri-Center folding chairs lined either side of the arena floor. Squealing children chased each other between horse trailers, dripping ice cream and kicking dust.
Three-year-old Bessie Rancher of Walnut, and her sister, Breanna, 5, watched fearlessly as Stroupe’s middleweight team, Woody and Blaze, dragged the sled past the hollering, stomping handlers.
“They’re strong,” said Breanna, keeping her eyes fixed on the action. Bessie said she and her sister have two horses at home and they love being around them. “Horses eat oats and sweet feed, and we ride them,” said Bessie.
After taking first in the middleweight division, Stroupe unhitched and watered his team. He pointed to a little boy, covered from head to toe in dirt and gnawing a sucker.
“Havin’ a good time, ain’t he?” Stroupe said. He pointed out that two brothers and their father, named Graves, were all pulling ponies that day, and the boys’ mother, Pam, was keeping score.
“This is a family affair, generations of people sharing a love for animals and Southern culture,” said Stroupe.
Over the public address system, Pam Graves called for the lightweight division to assemble, and a cacophony of clanking harnesses, and whinnies, and the unmistakable sound of happy people, rose into the hot afternoon sun.
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.

Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal