"Pa, I’m gettin' darn tired of goin’ down there and comin’ back with second place."
Robert Powell, 14, ordinarily is a young man of very few words. But when the subject is horse-pulling contests, it garners the full attention of this lad from Pleasuresville, Ky.
Horse-pulling events have been around since 1876, and today are held in 31 of the 50 states, often at county and state fairs. In the contests, teams of two horses compete to see which can pull the heaviest load. Sometimes the load isthousands of pounds of concrete on a metal or stone sled. Other times it’s a hulking truck-mounted metal machine called a dynamometer, used to measure horsepower.
Robert Powell is front and center at many of those events, because both his parents and grandparents, in addition to running farms, raise enormous work horses to compete in pulling contests in half a dozen states. “Big Bill” and “George” are currently his granddad’s best performers — Belgian horses weighing in at 2,750 and 2,600 pounds respectively, and standing close to 6 feet high from hooves to the tops of their shoulder blades.
Powell, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, doesn’t drive the huge beasts in competition, but he’s an integral member of the team nonetheless.
At home, he helps care for the horses, brushing them and dispensing their feed and water. On the pulling field, says his grandpa Ray Powell, “He really gets involved with those horses, sittin’ on the front row rootin’ and hollerin’. He usually buddies up to the competition, and sometimes they’ll do a pull in Robert’s name.”
Robert’s grandfather and father, Ray and Robin, are among the top performers in the horse-pulling world. Sometimes they’re listed in the lineup as Ray Powell & Sons, sometimes as Ray Powell & Grandsons, sometimes as Robin & Robert Powell. A friend of theirs who also competes often enters under the team name Will Jones & Robert Powell.
At a recent contest in Lancaster, Ohio, the announcer noted that horses on the Robert Powell teams increasingly seemed to be among the top performers. In recognition, Robert was named Tri-State Horse Person of the Year.
Sometimes on the farm, Robert and his power wheelchair will get up onto a skid so the Belgians can give him a ride. He also spends a lot of time with Flash, a 2-year-old black who’s his favorite horse chum, a special present from his granddad.
One of the biggest challenges of farm life comes after Robert has been cruising around the barn or corrals and picked up what’s euphemistically called “horse hockey” on his wheels. “When he comes in spraying it all over the house, you know who gets to clean it up,” sighs his mother Meleah.
And about that little problem with second place wins at a horse-pulling event in southern Indiana? On their next visit to that venue, the Robert Powell team came in first, to no one’s surprise.