Conley is inducted into New England Pony Pullers Hall of Fame
copyright the Chronicle October 29, 2014
by Tena Starr
GLOVER — Doug Conley was at home in Glover, laid up with a bad back, when he got a call from his friend Jake Randall, who was at what’s called the world championships for pony pulling.
Mr. Randall said: “You’ve just been inducted into the New England Pony Pullers Hall of Fame.”
“I thought he was lying,” Mr. Conley said.
He wasn’t. Both Mr. Randall and Mr. Conley’s wife, Judy, knew he was about to be inducted and had hoped to get him down to Massachusetts for the ceremony.
Mr. Randall was in Cummington, Massachusetts, with Mr. Conley’s free-for-all team, Dan and King. He’d offered to take the horses down and compete with them on Mr. Conley’s behalf since he was hurt, and also, secretly, in the event that Mr. Conley did manage to show up.
“I wondered why he was being so nice to me,” Mr. Conley said. “My horses were there, and I wasn’t,” he said.
Dan and King came in seventh or eighth this year in their category at the Massachusetts contest. Last year they came in second, competing with horses from all over New England as well as Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
A free-for-all pony is one that weighs 2,200 pounds or over, but measures under 60 inches.
Induction into the Hall of Fame is no small feat. It’s based, in part, on sportsmanship and what’s been put into the sport over the years.
Mr. Conley said he doesn’t even know who the nominating committee is.
He’s a longtime horseman. He’s logged and used draft horses working in the woods, and he’s had — and bred — riding horses as well. But he fell into pulling contests by accident more than 20 years ago. The relative of a friend had a stroke and asked him to take his horses and use them at pulls.
Technically, he pulls ponies. But those “ponies” are bigger than the average riding horse, and far more powerful.
Why ponies instead of draft horses? They’re easier to harness, for one thing, Mr. Conley said with a smile. What exact breed his animals are, he couldn’t say. They’re some cross between draft horses and actual ponies.
What he looks for when buying a pony is “something that acts like it’s got a little spirit, that holds its head up,” he said.
Sometimes he’s searched much of the country looking for just the right horse. Sometimes he runs across one at a meet.
The first pair of his own that he bought came from Kentucky. He and Mr. Randall went on a scouting trip and that happened to be where they found the right team.
At the moment, Mr. Conley has 18 horses, ranging from minis, to riding horses, to his beloved pullers. And they are, indeed, beloved. They even have their own shower room where they’re bathed, and they get a rub down after workouts.
The sport is a rough one, for both horse and owners. Among other injuries, Mr. Conley has had a stone boat pulled over his foot, tearing off all his toenails. For the horses, pulled tendons and other injuries are not uncommon. “It’s like any athlete,” he said.
And many of the horses enjoy the sport as much as he does, Mr. Conley said.
For instance, Roy, a Haflinger, screams if another animal gets harnessed up and he doesn’t, he said. He talks about the horse’s history and kisses his handsome face.
As for Dan and King, they pranced out of their big box stalls, with the high-stepping, eager gait of a good puller who’s going somewhere in a hurry.
So why this particular sport, which can be both dangerous and expensive? Even when there’s winning money it doesn’t cover much more than gas, Mr. Conley said.
He shrugs. “People have boats, they have motorcycles. It’s like anything else.”
“The adrenalin rush, maybe,” he said in what he knows is an inadequate explanation of why he puts so much time, money, and love into pulling ponies.
“Why do you want to do this crazy sport? People ask me that all the time.”
Knowing a fellow horse lover, he turns the question around.
Why do you want to continue riding horses after a concussion, a dislocated shoulder and a fractured hip? he asked.
“You can’t explain it, can you?” he said.
“I said last year I’m all done. I said this year I’m all done. But I’m already looking for replacements.”
He competes at fairs in Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, “pretty much all over New England,” he said. “We try to hit about 20 events.”
He’s had as many as three teams competing this year, which means that he hired someone to work with his horses pretty much full time.
The sport has changed over the years, and these days, if you’re going to compete in pulling contests, it means a team has to be worked three or four hours a day, Mr. Conley said.
It used to be that farmers would show up and compete with whatever they had for a working team. Not so much anymore. These days pulling is far more competitive.
No, pulling itself is not a dying sport, Mr. Conley said, although the old way of it might be.
He’s encouraged by a new twist, though. A lot of kids are now participating with mini-horses. On this day, there were several at his home — some he owns, one being bought, and others being shipped. They’re stocky little creatures, pretty as teddy bears.
There were 37 pairs of minis pulling at a recent meet, Mr. Conley said.
“It’s a lot of fun to watch the kids.”
The plaque Mr. Conley received from the New England Draft Pony Association says: “Thank you for a lifetime of dedication and sportsmanship.”
contact Tena Starr at [email protected]
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