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South Jordan Journal

South Jordan’s Equine Athletes Defend Their Title

Jun 10, 2016 09:09AM ● By Jana Klopsch

Darin Palmer, a longtime South Jordan resident, stands with his team of four Belgian draft horses. –Linnea Lundgren

By Linnea Lundgren | [email protected]

If you see dust flying around South Jordan, it isn’t new construction. It’s Darin Palmer, kicking it up with his team of four magnificent Belgian draft horses.

Harnessed to a sled weighted down with concrete barrels, he guides his team around the dusty pasture, training for horse pull season. Going around in circles gives Palmer time to think.

He thinks about the horses’ veins, which become more pronounced the more they train. He thinks about the proper fit of their shoes. And he thinks about Trouble.

Trouble is his newest horse, and he’s not living up to his name. The one-ton gelding is friendly and a good worker. His name comes from the journey to purchase him— a cross-country trip plagued with truck troubles, not horse ones.

The misnamed horse, more used to plowing Amish fields, is new to pulling concrete, and Palmer hasn’t determined whether he’ll compete this year, but the other three will.  

Starting in early spring, Palmer and his cousin Joe McKee, both longtime South Jordan residents, work their Belgians in the pasture their grandpa once farmed. The cousins attend some 20 pulls throughout the Intermountain West, May through October. This summer, they’ll be at the free Draper Days Horse Pull, Saturday, July 16 at 7 p.m. at the Andy Ballard Equestrian Center, 1600 East Highland Dr., defending their title.

“We have a target on our backs,” jokes McKee about competing in upcoming pulls. In January, his middleweight veterans Dean and Red pulled 7 tons almost 10 feet, taking first place in their division at the nationally renowned Denver Stock Show.

But, he’s not worried, since experience and good training go a long way to producing winning teams. Horse pulling has been in the family for generations. McKee started working horses at 10, training with his father, Jack, a longtime puller. “I worked right alongside him,” says McKee. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”

In keeping with the family tradition, the cousins lassoed Palmer’s 25-year-old son, Justin, to help train the teams. “I am pretty spoiled,” Justin says about having a job working outside with these beautiful creatures.

 “If people knew what went into training horses for a pull, they’d be astonished,” says Justin. The horses train for about two and a half hours per day, six days a week. Justin prefers a different training approach than others. “A lot of people think work, work, work makes a strong horse, and I believe that, but I prefer to jog them.”

He said that builds up endurance and lung capacity. Every other day he’ll load a few thousand pounds on the sled to build pulling muscle.  

During training, the athletes chow down. Heavyweights consume a bale of hay a day, plus seven gallons of grain, which provides protein and vitamins. To sweeten things up, Justin pours a mixture of apple cider vinegar, Red Cell (a mineral supplement) and honey on their grain, which the horses love. The treat keeps their coats shiny and, when they sweat, repels flies.

On their day off, the Belgians act like big pets, especially 2,500-pound Jess — a heavyweight who stands at 19.2 hands (6 feet, 4 inches)—who just wants to “love up to you.” But, come competition time, they’re all business.

Adrenaline kicks in, nostrils flare and heads bow as the two-horse team approaches the sled. Joe and Darin then have the nerve-racking task of hooking more than 4,000poundsof energized horse team onto a tiny latch on the sled, a move that quiets the audience.

“Yeah, it can get scary,” McKee said. Most people, he said, can’t even begin to understand the power these athletes have until they see them up-close at a pull.

All men agree that pulls are a family-friendly affair and one that fosters friendly competition. “Everyone helps one another,” McKee said. “In this sport, if someone’s harness breaks down, someone else is going to be willing to take their harness off and give it to you.”

If it wasn’t for horse pulls and horse shows, draft horses would fade away, says McKee, since they are no longer used in farming, except by the Amish. But, luckily with McKee and the Palmers training these athletes, and those athletes loving to pull, draft horses will keep the dust flying.  

 “This country was built on draft horses,” McKee said. “We’re keeping a heritage going.”