Draft horse pull curtailed amid drama at Martha’s Vineyard Ag Fair

A visiting team of horses broke free and crashed through a fence during competition Friday at the Martha's Vineyard Ag Fair.

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Fair operators and horse handlers work to untangle a pair of draft horses after they ran off during the draft team pull competition and crashed through a fence. Photo Randon Rynd

Several minutes of panic ended peacefully at the West Tisbury fairgrounds late Friday afternoon. No injuries were reported after a draft horse team broke free, stampeded the length of the pulling ring, and crashed through a fence.

The two-horse team arrived from off-Island to compete in the popular draft horse pull competition. Until that point in the afternoon, they had behaved well, according to announcer Paul “Zeke” Wilkins.

“They did a wonderful job. They were very well-mannered,” Mr. Wilkins said.  “Accidents happen.”

Mr. Wilkins said the competition for draft horses in the light weight category was moving toward completion, with about 45 minutes remaining, when the incident occurred shortly after 4:30 pm.  It was triggered when the team did not hitch successfully to the “stone boat,” that carries an incrementally-increasing amount of weight. Those horses that pull the heaviest total load win the competition.

A team not being successfully hitched to the weight is not an entirely uncommon occurrence. Horses often may run a few feet or more before drivers can get them back under control and attempt to hitch them up again.

The horses bolted, and although their driver held the reins, he could not slow them down or divert them. There is a swinging metal gate at the right rear corner of the ring through which they could have run into an open area without causing damage.

Pulling free, the horses careened straight to the rear of the ring, where several teams were tied and lined up against the left end of the fence, awaiting their turns. The horses smashed through the fence just to the right side of that row of animals.

The hefty team demolished at least three sections of wooden split rail and metal fence, damaging some concrete posts in the process. Two other teams broke loose and followed the runaways, leading to six animals in the area between the ring and the barns.

The good-sized crowd that filled the bleachers and stood nearby in the shade on one side of the ring had been enjoying the traditional slow-paced competition, socializing and snacking. When the horses didn’t stop, Mr. Wilkins quickly instructed people to get off the fences and out of the way. At the same time, the experienced first responder, firefighter, and EMT firmly and reassuringly called out, “Stay calm, folks.”

He said later that he also immediately alerted the EMTs in case any injury occurred.

Onlookers scrambled from their seats. From beyond the broken fence, a call was heard that a horse was down. Soon more reports circulated that two horses had fallen; both were all right.

In only a few minutes, the hubbub quieted. The two horses that had fallen, apparently twisted in their reins and pulling gear, were freed and able to step to their feet. From a distance they could be seen being led away.

Nearby onlookers praised the fast and expert action by horse owners and fair workers, who quickly subdued the four horses that had followed the runaways through the fence. Meanwhile, other horse owners stayed close to their animals still tied obediently along the fence nearby, keeping them calm.

“It was like a scene out of a movie — dramatic and chaotic when they came through the fence and took it down,” Randon Rynd of West Tisbury, a horse owner, told The Times.

“They got it under control so fast,” Ms. Rynd, who was standing behind the fence photographing the pull, said. “It was scary when it first happened, but they did such a great job of getting total control of the scene.”

“What was fortunate is no one got hurt,” she said. “Working with horses can be dangerous, and we’re lucky everyone is OK.”

Another onlooker close to the scene who declined to give her name said she saw the horses fall, and watched their owners calm them before unhitching them from the tangled gear and getting them up.

“Draft horses are amazing creatures, they are so well trained,” she said. “They are trained to listen to their humans.”

She said the other four horses quieted down immediately when owners grabbed their bridles, and had them stand still: “It’s an example of how important a well-trained working horse is.”

Some 30 minutes later, the audience had wandered away to other activities on the fairgrounds and the competition, one of three during the course of the fair, was curtailed, not to be completed that day.

Though shaken from the ordeal, Mr. Wilkins was smiling with relief later after learning that there were no injuries. He said that ironically he had just finished his routine warning to audience members to be quiet during the pulling, stay safe, and keep off the fences moments before the horses took off.

Mr. Wilkins recounted that after the two horses missed hooking to the stone boat, “something spooked them from behind.”

He said when he saw them running straight for the fence, “I started screaming at people to get off the rail. The horses didn’t slow down.”

He said he saw the driver had hold of the reins and was trying to control the team but with no success.

Mr. Wilkins reported that the visiting horse owners were asked if they wanted a veterinarian and they declined, which appears to indicate that all is well with the horses.

“Amazingly, they’re not hurt,” he said.

Mr. Wilkins said the visitors were regretful the incident had occurred, and hoped to return and compete on the Vineyard another year. He said they would be very welcome to do so.

A veteran horse pull announcer, having presided at the Ag Fair event for many years, Mr. Wilkins said he had witnessed several such incidents. He said thankfully this one had ended well: “Everybody’s fine. The horses are fine. The spectators are fine.”