Casey Harriman (above, left), Emma Byler (right) and their pulling champion Buzz in Nordmont. Below, the Mahoney family (left) from Turner Station, KY, and the Harrimans from Sullivan County, PA, split top honors at the Tampa State Fair with their Belgian draft horses, Otis and Buzz.
By Rick Hiduk
(originally published in the Sullivan County Review)
A successful performance at the 2022 Pennsylvania Farm Show was just a warm-up for a Belgian draft horse pulling team from Nordmont. After taking third place in the Heavyweight division in Harrisburg this year, Casey Harriman and Emma Byler set their sights on Florida for a series of pulling contests conducted by the Southern Draft Horse Association. They participated in five of six events conducted over 15 days and came home with five ribbons, including a first place from the Florida State Championships.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to win a pull down there,” said Casey upon his return to Sullivan County. “Now it’s a dream come true.”
That dream was truly history in the making and speaks to the lineage of the Harriman family using draft horses in the logging business. Casey grew up in Sonestown and still resides there with Emma. His family worked with horses there and on another farm a little farther outside the village. In fact, a photo of a 10-year-old Casey using draft horse to skid logs was featured in a January 1996 edition of the Sullivan Review.
His father, Jeff Harriman, and grandfather, Sylvan Harriman, were loggers who also participated in pulling contests with their horses. Casey assumes that the heritage goes back farther than that. (The name, Sylvan, incidentally, refers to woods and forests.)
Today, Casey and Jeff are still in the lumber business, operating separately with Casey concentrating on buying, selling and cutting hard woods and soft woods. Jeff and Casey’s mother, Cathy, built a new home on a piece of land just outside Nordmont and began construction of a large barn four years ago. Casey moved his horses there in the fall of 2019.
Emma is from Crawford County, where she enjoyed riding horses and participating in pulling contests with her father, Dan Byler. Father and daughter were at a horse pulling contest together in 2018 when she met Casey. Working with horses is simply a way of life for Casey, Emma and Casey’s two children, Rowdy and Payton. The youths care for several riding horses at Nordmont and ponies that they also enter in pulling contests.
The Florida trip provided an opportunity to escape the icy grip of a northern Pennsylvania winter for a few weeks for Casey, Emma and the kids. Jeff and Cathy joined them for the final weekend while Casey’s brother Cody held down the fort in Nordmont.
The warmer climate required a slightly different mindset for working horses more accustomed to frigid weather. Though temperatures did dip below freezing a few nights, one day topped out at 87 degrees. Buzz and Buck, who’d proven their abilities at the Farm Show were body clipped to keep their heat down.
The apparatus is slightly different as well, with valves and hydraulics on a dynamometer replacing the traditional sled upon which weight is loaded manually. “They still pull on it pretty much the same,” Casey explained.
They scored a second-place finish in Dade City at their first contest which, Emma remarked, was an exciting start to their adventure. But, in the next two competitions at Sumterville and Arcadia, they slipped in the rankings to fourth- and fifth-place.
“Buck wasn’t doing what he was capable of,” Casey said of the older Belgian’s performance at Sumterville. “I knew something wasn’t right with him.” Despite some changes in harnessing and daily exercises, Buck was still not up to par at Arcadia. They had four days to come up with a solution.
Casey started talking to some of the other teamsters to see if anyone would be interested in switching out some horses to increase their odds of winning, a practice more common in the sport than some might think. Some owners were still feeling confident with their horses, but brothers Justin and John Mahoney of Turner Station, KY, had one Belgian with a lot of pulling experience and three that were a bit more “green.”
Buck got a rest, while Buzz was teamed up with the Mahoney’s nine-year-old horse, Otis. “We had an idea that they would click. We thought the two of them together could be pretty rugged,” said Casey, who drove the horses to a first-place finish at the Tampa State Fairgrounds on Feb. 16. They sat out the next event at Bushnell to give the horses a break and harnessed them together again for the finale of the series, which was held at the Citrus County Fairgrounds.
Casey related that the track conditions were horrible that day, but four teams, including Buzz and Otis, made it to the final weight of 4,500 pounds. “Otis got his feet a little tangled up,” Casey said of the last attempt. The combined team had to settle for fourth-place, but they all went home winners.
Casey and Emma have the better part of three months to concentrate on the strength and nutrition of Buzz and Buck before they compete again together on Memorial Day Weekend at the Porchview Arena in Acme. In addition to exercise, the couple closely monitors the horses’ diets. Buck is technically diabetic and requires a high fat, low starch feed. He consumes about 25 pounds of grain per day, plus another 50 pounds of timothy raised on the farm and western alfalfa that is imported for him.
In 2021, Casey drove Buzz and Buck to 20 wins at 30 venues, including a first-place finish at the North Carolina State Fair. While they are looking forward to big pulling events in Syracuse and Boonville, NY, one in Crawford County, and possibly the Maryland and Delaware state fairs, they might have to tighten their schedule a bit this year. “It depends on the fuel prices,” Casey explained. “We won’t run as much if they stay high.”
Casey Harriman and Jared Mahoney lead the combined team of horses to the equine arena at the Citrus County Fairgrounds for the final day of competition.