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North Stonington - In the blistering heat of midday, Adam Coats hooks his two oxen to a worn 1,500-pound truck tire, gives the chain a good tug and wipes the sweat from his forehead.
For a moment, he stands in front of them. The oxen know what this means. They've done it hundreds of times before. It's time to work.
"Get up, Mike. Get up, Brock!"
In tune, the oxen lean to the left to gain their momentum and begin to take the first of as many powerful steps as they can, scraping the weighted drag against the earth. A trail of dust follows as they make their way around the dirt track.
For the better part of the past 17 years, Coats, 30, has followed in the footsteps of the men in his family. He has dedicated a patient pursuit of personal fulfillment to Brock and Mike, the two Chianina oxen he has spent almost every day of the past two years training.
"If I'm not home sleeping, I'm at the barn or in the field. I spend most of my life here - before work, after work and on the weekends," Coats says.
In the field a few hundred feet up the road from their barn, he walks next to the team, coaxing them along with his voice and a slight twitch of his goad stick whenever one starts to lose its momentum. He stops them at various points around the track to catch their breath. Their nostrils, each the size of a small fist, flare and drip.
Brock is the friendly one
Dusty pictures of the previous oxen Adam has trained are tacked to the barn wall with push pins. Special containers for his goad sticks and grain barrels line the side of one stall. An alarm clock sits on a small shelf on the front wall of the barn, and a woman, dressed in a black string bikini tantalizingly holding a cold, refreshing beer, watches the time pass, day in and day out. Pinned to the wall, she has no choice but to watch and listen to the never-ending soundtrack of bristles raking across the floor, country music, heated debates and the best sound of all: mooing.
What drives Coats' passion for the hard work day in and day out?
"To be honest with you, I don't know," he said. "I have days where I don't want to be here at all and I question all the time why I do this, but the good days outweigh the bad ones by far."
At 6 years old, Brock is all white, a bit over 6 feet at the shoulders and weighs 2,600 pounds. He is also the friendlier of the pair and doesn't mind having his nose rubbed. Mike is also 6 years old and at less than 6 feet tall, has a hint of an attitude. He doesn't like strangers and is sometimes snappy with Coats. Mike's coat has a slight brown tinge and he weighs about 2,500 pounds.
The Chianina breed originated in central Italy and is one of the oldest breeds of cattle in the world, according to the American Chianina Association. The oxen are castrated, which does not make them bulls, but Coats says they are referred to as both oxen and bulls in the pulling community.
The oxen live in a three-stall barn on Wyassup Road, built in 1978 by Adam's father, Wayne Coats. Ten years later, Adam's interest changed from Little League to oxen.
"I'd beg my Dad to take me to watch the pulls. I'd beg him so much you'd think he'd want to leave me on the side of the road sometimes. He'd take me and I was just happy staying around the barn," Coats says.
The almost 32-year-old barn has become Coats' stomping ground.
He doesn't bother removing the cobwebs that hang from the dark brown wooden rafters, adhering and stringing to the yokes hanging on the wall, but is fixated on keeping the barn's floor and stalls clean.
"I over-obsess about the barn. I sweep way more than I should," he says while whisking the broom across the rubber floor mats, piling up the dirty sawdust shavings into a pile.
At 11:30 p.m., after leaving his rigging position at Electric Boat, Coats heads to the barn to feed the bulls, muck the stalls and sweep. Only after he puts the bulls to bed does Coats leave, only to wake up the next morning to do it all over again.
Pressure at the local fair
Colchester resident James Palmer, state representative for the Association of New England Ox Teamsters Inc., said the sport of teams pulling locally and across the region is "dying out."
"It's kind of a dying breed. I notice it in the class sizes at competitions. It used to be close to 15 pair in a class, now there's eight. It's half of what it what is used to be," Palmer said.
For the most part, competitive pressure among the more than two dozen local pullers is friendly.
"Everybody wants to outdo the next guy, and that's what you're out for. You hope your team does better than the next guy's, and that's what keeps you going," Coats says.
At 13 years old, Coats pulled his first pair of Brown Swiss cattle at the North Stonington Agricultural Fair. Since then, he's entered more than 100 competitions in New England, New Jersey and New York. But it's the local fair that gives his nerves a good rattle.
"That one is the big one. It's not different than any other pull. It's just that everyone I know comes to watch and for some reason it just makes me nervous," Coats says.
The adrenaline pumping through his veins in addition to the fair's exciting atmosphere rubs off on the oxen.
"I don't have to say and do much because the atmosphere itself is enough to get them wound up. If I'm nervous and cranked up they know and they respond to it so I usually have my hands full," he says.
A 9,000-pound goal
In the beginning of a pull, the oxen are hooked to a weighted drag. At this year's North Stonington fair, the drag weight began at 3,000 pounds and was increased in 1,000-pound increments.
Teams have three chances to pull the drag six consecutive feet; if the oxen stop before the six feet, it is considered a pin. If the oxen are "pinned," they are out of the competition because they failed to pull six consecutive feet. If a pair of oxen have successfully pulled all weight levels but their owners become concerned they may pin themselves at a higher weight, they will usually concede the competition - not wanting to stress the oxen at a weight they will struggle to pull.
During competition, the audience will see the oxen's trainer raising the goad stick and slicing it through the air, connecting on the hind legs or the back of the oxen. The thin stick is made of either plastic or wood and is about 4 feet long. The cracking sound the stick makes when it lands on the oxen's back appears harsher than it is, Coats says.
"What the public sees and what actually goes on are two different things. Believe me, it's like driving them with a shoestring. Their skin is so thick they don't really feel it anyway," Coats says. "All it's for is to keep their attention."
The 1,500-pound tire used in the training sessions help build the oxen's stamina and muscle mass. In July, Coats set a 9,000-pound goal for the oxen and in August, the bulls pulled an impressive 10,400 pounds.
No need to 'dope'
Because the social network of pullers in North Stonington is small, word of the doping incident at July's fair traveled fast and raised questions about other animals involved in the pulls at the fair.
Draft horses owned by the Perkins and French families were banned from participating in draft pulling contests in the state for one year after their horses tested positive for Boldenone, an anabolic steroid found in the drug Equipoise.
"There are two reasons I don't dope," Coats said. "One, it's illegal, which is enough, and two, there's really no need."
Equipoise builds a horse's muscles and increases blood cell levels, says Dr. Bruce Sherman, director of the Bureau of Regulation for the Department of Agriculture.
The department tests horses of teams that place in the top three, Sherman said.
Because of the different physiological makeup, Sherman believes the drug would not produce the same effects in oxen.
"In the 19 years I've been testing, I've never had any oxen test positive," Sherman said.
Coats said the competitive atmosphere could drive an owner to use steroids but he's in it for the fun of it.
As the last male puller in the familial line of succession, Coats will need to have a family of his own to keep the tradition alive.
"If one day I have a family, hopefully my kids will want to do this. If they don't want to it will break my heart, but that's their choice," he said.
"I get nothing out of it other than the satisfaction of doing well at the pulls and standing in the barn in sawdust and cow manure," Coats says. "It's kinda what we do in North Stonington. There ain't much else to do."