Louis Cyr: The Man Who Pulled Two Horses

Above you can see a rare old photo shows the feat “horse-resisting” performed by strongman old-timer Louis Cyr ( b.1863 – d. 1912), who was known at the time as “The Canadiam Samson.”

The date was December 20, 1891, and the place Sohmer Park in Montreal. A large crowd had gathered to witness Cyr’s exhibition.

Standing between the pair of dapple-gray Percherons, Cyr slipped a loop of heavy leather over the elbow of each of his arms, braced his feet, and gave the grooms the signal to lead the horses forward until the traces were taut.

Then, with cracking whips, the powerful animals were urged to pull their utmost in an attempt to make Cyr lose his grip. But the powerful Canadian easily kept the horses in check and himself from being pulled apart!

Thus he delighted his many friend and perhaps disappointed the few, if any, who had been foolish enough to bet against his accomplishing the feat. For strong-man exhibitions, in Cyr’s day, were occasions on which those inclined to gamble could wager any amount they chose. Possibly some secondrate performers occasionally pulled fast ones in order to make money for their backers, but Cyr wasn’t one of them. In order for Cyr to have lost in any contest of strength, he’d had to be seriously ill (or doped!)

To get back to the stunt of resisting the pull of a team of horses, how this feat originated is not known.

However, it is conceivable that it was “inspired” by the treatment meted out to early-day criminals who were sentenced to be “pulled apart by four horses”.

But many of these doomed men – or their bodies – refused to be pulled apart, thus demonstrating the strength of human joints and ligaments.

The feat of resisting the pull of one or more teams of horses, as Cyr did, demanded the same kind of resistive strength as did the successful emergence of criminals from their sentences – namely, not muscular strength, but rather strength and toughness of the ligaments that hold the bones together at the joints.

However, as a general rule, the larger the muscles, the thicker the bones, tendons and ligaments. Hence, a real strong-man would naturally have greater resisitve strength in his joints and ligaments than would a slender, undeveloped, non- athlete.

It will be noticed, in the accompanying photo, that Cyr’s hands are not together. Possibly in resisting the pull of merely one pair of horses, he did not bother to grip with his hands on a ring, which was the usual method adopted by performers of this feat. Again, it may be that Cyr dispensed with this aid simply while posing for the photograph. Cyr was credited with similarly resisting the pull of four horses, and if he did this, most probably he kept his hands together by holding onto a large metal ring. Also the horses may then have been smaller ones. With such a
position taken, the horses would have had literally to pull the strong-man’s arms out of his shoulder-sockets in order to move ahead.

As to what amount of pull Cyr resisted from his two horses, a bit of figuring should give an approximate answer. In the standard dynamometer test for draft horses as used annually at county fairs, the record pull for a pair of horses weighing together 3417 pounds is 3924 pounds. Since, as can be seen from the photograph, Cyr’s horses probably weighed no more than this (that is, about 1700 pounds each), it is probable that the pull on Cyr’s two arms was, at the most, not over half of 3924, that is, about 1950 pounds. 

A more genuine feat, perhaps, of resisting the pull of horses, as performed by Karl von Eckenberg, Thomas Topham, and other early-day strongmen, was to have the horse, or horses, pull from in front of the performer.

In this feat the strong-man would wear a heavy belt to which was attached a chain leading to the harness on the horse (or horses).

He would then brace his feet against a fixed support in the ground, the legs taking a horizontal position (in line with the pull on the chain). Topham in this manner easily resisted the pull of one horse, but in working with two horses – bracing his feet against two treestumps in a field – he did not take a sufficiently horizontal position, with the result that, when the horses started pulling, he was jerked out of place and had one of his knee caps shattered against a stump. It was said that Topham, who was really tremendously strong, could have resited the pull not only of two, but of four horses, if only he had been more careful and had taken the proper position at the start.

In any event. it is perhaps just as well that many of the old-time, so-called feats of strength have been replaced by the standard barbell lifts in vogue among weight-lifters today. These lifts promote the development of a strong, quick, all-round athletic physique, whereas most of the old-time feats could be performed by any reasonably husky workman even if his waist were as large as his chest.

Ironman – Feb March 1957


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