‘Desperate horsewives’ back up husbands

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PHILLIPS – California may be home to the “Desperate Housewives,” but this time of year around the Franklin Park pulling ring, you’ll find the desperate horsewives. May through October, they’ll be at one horse pull or another, watching as their husbands take all the glory in the ring but doing their fair share of work in the barn and on the exercise track.

Each Memorial Day, horsewife Jill Smith can be found in the announcer’s booth at the Phillips Memorial Day horse pulling. She’s calling the men to their teamsters’ meeting and keeping track of their distances. After 25 to 30 years of feeding, grooming and mucking out stalls, she has said she won’t get stuck doing the chores any more.

“I balked up last year,” she said, using a common horse pulling term. “I used to do it all the time.”

Thirty-six years ago, Jill married Steve Smith of Phillips, a man with a family history of horses. He and his father had used horses in the woods. And while the first few years of his marriage to Jill were horse-free, he soon was bit by the horsefly again and got into pulling. Their sons, Steve and Joe, grew up around the horses and became teamsters themselves.

Elder Steve is retired from the sport now but still helps out at several of the pulls, and Jill is there to chase after the grandchildren and lend a hand when needed.

Their daughter-in-law Renee has been with them at the pulls for 20 years now as she and younger Steve started dating as freshmen in high school. Her grandfather had draft ponies, and she had her own pony as a child and riding horses as an adult, so equines were nothing new to her.

At one time, she purchased two riding horses in hopes that she and her husband could ride together. “But Steve fell off and broke his shoulder blade,” she said. “He gave up riding horses and stuck to pulling horses.”

Renee could not imagine life any other way.

“It’s a family affair,” she said. “We all get together, especially at places like Windsor and Dover. We have a great time.”

Because she owns her own hair salon, she isn’t responsible for much of the daily horse care, but come fair time, “I feed the crew,” she said. And during Fryeburg Fair, she’ll close up shop and stay with Steve full time so that she can be there to help with the horses.

“My ideal job, if I ever win the Megabucks, will be to stay home every day and work the horses with Steve,” she said.

Renee’s sister-in-law Amy knew what she was getting into when she married into the Smith family. Her family also spent summers at the pulling ring but pulled oxen instead of horses. She even had her own teams over the years. It was at a pull in Nova Scotia that she met Joe Smith.

“My dad was their with his oxen, and Joe was there with his horses,” she said.

She enjoyed growing up in this environment and looks forward to all the experiences her children ages 7, 4 and 3 weeks will have at the pulls.

“I love being around the animals,” she said. “I think it teaches responsibility. It’s what my grandparents did and my kids’ great-grandparents. It’s part of our family.”

Renee also looks forward to raising children around horses and the pulls.

“I’ll just have to plan for the off season,” she said. “I’ll have one in the winter months, so we can enjoy it before we start going to the fairs again.”

For all the aggravations that can sometimes come with traveling all over the countryside to pulls and taking care of the animals, Jill agrees that there is no better way to raise a child.

“It kept them off the streets,” Jill said. “You always knew where they were, and they always had something to do.”

The Smiths have even had time to take family vacations.

“We went to Florida,” Jill said. “Of course it was to watch the horse pulls.”

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