Ban’ei racing is a type of pulling race currently practiced in Hokkaido, Japan. Draft horses pull heavy sleds over ramps in a race that tests speed, endurance and strength.

History

Ban’ei racing originated in Tokachi, a region of Hokkaido, and for the most part, has not spread beyond that region. Much like other pulling competitions, pulling was used as a test of strength. Horses responsible for heavy farm work were the draft horses, known for the incredible strength. Farmers, wanting to test the abilities of draft horses, would pit two horses against one another in a pulling competition. These informal tests were organized into Ban’ei races in 1946. During the changing of administrations, the breeding of the horses was grossly overlooked. While many horses in Ban’ei racing today are not purebreds, the breeding has at least increased significantly since that time.

Ban’ei Races

Two draft horses are used for each team in Ban’ei racing. The horses pull a Sori, which is a heavy sledge. A jockey sits atop the Sori to spur the horses on. The track is 656 feet long. The direction of the track is straight, and there are two ramps space out along the track. Each pulling horse has its own lane. The first ramp measures three feet fall while the second stands at five and a half feet.

The movement in Ban’ei racing is not always continuous. The draft horses must strain and pull to move the heavy Sori, and oftentimes, horses will need to pause either to catch their breath or gain better footing.

The weight pulled by each team of horses is determined based upon handicap. The age of the horse and the horse’s pulling history determine how much weight the horse should pull. The weight should be challenging without causing physical injury for the horses. Most sleds weigh at least 1,000 pounds and can weigh up to a ton for the strongest of Ban’ei racers.

Ban’ei races are held year-round, in spite of the weather. Unlike other horse races, a slippery mud track can actually be an advantage in Ban’ei racing. Draft horses generally perform well in wet conditions and the mud can help the sled to slide along the track.

In Ban’ei racing, the jockey plays a very important role in the strategy of the race. The jockeys can choose to rest in between each ramp, or to power through both in one burst of energy. The jockey makes the decision and directs the horses accordingly. A large push for both ramps is obviously faster than a rest, but pushing the horses too hard will set the team back if the horses lose endurance and power over the second, high obstacle.

Ban’ei Horses

Draft horses are used in Ban’ei racing. Draft horses are known for their ability to pull, carry heavy loads and willingness to work. The three breeds of horses used in Ban’ei racing are Percherons, Bretons and Belgians. The horses that race Ban’ei are not necessarily purebreds with perfect pedigrees, but can be described based upon their breed.

Percherons are large and well-muscled. Large Percheron horses can stand up to 18.1hh and weigh over 2,500 pounds. They are typically gray or black in color, though there are a few variations. Percherons have very strong legs and muscular hindquarters. They also have a kind disposition, even temperament and adept well to work environments.

Bretons are strong draft horses as well. They do not grow to be quite as tall as Percherons. Typically, a large Breton horse is 16hh. Bretons are usually a chestnut color. The horses have short, muscular necks and strong withers. They have strong, broad chests. There are different subcategories in Breton horses. Ban’ei Bretons are descended from presumably the largest of the breed.

Belgian draft horses are strong and heavy. They are generally a lighter shade of chestnut. The Belgian draft horse is the heaviest of draft horses with an average weigh of 2,000 pounds and the heaviest recorded at over 3,200 pounds. Belgian horses are also tall. Belgian draft horses are proven to pull the most weight in most pulling competitions. They are not only strong and muscular, but they are also determined.

Horse Racing in Japan

Horse racing is very popular in Japan, from cultural races like Ban’ei racing to adopt European and American racing varieties. Most racing competitions offer a great deal of money for the winners. As Ban’ei racing increases in popularity, stricter regulations are coming in to the sport. Some jockeys use a technique in which they pull back hard on the reins to pull forward in the Sori and thus gain momentum, but this is thought to be cruel to the horses.

Ban’ei racing takes place at one track in Obihiro, Hokkai. The Ban’ei racing industry employs 10,000 people at just one track. The sport attracts tourism from around the world, as well as across Japan. Ban’ei races are a rich part of the traditions in Obihiro. The sport began to decline over the years, but a hefty contribution from Softback and a renewed commitment from the city of Obihiro led to the revival of Ban’ei racing.

Ban’ei racing is an important part of Japanese culture. Horse racing is a popular pastime in Japan. Japanese jockeys are revered culturally and top jockeys reach a sort of celebrity status. Ban’ei racing is particularly special because it is of Japanese origin and is unique only to Japan.

Ban’ei racing is a test of wills. The horses must have incredible mental strength as well as physical strength to carry on in Ban’ei racing. The races also test strategy as the jockey understands when the horses must rest and when they can push on. The race is not fast-paced but that does not take away from any of the excitement.

Draft horses are a beautiful picture of strength and endurance. The horses have a sweet, docile disposition, but when pulling they are fierce and strong. They are an excellent representation of what horses can achieve. Horses are used in sport as well as for utilitarian purposes in Japan. The races also cultural heritage to live on, while simultaneously making way for new advances in technology that might have rendered the draft horses obsolete.