LITCHFIELD – It started, like so many friendships, with a bit of food and drink. Cameron Ridley searched until he learned what Steve would devour the fastest, and then Cameron kept him coming back with a steady supply.
“After a while, it just started coming to me,” the 10-year-old Litchfield boy said of Steve, a 3-month-old pig. Before Ridley knew it, Steve was walking up stairs and sprinting down ramps, all to make the boy happy. And then, of course, there was the cheese.
“I just let it know I’m his friend and that I’m going to help him and do what it needs,” Ridley said. “It’s a very nice pig.”
Ridley is one of nine youngsters, ages 5 to 11, to spend the last month raising a pig to race in this weekend’s Litchfield Fair. Each pig, weighing about 60 pounds, was trained to run to its trainer for a treat.
This is the third year in which Karen Stinson, a member of the fair’s board of directors, has organized the races after getting the idea from the 4-H swine club at the Cumberland Fair.
Stinson, who chose the children from among relatives and friends who are fair regulars, said the idea is to continue to pass along the responsibility and dedication learned by caring for livestock. All of the pigs will be sold at the fair. Stinson hopes to make enough money off the sales to make the program self-sufficient and expand it to allow other children to participate.
“A lot of farms around Litchfield have gone out of business,” said Stinson, whose family used to own a dairy farm. “This is a great way to teach kids.”
The races are informal affairs. A winner will be declared by averaging out the best finishes, but no prizes up for grabs beyond the bragging rights.
Lauren Fredsall, 10, of Richmond, said her pig, Albert, turned up his nose at Oreo cookies. Fredsall struck brown gold, however, when she tried chocolate-flavored graham crackers.
“I say my pig’s name and he comes running toward me,” Fredsall said. “Sometimes he gets freaked out when my friends are over and they want to see him.” It turns out that racing pigs is hardly as simple as lining them up and yelling “go.” It begins with the arduous – if not somewhat traumatic, at least for the pig – trip from the petting barn to the starting gate. The 60-pound-porkers squeal and kick at their handlers, but they are clearly unharmed. They begin nuzzling sawdust, looking for treats, as soon as they are placed in the gate.
Each heat consists of three pigs. The young trainer approaches the starting gate and lets his or her pig have a good sniff of the treat. The trainer then goes to the other end of the rink, about 30 feet away, and sits in a chair. The trainers can call, cajole or do anything else to get their pigs to come, as long as the trainers remain seated.
In theory, the pigs should bolt from the gate when they are released, but in practice the critters often have to be coaxed from the gate. Then they mill around the rink, sniffing at the sawdust. Stinson said it will take a few races to get the pigs used to the pen, at which point she expects most of the animals to run toward their trainers when released from the gate. Pigs, she said, have a terrific sense of smell.
“They smell all the little somethin’ somethin’ in there, and get distracted,” Stinson said. “It’s just part of the learning process. The pig, if it works right, is supposed to run to their child and eat a bit of the treat. The first pig that bites the treat is the winner.”
The meandering pigs did little to detract from the fun or dissuade the expectant trainers, who, after each race, turned into impromptu pig-scramblers to capture their pigs and return them to the petting barn.
Fredsall knows she will miss Albert when the pig is sold at the end of the weekend. Still, she said, caring for him has been “a fun experience.”
“I usually go out in the morning and I see him,” Fredsall said. “It’s going to be weird.”