Goose Pulling, An Odd And Barbaric Pastime

On July 3, 2015 by Tim Newman

Humans have a long and distinguished history of cruelty to animals. But, as time and culture has marched on we’ve become ever sensitive to other organism’s plight; this snail paced progress hasn’t stopped us being more than a little macabre on the side.

So what’s goose pulling then? The “art” of goose pulling has a pretty simple premise with a few variations. The main gist of it is thus: you take a live goose, tie it up securely by its feet and rub grease all over its head. Then you attempt to yank its head clean off. The person who decapitates the goose first is the winner. Lovely.

Goose pulling is a blood sport with its roots in antiquity. It’s so gory and daft you might imagine it had been left in the dark ages, but it still continues to this day, just in a slightly neutered form.

Goose pulling, also called gander pulling, goose riding or pulling the goose, started in 17th century. The original version of the game involved riding at full pelt on a horse and attempting to decapitate the poor goose by hand as you flew past.

Goose Pulling By Remington

The game was originally found in the Netherlands, England, Belgium, Spain and North America. Goose pulling was most common in the Netherlands and Germany and rarer in Britain, mostly practiced in the north of England and Scotland where it seems to have died out in the 18th century.

Philip Parsons described the proceedings of an average goose pull in England in 1771:

In the Northern parts of England it is no unusual diversion to tie a rope across a street and let it swing about the distance of ten yards from the ground. To the middle of this a living cock [sic] is tied by the legs. As he swings in the air, a set of young people ride one after another, full speed, under the rope, and rising in the stirrups, catch at the animal’s head, which is close clipped and well soaped, in order to elude the grasp. Now he who is able to keep his seat in his saddle, and his hold of the bird’s head, so as to carry it off in his hand, bears away the palm, and becomes the noble hero of the day.

Grabbing a flailing goose with a greased head was tricky enough, but to make things extra spicy they would sometimes employ people to whip the rider’s horse as he passed the goose.

Goose Pulling Modern Day Belgium

Dutch settlers in North America took the sport over with them. Here’s a description of a goose pulling competition written in the 1850’s by Charles Grandison Parsons. This particular goose pulling extravaganza took place in Milledgeville, which was the capital of Georgia at the time:

At the appointed time, rude whisky tents, and festive seats, and shades, were prepared around the “pulling course;” and thousands of spectators – ladies as well as gentlemen, the elite as well as the vulgar – assembled to engage in or witness the favorite sport…
Tickets were issued by the proprietor of the gander, at fifty cents each, to all gentlemen present who wished for them, and they entered their names as “pullers”. The pullers were to start about ten rods [about 50 m / 165 ft] from the gander, on horseback, riding at full speed, and as they passed along under the gander, they had the privilege of pulling off his head – which would entitle them to the additional privilege of eating him…
One entered the list – a “gentleman of property and standing” – and dashed over the course. The poor gander – seeming quite resigned to his fate, or not comprehending his danger, and not knowing how to “dodge” – had his neck seized by the first rider; but being well oiled, and his head so small, and his strength not yet exhausted, he slipped his head through the puller’s hand without suffering much from the twist… After this he kept a sharp look out, and many pullers passed by without being able to grapple his neck. The game went on, and the pullers increased, till the jaded gander could elude their grasp no longer. An old Cracker – with a sandpaper glove on – pulled off his head at last, amid the shouts of a wondering host of intoxicated competitors.

The prize for winning these competitions was generally something trivial, often just the manhandled bird itself. More than anything it was a show of manhood, skill and strength. Spectators, on the other hand, came for the general joy of the goose pulling event, the booze and the betting.

One contemporary observer noted…

…the whoopin’, and hollerin’, and screamin’, and bettin’, and excitement, beats all; there ain’t hardly no sport equal to it.

You might imagine that such a pastime has disappeared in our modern, liberal, gentile society. But no, it still plays out in some parts of the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany during Shrove celebrations and also in Basque country in Spain. The following pictures are from celebrations in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Goose Pulling Modern Day

It’s worth noting that the use of a live goose was banned in the 1920’s; today they only use a goose which has been humanely despatched by a veterinarian. This hasn’t stopped animal rights groups from complaining though.

Notably in 2008 the Dutch Party for Animals (PvdD) proposed that goose pulling should be banned; the organisers, Folk Verein Gawstrèkkers Beeg, rejected the proposal, pointing out that there was no cruelty to animals because the geese were already good and dead. There’s no doubt that the game is a little unsavoury, but there are no laws against that.

Goose Pulling Modern Day Grevenbicht Netherlands 2 Goose Pulling Modern Day Grevenbicht Netherlands

Goose Pulling Modern Day Grevenbicht Netherlands 3

(No, I have no idea what the mad outfit is about).

A similar competition is held in modern Basque country, they call it the Day of Geese. It has exactly the same premise, except this time the goose is suspended above the harbour and participants jump from their boats as they slip past. Once again, these geese are now executed before the “fun” begins:

Goose Pulling - Day Of Geese 1 Goose Pulling - Day Of Geese 2 Goose Pulling - Day Of Geese 3 Goose Pulling - Day Of Geese 4 Goose Pulling - Day Of Geese 5

Silly old humans, hey?





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