Story by Janis Barth
Photos by Patty Louise
“You may now enter for Class Number 21.”
In the show ring, chaos erupts in extremely slow motion.
Despite the presence of riders and reins, the horses are treating the in-gate as an equine meet-and-greet. On one side of the arena, a three-horse pileup occurs at a pace that can best be described as a meander, then untangles itself at something on the sluggish side of a stroll.
From the good-natured gray to the dark chestnut whose rider never loses his smile, they are all four-legged candidates for sainthood.
Except, of course, for the pony, whose tiny devil horns are clearly visible through his little, pricked ears.
This is the Beginner Walk/Jog Western Pleasure class at the 178th Madison County fair, among the oldest in New York. A commemorative plaque on a large rock marks the spot on the Brookfield fairgrounds where, once upon a more historically significant past, the great orator Frederick Douglass delivered a fiery anti-slavery speech to 12,000 people. On that day in 1856, it was recorded, the crowd was so great that people had to tie up their horses to houses across the town.
On this day in 2017, it will be recorded, the teenagers handing out free tickets to senior citizens will easily manage both their entry duties and nonstop flirt-a-thon. But what it lacks in size, the fair makes up for in spunk. A four-day homage to goats, sheep, cattle, poultry and rabbits, there are no fewer than five places to buy deep-fried Oreos, a daily frozen T-shirt contest, Ag Appreciation breakfast and, inexplicably, a Youth Day presentation on Poetry: Past and Present.
The horse show loudspeaker crackles to life.
“You are now being judged. Walk please, all walk.”
“What am I looking for?” one newly-minted spectator asks. Well, says her friend, before launching into a lengthy explanation of how the walk is a four-beat gait, unlike the canter which is a three-beat gait, and that the horse should look as if he is marching.
Together they peer over the top of the show ring fence at the equine conga line that has sorted itself into a sort-of shuffle. Reins wave. Boots thump equine sides. The horses, gentle guardians of their pint-sized cargo, are steadfast. One trusty hoof falls solidly in front of the other, unbothered by barking dogs, encouraging clucks from the ringside show parents, or resounding moos from the nearby dairy pageant.
Except, of course, for the pony, whose devil horns have grown several inches and been joined by a demonic gleam in his eye.
“So what am I looking for?”
Her friend shrugs. “The one
that looks the most like they’re
riding?” she offers.
"And that one is?”
The ringmaster holds up two
fingers and the loudspeaker gargles: “Jog please, all jog.”
The big horses pick up the pace, shuffling with determination and slightly more forward thrust. They have done this so many times they recognize the hand signal before the command is spoken. Good horses all, obedient and kind.
Except, of course, for the pony, whose devil horns and demonic gleam are now joined by four little forked hooves. This is the moment he has been waiting for, and he seizes it. With a snort he is off, legs a blur, lapping the big horses who eye him as he whizzes past with a look that clearly says “Jeez dude, relax.” Once, twice – he is closing in on a new world record for most circuits of the show ring by a very small equine when the ringmaster holds up a single finger.
“Walk please, all walk, and come into the center of the ring.”
Ask anyone who rides, and they will tell you it teaches more than how to stay on the back of a horse or bring home a blue ribbon. Riding teaches discipline and dedication and patience and, on many days, humility. This day is one of them, because ask any pony and – if they are being honest – they will tell you that with careful planning and a little fancy footwork, you can spend your entire show ring career in walk/trot and never have to break a sweat.
So today’s ribbon is pink, fifth place
out of six in the class. The pony’s
rider politely takes the ribbon and
says thanks, but there is dejection
in the downward curve of her
shoulder. The pony prances out
of the ring as if his rider had just
hoisted the World Cup trophy.
“At least you didn’t come in last.”
“Some judges just like the big
“You looked really good – you’ll
do better next time, I know you will.”
Hugs and shoulder pats come in a
steady shower from the older girls showing with her. Mom takes a firm grip of the pony’s reins and the situation. Have you looked at your pattern yet? Come on, she says, let’s look at your pattern. Together, pony in tow, they walk over to the show board where the pages flutter in what will soon be the edge of an afternoon thunderstorm. They study the diagrams and plan for the next class.
Except, of course, for the pony, who grabs a mouthful of grass and stares off into the middle distance. His horns, demonic gleam and forked hooves have transformed on cue into the dappled chubby image of innocence.
Sugar wouldn’t melt in his little Shetland mouth.
IN THE BEGINNING: The lessons of the fall are rooted in summer, at leadline classes, beginner walk/trot and junior hunter over 2-foot fences.