The tension in the barn is palpable.
The electric energy of nervous riders mixes with the muffled sound of horses neighing and the heady scent of manure. Eager mothers paint eye shadow onto their adolescent daughters before their class. Each “class” signifies a different level of competition, and there are about 20 of them scheduled for this session at the UPHA American Royal National Championship Horse Show in Kansas City, Kansas.
The horses are being primed, too. People take extensions, made with real horse hair, and wash them with Mane ’n Tail shampoo. Hardy barn hands run to the warm-up arena with a towel and sheen spray. Some even run behind horses as they trot to the show arena, brushing tails and wiping spit from animals’ frothy mouths.
Meanwhile, stern riding instructors and haughty trainers stand at the edge of the arena, shouting demands to their riders: “Sit up straight! Shorten your reins! Did you hear me? Slow down!”
The competition is about to begin. Inside, the arena is decorated with roses and ferns, and there’s a stage in the center for the judging committee. An organist plays “Summer Samba” and “In the Mood” to the beat of the horses’ gaits. The ringmaster, dressed in a P.T. Barnum red circus costume, escorts judges to the center ring, arm in arm.
Horses and riders are being judged on three gaits: walk, trot, and canter. The best riders bring strong energy and motion. The audience yelps and screams for their favorites.
After everyone has taken their turn, the riders line up in the center of the ring with the ringmaster, and the winner is announced. There are gasps in the crowd. A blue ribbon is pinned on the bridle, and the team celebrates with a victory lap, followed by a photo to commemorate the moment. The photographer hunches down while a trainer throws a towel in the air, the horse equivalent of “Say cheese!,” which helps the animal look alert for the photo.
During the show, stables showcase winning ribbons on stall doors. They’re colorful, in order first to eighth: blue, red, yellow, white, pink, green, purple, and brown. Some riders decorate poster boards with images of their horse and fun facts to display alongside their ribbons. The horses have cute “barn names” like T-Bone and Gus, short for their full registered names, which include lengthy monikers like CH Cloverleaf Freedom Writer, the Pickup Line, Cheetah’s Hollywood Pride, and I’m Ziggy Stardust. (The “CH” stands for “Champion,” and the horse gets that added to their registered name if they win a certain number of championships in their lifetime.)
For the barn, these shows are all about building a good reputation, and most take their decorating very seriously. Hired barn hands will hang cloth curtains on stable doors. Each barn has colors that represent it, and the themed colors cover barn doors to make the stables look chic. Old pier lamp posts are installed near the feeding rooms, and wood chips and small boulders are arranged at the entrance of each barn aisle to create a grandiose landscape. Some barns even go so far as to feature mini waterfalls and koi ponds.
Everything about English riding is grand spectacle. The style originated in Europe, and came to the United States in the mid-19th century. In the early days, English riding was a way for people to show off their horses in parks on Sunday afternoons. Nowadays, it’s one of the greatest and least talked-about sports in America.
In English riding, there are many breeds and judging requirements. Some horses are jumpers (hunter jumper), judged on a jumping course, while others are judged on a flat course (dressage). Some are saddle horses (saddleseat), and are judged on animation of gait and the beauty of the rider.
Mya Lear, an 18-year-old trainer at Lear Stables in Hastings, grew up in the English horse show scene. Her mother and grandmother have both worked as trainers and riding instructors. Together, they are three generations of gritty, passionate women who don’t plan on leaving the horse industry anytime soon. Last year, Mya brought her horse, Vinnie, to the American Royal Nationals in Kansas City, Kansas.
“There’s a feeling you get right before you make a pass that makes or breaks your class,” Lear says. “It’s irreplaceable. The energy overwhelms your body and you have to control it to prevent mistakes. It’s a psychological high and a physical workout at the same time. The horse under you has so much power, but you’re the one deciding how to use it.”
Judy Oleson, another avid show rider, started riding in her 30s. Now in her early 70s, she still shows her horse, Seren. “The fact that one can keep riding for a long time is very important to me,” she says. “I love the relationship you develop with your horse. I have found them to be an excellent teacher. The horse I currently own is the most challenging. She has taught me patience, perseverance, and the ability to rise to many occasions that I would have not thought possible.”
Participating in the sport is no casual venture, as it involves a great deal of investment, including time and money.
Appearance is important for success. At a show, horses are so polished you could eat dinner off their backside (though that’s not recommended). Tail switches are washed and tied onto the horse’s tailbone with shoestring to make their tails look fuller and longer. Grooms lather horses’ white stockings with baby powder to make their markings look more crisp and white. Leg, ear, and nose hair is trimmed, and hooves are painted with polish so the horse appears more clean-cut. Ribbons are braided into their mane, color-coordinated with their barn color to show pride. Horses that are jumpers have their manes and tails braided entirely. On a good day, it can take two to three hours to get one horse fully ready.
As far as human fashion is concerned, English riders typically wear tuxedo-style jackets with chic matching riding pants, though styles differ among divisions. Men look a bit like mobsters, sporting bolero hats (hello, Beyonce’s “Formation”) and black suits with ties. Women, on the other hand, wear felt top hats or helmets, colorful silk vests, and, in some classes, a tie.
Outfits can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000. And that’s just the clothing. Paying to bring a horse to a show can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 when you add up the shipping/trailer, stall bedding, feed, and class entry fees. Throughout a show season, riders must attend three to five shows to qualify for championships at the end of the year.
Then there’s the time commitment. Riders prep for months, often entire winters, in hopes of show-season success.
“I spent six days a week at the barn,” Lear says of her preparation for Nationals. “I went to the gym every day. My horse wasn’t easy to ride; he had off days, days he didn’t want to listen. But none of that mattered. If I wanted to go, I was the one who had to get him through it. If you aren’t giving your all, you can’t expect your horse to.”
Ideally, all of the cost pays off at the shows, which are typically multi-day events.
During a competition, trainers, families, supporting riders, and friends are encouraged to scream and cheer loudly. Some fellow riders will even stand at the fence and howl and yelp. New onlookers are often taken by surprise at the spectacle.
Horses are judged on manners, energy level, level of enjoyment, and control. Some classes judge the riders as well. Riders should sit up tall, stay strong in body, and look happy and confident.
“The horses are just as passionate about kicking ass as I am,” says Lear. “I like a horse that’s a little bit too confident, like that girl in school who was never self-conscious so you were a little jealous, but were also proud that she knew how pretty she was. That’s the good kind of horse.”
This is a world filled with big personalities. Imagine the equine version of Best in Show, Christopher Guest’s mockumentary about people who enter prestigious dog shows. Like the movie, the horse show is all about the people and their animals. You have the energetic horse girl, the overly involved show mom, the pristine and punctual trainer, and the helicopter horse owner.
It’s also a world with camaraderie and a tight-knit community. Each day, festivities continue into the evening. People will put together things like black-and-white galas, wine pulls, and potluck dinners, typically hosted in the cow barn across the street or another nearby location. The dinners are robust and plentiful, filled with conversations on judging fairness, horses for sale, training blunders, and relationships. The entire weekend can feel like a hardworking faux getaway at the Catskills.
The after-hours portion of the show is one of Lear’s favorites. “The passion we all share somehow convinces everyone to meet up every night to enjoy food and drinks as music plays and we talk about everything horses,” she says. “Who sold who to who? What horse switched divisions? Which person won that class? Who’s going to Louisville [World Championships] this year? In the arena, people will fight to win until the winner is called, but everyone is family.”
When the sun sets on the final day, the horses are expertly packaged to ship back to their homes with leg wraps and recovery travel suits (yes, horses have those). Barn hands dump out coolers that once housed Pinot Grigio and bottled water. All of the hard work is over... until next time.
English horse shows are a delight, but they are also very niche. That can lead to questions about the future of the sport. With the sport’s high cost and low accessibility, its popularity has dwindled, especially in the Midwest. The most popular English competitions are where the money is: along the East Coast and in the South. The sport can come off as elite, as people with more money can buy better horses, gain access to more experience, and afford to go to more competitions.
Lear has another way of thinking about it, however. “You make a team. You don’t buy a team. The ones who end up doing this forever aren’t always the richest,” she notes. “The thing about the horse community is we all want everyone to win... but it’s a matter of how hard they will work for it. There are plenty of barns around the country where everyone can get their fair share, but you have to stand up and do it.”
Oleson agrees. “I think that most people who do this set aside a good portion of their disposable income for their love of horses,” she says. “It is hard to say where the future of the sport is going. But I will certainly do my best to make sure folks get to see these wonderful animals and get to know them.”
These humans care deeply about their animals. Many stables have been around for 20 to 30 years, and a lot of them have been passed down through generations. For horse people in Minnesota, this is how summer weekends are spent.
“The horses are my athletes, partners, and therapists,” Lear says. “The barn is a place I can escape from the chaos of the world. The sport is a way for me to feel strong and confident and good about myself. I continue to ride because I can’t imagine how to go through life without it.”
Upcoming American Midwest Horse Shows
Minnesota State Fair
Aug. 22-Sept. 2
Minnesota Arabian Horse Association Fall Classic
(Winona, Minnesota Equestrian Center)
Minnesota Harvest Show
Minnesota Futurity Horse Show
(Winona, Minnesota Equestrian Center)
Octoberfest Horse Show
(Simon Arena, Cannon Falls)
4th Annual MN Academy Equestrian Finals
(Compeer Arena, Fairgrounds)
Riders & Ribbons Horse Show (Qualifiers 2019)
(Compeer Arena, Fairgrounds)