Remember when horse shows were fun?
Remember when you caught up with your far-flung friends the day before the show and updated each other on all you’d been doing?
Remember when you schooled your horse and then rode around bareback because you could?
Remember the days before vet trucks and farriers were parked at the end of each aisleway, patching weary show horses together at the last minute, so they could carry our egos around for one more class?
Remember when parents and kids showed the same horse in different divisions and even loaned their horses to friends to show, then all camped out together instead of staying at a pricey hotel?
I was reminded of all of this during the 2018 Haflinger National Show at the Kentucky Horse Park in July. The show was a trip back to my future, an opportunity to see more than 100 Haflingers together at the same time, and a chance to solidify some budding friendships and plant seeds of new ones. And it was a chance to learn a lot about this breed of sturdy, charming horses and the people who love them.
As each day passes and I think about the show and the journey, I’m more pleased with my choice to plan the trip and make it happen. It was worth it.
By the end of June, final preparations were underway. My friend Julie Farmer and I would road trip my truck and two-horse trailer filled to the brim to the Kentucky Horse Park, while our mare, Lia, would head east with a commercial hauler, and our other five team members flew from San Diego.
Having six different women show one horse in 40 classes at a four-day show, from halter, western, English, driving, costume and everything in between, called for the logistics planning of a military campaign.
After three 12-hour driving days and brief overnights, Julie, her dog Joey and I pulled up to the Alltech Arena to unload and realized we were the only souls at the facility. It was 96 degrees and 80 percent humidity the evening we arrived, and we thought we’d melt right into the asphalt aisleway of the barn. We did an initial offload of some of our extensive horse baggage, then found our AirBnB. We slept like the dead.
Early the next morning we met up with Lia at the showgrounds. Her eyes lit up as she saw grass, and she dragged me off to graze, an experience she hasn’t had in California. After a little salad bar dining, Lia retired to her stall, as Julie and I began to set up our decorations and organize our tack room.
With the stall contest theme being “Golden Good Times,” it was an easy choice to transform our stalls into an Old West gold mining town. We scrambled around to create a 40′ long western town complete with a saloon, Lia’s Mercantile, a sheriff’s office, the Haflingerville Bank and an assay office to show off our gold mining pans, pick axes and small muslin bags filled with gold nugget chewing gum and tiny toy Haflingers.
Since Lia’s stall was next to the sheriff’s office she starred in a horse-sized wanted poster. We used our end stall facing the wide aisle for the Golden Good Times saloon, which was also a Haflinger-sized photo booth complete with silly western props.
The people we met were a delight. Because of my pre-show blogging, several exhibitors reached out to introduce themselves before we even arrived in Kentucky, and many more came by to meet us during the show.
Throughout the event, people gave us a warm welcome and thanked us for coming all the way from California, and they cheered for Lia when she placed well. Our daily #TeamLia t-shirts identified each of us as part of Lia’s support group, but by the end of the show, we felt that just about everyone at the show had joined #TeamLia as well.
Lia made friends too. She met her full brother Avion of Genesis, aka “Jet,” and they showed together to second place in the Produce of Dam class. It was uncanny how similar the full siblings looked and acted. We met Lia’s breeder and her first owner who broke her to drive also.
Because Lia is sound and fit, and because we had practiced with her at schooling shows back home in lots of classes, we knew she was comfortable with our plan. We also knew Lia had both the endurance and sensible temperament for which the breed is known. It’s a Haflinger thing to show in multiple divisions and age groups with these sturdy horses.
Lia placed consistently that first day including a seventh place in the biggest class of the show, open English pleasure, with 29 entries. Watching those beautiful and almost identical golden Haflingers in the arena at once was a memorable sight. Lia also showed in trail and driving classes and exceeded our expectations in every class by being exactly the same horse as she was at home.
Day 2 and 3 of the show continued in the same vein with Lia and her girls winning a few classes, lots of seconds, and placing well in almost every event. She never cheated, never had any mare-tude. Lia seemed to enjoy her time in the limelight and accepted new situations, like showing with Joey the Jack Russell in her cart for the carriage dog class or wearing giant baskets of faux Alpen flowers attended by her two dirndl-clad maidens in the costume class. (Tip: train a Haflinger to enjoy wearing laundry baskets by feeding her hay in the baskets!)
Lia and Delaney Van Horn even did the versatility class, which included pleasure driving, English pleasure, western horsemanship and barrel racing with all tack and clothing changes made right in the arena. Lia isn’t a fast barrel racer, but lots of long fringe on her tack gave her the illusion of speed as she loped around the barrels with Delaney laughing.
Day 4 was our last chance for Lia to show her stuff, and she certainly did, bringing home a total of nine high point or reserve awards with her consistent performances.
Best of all, Lia was as cooperative and cheerful in her last class of the show as her first. She never put a hoof wrong in all her classes. I’m still stunned by how kind and consistent our little Haflinger mare was. No prep, no fuss, no hassle seems to be the Haflinger way.
We packed up, said our goodbyes, and put Lia on a trailer to go on her next summer adventure: north to Michigan with her breeder to prep for the annual Haflinger inspection and classification, which takes place in late July in Ohio. Although classification is not required for breeding stock, it made sense to me to have Lia evaluated before bringing her home. I plan to breed her someday, and she was about 2,000 miles closer to an inspection than she ever will be again.
Julie and I headed west with Joey helping entertain us on our long drive. Our biggest excitement was blowing a tire and leaf spring on the horse trailer in Oklahoma, but we were rescued and on our way again with a minimum of hassle.
Thirty-five hours in the truck driving home gave me lots of time to reflect on my Haflinger Adventure so far. The national show, with our team and our dreams, was the realization of my Breyer horse girl fantasies.
For one summer, I’ve had my own show string (OK, one horse but she’s a star!), my own snazzy show setup (yeah, a gold rush town, but we won the stall decorating contest!), my own barn of expert horsewomen/friends competing under my ranch name, and best of all, a beautiful, solid, happy horse who made the prizes much less important than the process.
Each member of #TeamLia was at a turning point of sorts in our lives when we left for the show. It was such a treat for us to step away from reality for a week and spend time with each other and with Lia. We were able to go to our safe place—horses—to pause from our headlong dash through life and remember, again, when horse shows were fun.
And the Haflinger Adventure continues: I’ll blog about my pocket warmblood and her breed inspection on my next post… stay tuned!
Suzanne Vlietstra is an older-and-wider-rider who lives in southern California with her teenage son, dogs and horses. She is rich in friends and stories from her past charmed existence, with a large bucket list ahead still to pursue.