You Must Remember This: Fanfare at the OC Fair horse show

By NANCY GARDNER

From practically the moment I was born I was horse crazy. Apparently my preferred crib toy was a blue plush horse. At 2, I nearly drowned trying to get from our house on the Little Island to the horses where Irvine Terrace now is. As I got older, I read every horse book that was in the library. I had shelves of horse figurines, subscriptions to horse magazines, and finally an actual horse which I kept at the Pasture, the area that is now Crystal Cove State Park. If you lived and breathed horses as those of us at the Pasture did, the highlight of the year was the OC Fair – not for the rides or the cotton candy or bizarre fried foods. None of that mattered. For us, the fair existed for only one reason – the horse show.

Going to the horse show was like a club tennis player going to Indian Wells and watching Roger Federer. Our Pasture horses were serviceable beasts and well-loved, but there was not a pedigree to be found among them. Our equipment was little beyond a bridle, and our apparel tended to jeans and tennis shoes, but at the fair – oh my! Every rider was impeccably dressed. The saddles and bridles were the best you could buy, and the horses – not only did they have papers, but they were burnished and polished and trained to a degree we could barely imagine. It was at the fair that we saw what to us were exotic breeds like Tennessee Walkers and American Standardbreds.  The announcer would cry, “Rack on!” and we would watch in awe as the horses flashed by with their stylish, high-stepping gait.

Events like that seemed part of another world, but fortunately there were the western classes, something that we could relate to, at least in a small way. One of the most accessible was the trail event.  This was designed to emulate a trail ride, something we did, although the obstacles in the ring never resembled anything we ever encountered on our rides. At some point in every trail event there was the rein drop. This was where riders dismounted, let the reins fall to the ground and walked away from their steeds. When the riders turned around, they saw their well-trained horses where they had left them, standing as still as if the reins were affixed to a cement block.

Then there were the stock classes which put horses through various skills associated with cutting cattle – not that we worked cattle, but still some of the moves were like things we did. The highlight of the stock event usually came at the end. Riders started at the far end of the ring, put their mounts into a gallop, and when they reached the middle of the ring, pulled the horses to a stop. And not just any stop – a sliding stop, often of several yards. Amazing!

Inspired, we’d rush home from the fair and put our horses through their paces. We’d drop the reins, walk away, turn around – only to find that our horses had somehow missed the invisible concrete block and ambled amiably after us. Or we set our horses at a dead run then pulled on the reins with a loud “whoa!” Our horses stopped, eventually, but there was nary the hint of a slide. Discouraged? Disenchanted? No more than a golfer with a chronic slice watching Tiger Woods hit his drive straight down the middle of the fairway. At some level, the golfer knows he will never hit a drive like that in his life, but he still can’t wait to play his next 18.

I left horses when I went to college and had virtually no contact with that world, until some years ago I thought I might start riding again. I went to the fairgrounds and found someone who gave lessons, took a few and then stopped. It had nothing to do with the instruction and everything to do with the past. Riding around a ring when my previous experience had been riding in the hills, on the beach – just about anywhere I wanted – somehow going around and around didn’t cut it.

Still, although my experience at the fairgrounds didn’t rekindle my earlier enthusiasm, there is something about riding, about the bond with the horse, that I wish everyone could experience. That’s why I’m so delighted to see that horses will remain at the fairgrounds for new generations of riders, both children and adults.

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Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, long-time resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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