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The Rundown: Homecoming

Horse-show memories are the best kind of memories.

By Tara Matsler
The American Quarter Horse Journal
August 22, 2013

Our First Millun and Tara Christiansen-Matsler, Don Trout photo

Back in the day when I was riding the rail, let's say at 10 years old, Our First Millun was brilliant on the left lead. Alas, on the right lead, not-so-brilliant. (Don Trout photo)

When I was at my first horse show – 10 years old, with legs so short my spurs couldn’t reach under the saddle pad – never would I have guessed I’d one day be covering a show there, let alone for The American Quarter Horse Journal.

At that time, I was certain of three things: I liked playing soccer, I enjoyed writing and I loved horses. While soccer has fallen off my list of hobbies, the latter two have stayed. If anything, they’ve grown.

I was lucky enough to get to cover the AQHA Region One Championship last week at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe, Washington. You see, the Fairgrounds and I go way back.

As I bumped along the back roads on Wednesday morning, looking to make it in time for a few photos of cutting, the event that kicked off the show, I smiled at the thought of just how many times I’d beaten a path from my childhood home to the show grounds. It’s a mere 10 miles, and the trips I’ve made are countless.

I pulled in, bounced across the gravel parking lot and brought my car to rest. I walked down the stretch of pavement leading from the parking lot, past the barns where the draft horses are stalled during the Snohomish County Fair; it just happens to start this week. The rhododendrons are all bloomed out now, but they would have been brilliant in May for the Washington State Quarter Horse Association’s trophy circuit. Finally, I found myself at the indoor arena after I “Howdied” a few folks I hadn’t seen in a while. As I stepped under the big overhang, winding my way around horses, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia.  

The Evergreen State Fairgrounds was where I made my horse-showing debut. At that time, I struggled lap after lap to get my golden-aged mare, Our First Millun, to pick up the right lead. Every time I’d go around the ring, my dad would mutter under his breath, “You’re on the wrong lead.” Finally, I reached the point where 1). I could tell what lead I was on and 2). could do a pretty good job of getting it correct right off the bat. I learned to persevere.

The Region One cutting classes had wrapped up, and as I waited for working cow horse to get underway, I moseyed over to the covered arena. I could see myself, probably 11 at the time, trying to get “Millie” to step at least one hoof into the waterbox featured in our trail course. She didn’t … at least until Dad got on. Everyone laughed at his legs, scrunched up like a jockey in my mini-saddle. I learned to have a sense of humor, even in the most frustrating of times.

Still trying to kill time before the Region One cow horse classes, I wandered over to the outdoor ring, and before me played my first reining run. Who knew that’d be the event that put me through college? Back when I was 14, I became known as “The Pink Streak” in that outdoor pen; partly for my fuschia shirt, and partly for the little bay blur I raced around on. Let’s just say Dad was less than thrilled with the bad habits I was teaching his cow horse. I learned that reining isn’t just about speed; finesse always comes first.

My memories took me forward one year, where I struggled in that same outdoor pen to change leads on my 5-year-old gelding, TC Lena. We were having a dispute – he was adamant that every lead change included a kickout. At that time, I would have never ventured a guess that just two years later we’d be crowned world champions. That was the dream that I hungered for, that I lived for. I learned to set my goals in stages; you’ve got to walk before you can run.

I turned around, aiming to head back to the indoor arena. I spotted the picnic bench that I would stand on so my mom could zip up my chaps. That one year I had grown so much we feared we’d never get the chaps zipped. I learned that with a good deal of determination, anything is possible.

Once I returned to the indoor arena, I noticed the cattle set-up, which is not all that unlike it was in 2004. It was the year before my brother, Travis, caught the horse-show bug. At that summer circuit, a snotty heifer crashed into the heavy-duty cattle gate, which sent my unassuming brother, who was standing on the other side of said gate, flying through the air. During his flight, he knocked into the photographer’s light stand, and sometime later landed on the ground. He soared higher than my head, and I was horseback. Naturally, he was unconscious for a few minutes. The heifer tore across the show grounds, wreaking havoc as she went. They found her some days later in the dairy herd down the road. I learned that there’s a reason why we ride horses, not cows.

Here, at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds, I learned that anything is possible. This is where my love for horse showing not just started, but where it was planted, germinated, cultivated and harvested.

As I drove in and out of the Region One Championship show grounds each day last week, I watched the progression of the fair’s carnival as it came to form. In just a few days, I knew this place would be swarming with families angling for a Walla Walla burger (a hamburger slathered in Walla Walla onions) and a Purple Cow (that’d be a Sprite-blackberry ice cream float). There’d be kids who had horses and those who didn’t know what they were missing.

Maybe at this year’s county fair some young kid will fall in love with horses on these same grounds, just like I did so long ago. I can only hope they’d be so lucky.

Enjoy more horse-showing quips, quotes and anecdotes from AQHA Internet Editor Tara Matsler by visiting The Rundown archives at www.aqha.com/therundown.