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“Experience the Old West” at the WinterFest
Last year we discovered our niche: History — said Gallatin County Fairgrounds manager Sue Shockley, describing the annual Wild West WinterFest. The tag line was changed to read “Experience the Old West” (it had been “Experience the West”) and folks from Nevada City Living History and a Mountain Man Encampment came together to bring the past to life. A year later, the winter fair will expand on this theme, opening to the public on February 16. It will incorporate the Museum of the Rockies Living History, celebrate the 110th anniversary of the first fair held at the fairgrounds, and host the Fairgrounds History Social.
The Fairgrounds History Social will be held in Building #3, and Sue Shockley invites the community to bring photos or memorabilia from the first 100 years of the fairgrounds (1903 to 2003) to the event. Staff will scan old photographs and take photos of memorabilia as a way of recording the past. “We are trying to build an archive and preserve the history of the fairgrounds,” Shockley said. Items might include ribbons, photographs or trophies.
There are a multitude of new exhibits and events that will be held at this year’s WinterFest. Some include interactive historical exhibits, Snowmobile Spectacular by Octane Additions and a straw bale decorating contest. Returning events include skijouring, a hockey tournament, poultry, rabbit, and quilt shows, and the Bridger Feeds Dog Keg Pull. WinterFest is Feb. 16 through 17 and several traditional events are featured here as follows:
Trail Horse Battle
The Trail Horse Battle is a returning event, and is described by contest planners as an extreme trail competition for horses. Participants are asked to execute a number of obstacles on their horses and are judged based on time and execution and those with the fastest time and highest score win. Several preliminary rounds will be held prior to the WinterFest and the final competition will take place Feb. 16 at 6:30 p.m. The battle will be held in the Indoor Arena at the fairgrounds. The Champion will be awarded a buckle and the Reserve Champion will receive a jacket.
The first competition of this type at the fair was held in 2006 and carried the name of “Battle of the Breeds.” Originally, the goal was to get ten different breeds of horses involved as a way of showing off the variety within the horse species. It was modeled off of an event held in Florida and at Spruce Meadows, an equestrian facility in Calgary, Alberta.
The contest has evolved, however, and course designer Nancy Creel expressed that the committee “started to get great feedback on our trail course and a few years ago, combined everything into one long course which was much more popular with the audience.”
The original goal of showcasing at least ten different breeds became problematic, Creel said. The contest was set up so that in the preliminary rounds, each horse was competing against other horses of its own breed. As a result, “we’d have some outstanding Quarter Horses turned away every year” in order to take a horse of a different breed, Creel said.
However, Creel added, a variety of breeds won during this phase in the evolution of the contest. Those include a Grade gelding purchased from the slaughter pen, an ancient Morgan and a Tennessee Walker.
Last winter, thanks to the Back Country Horseman influence brought by contest judge Janice Cartwright, the Trail Horse Battle took on a new look: It adopted an outdoorsman theme. The course included bear hides, mules, tents and deadfall. Then, at the summer fair, the committee decorated the arena in orange cones and signs, following the road construction theme. The theme this year was undecided at the time of publication.
Sue Shockley spoke to the evolution of the contest in a different light. “I feel the contest has gotten more competitive,” she explained.
Creel expressed a passion for the diverse people that the contest brings together. “Each year we have folks come to our prelims from all different types of riding,” she said. “I really like meeting everyone and creating challenges that are fair.”
She also explained that the spectators’ support is a driving force for her. Last year, she participated as a contestant in the event and her Paso Fino horse balked at a water obstacle. “When he finally put a foot in, the audience broke into wild cheering which caused him to back out,” she described. However, “knowing the audience was behind him, he jumped right back in and crossed with no problem.”
Working Horse and Driver Competition
Back for its 11th year, the Working Horse and Driver Competition consists of four events: obstacle driving, precision pulling, corn cultivating and log skidding, with an obstacle driving event for single horses as well. It will take place in the Indoor Arena on Feb. 17, beginning at 8:30a.m. Awards will include buckles, jackets and cash prizes.
The MSU student driving team will be competing for the fourth year in this competition. This club, a subdivision of the MSU Horseman’s Club, was created in the fall of 2009 and that first year the students competed in an inter-collegiate competition with the University of Montana Western, in Dillon, in addition to the WinterFest competition.
“We smoked them, by the way,” said Andi Shockley, the team coach, referring to the competition in Dillon.
The students practice each week, and attendance varies from a handful to almost 25. The team faces a challenge in only having access to one team of horses, as it often means less hands-on time with the horses since members must share the practice time with each other. This team of Belgium Draft Horses (named Brandy and Star) is owned by Lone Mountain Ranch and is being leased by MSU. To overcome the limited time with the horses, the team has asked community members to allow access to their driving teams during practice. Also, Andi Shockley hopes to purchase a team of horses soon, possibly providing the opportunity for students to drive two different sets of horses.
Members come from many different backgrounds and often have no prior experience with driving. Students are able to partake in driving competitions as a team and also have the option of becoming members of the Montana Draft Horse and Mule Association for a family membership fee, which allows the students to join at a lower rate.
Since 2009, the club has sent anywhere from two to ten drivers to the WinterFest competition, all on a volunteer basis, and there may be even more this year, Andi Shockley explained. The team hopes to borrow a second set of horses for the competition to accommodate for the increased number of contestants from the club.
This competition has evolved similar to the Trail Horse Battle. Originally, it abided by the rules of the Montana Draft Horse and Mule Association, but after the first year, new rules were added. The Novice Division was added in order to encourage those just learning to drive. To keep the competition focused on learning, the experienced drivers go first to allow those less experienced the opportunity to observe. Also, the “old timers” can help the newer drivers, said Sue Shockley, adding, this has helped to increase the number of novice drivers, and “one of our goals is to promote driving so it will never be lost.” A limited number of drivers are taken due to time constraints and usually, she explained, there is a waiting list to compete.
Other changes have more directly affected each event. The competition used to have the same classes every year, explained Andi Shockley, but now the committee changes the classes a little each year to make it more challenging.
Andi Shockley competed for Lone Mountain Ranch several years ago and in addition to having a great time, won Reserve Novice High-Point. She said, however, that the competition is even more fun now, thanks to the slight changes the judges have made. Also, last year Jeff Swarts, a former member of the driving team, won the same distinction as Andi Shockley. “That was even more thrilling for me than winning it myself,” Andi Shockley said.
She went on to say that if the audience is interested in horses, especially heavy horses, then they would likely enjoy this event. “The only downfall for spectators,” she added, “is the competition is pretty slow as most of it is done at a walk.”
Sue Shockley explained that this competition captures the western theme that the fair tries to highlight. “Driving was a huge part of the settling of the West. Horses were used where we now use tractors and other motorized equipment,” she said.
“This contest gives those who have never driven a horse and don’t know anything about it an opportunity to learn,” she added. “We try to have a good announcer that can explain how the various driving skills being demonstrated were used in the past and why.”
Montana Professional Horseshoers’ Association (MPHA) Winter Forging Jackpot
Last year this farrier contest was held for the first time as a one day, strictly forging contest. Farriers (specialists on equine hoof care, also called “horse shoers”) built specific types of horse shoes using forges. Additionally, there was a free clinic on the day of the contest.
This year the contest has undergone a few changes. Farriers will be judged on their shoeing abilities in addition to their forging skills.
Spectators are welcome to watch this event, and Sue Shockley points out a benefit of watching. “The forges even provide a little heat for those sitting or standing, watching the competition,” she said.
The event will be held in Livestock Barn 1 both days during the WinterFest, and like last year, there will be a free clinic open to the public each morning, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. The contest will begin at the end of the clinic.
All Breed Horse Sale
Another returning event is the annual All Breed Horse Sale. Originally the Montana Winter Fair (MWF) was held in Bozeman and this horse sale was a tradition. When the fair moved to Lewistown after 54 years in Bozeman, volunteers organized a new winter event for the area: The Wild West WinterFest, Sue Shockley said. This fair has maintained certain aspects from MWF, one of which includes the horse sale.
Headwaters Livestock manages the sale and they expect to have somewhere between 30 and 50 horses this year. The sale preview will begin at 11:30a.m. Feb. 16 and the sale will commence at 1p.m.. Both will be held in the Indoor Arena.
For more information about Wild West WinterFest, go to the website at http://www.gallatin.mt.gov/Public_Documents/GallatinCoMT_Fairgrounds/WildWestWinterFest.
Jessianne Wright is an honors student at MSU and also writes for the MSU Exponent. photos Janice Cartwright