In a narrow storefront in Columbus, crammed with boxes full of programs, papers and supplies, a staff of five is preparing for the Midwest's biggest equine event - the Midwest Horse Fair, which runs April 20-22 in Madison.
The annual equine event, which draws well over 50,000 people during its three-day run, is the second largest event held at the Alliant Energy Center. The only event at that facility that is larger is World Dairy Expo, which has a five-day run.
Rhonda Reese, general manager of the Midwest Horse Fair, jokes that her event is larger if you consider that it is condensed into only three days. "If you go by per-day numbers, we're the largest."
Their largest-ever attendance for one day was a Saturday when there were 23,000 people on the grounds.
Last year with "all four of Wisconsin's seasons" on display, the show drew 52,000 people who braved snow, wind and rain. "It can't get any worse than last year for weather and we still had a good crowd," she said.
Exhibition space is at a premium. "Many of our current exhibitors would like to expand, but we don't have the space to give them. In the barns, stall space is at a premium."
There will be over 600 horses on the grounds for this year's show, she said.
Parking space is also at a premium during the show but she is hoping this year it might be better because of the early spring. "There will be places on the show grounds that are dry and can be used for parking this year, when often they can't be."
Like the dairy event in October, the horse fair has a theme each year and she and her board of directors try to bring in clinicians, acts and other entertainers that fit into that theme.
HORSE HERITAGE THEME
This year the horse fair's theme is "Horse Heritage" - emphasizing the role that horses have had on cultures through history - providing transportation, power and companionship.
The three-day show will play up the contributions horses have made to cultures around the world. The Middle Ages are being represented by what Reese called "full-contact" jousting.
Performances will be put on by Shane Adams and his group called "Knights of Valour" who perform in a new reality show on the History Channel called "Full Metal Jousting." His troupe now includes more than 10 knights who use a variety of weapons to challenge each other while on horseback.
The troupe of knights will joust several times during the horse fair and will also be part of a wide-ranging production Saturday evening that will be scripted to music and will cover the history of the horse.
Reese was mum on the program except to say that there could be a miniature horse standing in for eohippus - the dog-sized progenitor of the modern-day horse.
"I can't say much about it. We want it to be a surprise. But I will say there will be fog and a starry night."
The Saturday evening show is being produced by a Texas company and will tell a story on the history and heritage of the horse. It will include the jousting group and the Oneida tribe of Native Americans.
Like the rodeo on Friday night - which is a crowd pleaser and regular attraction at the horse fair - a separate ticket is required in addition to admission to the grounds. "If you want to go to this I'd advise getting a ticket ahead of time," Reese said.
Tickets and more information are available at their website: www.MidwestHorseFair.com.
Reenactors of the various wars in which horses have been important will also be on hand. They include riders representing the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the Spanish-American War, the first and second World Wars as well as Special Forces in Afghanistan, she said.
On Sunday a special highlight will be a gaming event featuring five local celebrities who have volunteered to work with trainers to prepare for their horseback event.
Celebrities include several radio personalities, a mystery competitor and Mark Clarke, general manager of World Dairy Expo.
The celebrity riders will compete in barrel racing, pole bending and the keyhole race and proceeds from this event will benefit Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.
"The last few years we've had celebrity jumping and reining competition so this year we're doing gaming," Reese said.
"Western Horseman" magazine is sponsoring Mike and Gretchen Graham to bring something like an antique road show to the horse fair. Based on their column in the monthly magazine, the couple will answer questions about the value of western tack and collectibles.
People have signed up to bring their items to the show to be evaluated in front of a live audience, Reese said. "They will be looking at antique saddles, spurs and all kinds of antique tack all weekend."
In keeping with that activity, the horse fair will sponsor its first-ever mustache contest for the gents (with prizes for handlebar, the longest and most creative) and a hat contest for the ladies. Prizes will be awarded for western, driving and original design hats.
Though perhaps not a historical event, the show will also include an equine soccer tournament with sponsorship from Blain's Farm and Fleet and Nutrena. Visitors can sign up to win a Cub Cadet but they can only do so during the soccer matches, Reese explained.
This year's show will also include another edition of the World Championship Blacksmith's competition that has been held at the Midwest Horse Fair for the past few years.
Ninety smiths have signed up to be part of this year's competition - nearly double the number they had last year - and will be held in the big red and yellow tent in front of the Exhibition Hall.
EXTREME MUSTANGS BACK
After a hiatus of several years, the Extreme Mustang competition will be back at this year's horse fair. Thirty-five trainers have been working with wild mustangs (all mares) since mid-January, preparing them for the competition at the horse fair, which will wind up with finals on Sunday.
These formerly wild horses, which were basically untouched by humans before they were picked up in January, will be judged on their body condition and their newly learned skills.
After that the horses will be adopted out in an auction-like setting, Reese said. To qualify for the adoption, people must be at least 18 years old and have no record of animal abuse. In addition, adopters must have the right kind of facilities and can take no more than four animals.
Adopters must keep these horses for one year after which they will receive "title" to their mustangs from the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM.) There are 24 Wisconsin trainers involved in the mustang competition,
It is sponsored by the BLM and the Mustang Heritage Foundation, a group that created the Extreme Mustang Makeover contests to showcase the versatility of the American Mustang and increase their adoption.
Entertainer and cowboy John Payne - "the one-arm bandit" will perform several times in the Coliseum and will appear in the Saturday night show.
Payne, who really does have only one arm, is a twelve-time winner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association's "Specialty Act of the Year" award. Reese explains that he was electrocuted in the 1970s leading to the loss of his arm, but continued to ride in an act that includes buffalo.
Attendees can also see Big Jake, a giant Belgian from Smokey Hollow Farm in Poynette that has the Guinness Book's affirmation that he's the world's tallest living horse. The big boy is 20 hands, 2 ¾ inches tall at the withers (shoulder.) That translates to 6 feet, 10 ¾ inches for those who aren't familiar with horse parlance.
The event will also include a traditional Stallion Avenue in barn 4 where attendees can see a variety of stallions and talk to their owners.
OVER 500 VENDORS
Reese said there will be 500 vendors on the grounds for this year's Midwest Horse Fair and there's a waiting list of people who want to be part of it. "If we had a cancellation tomorrow, we'd be able to fill that spot instantly."
But organizers don't carry over that waiting list for next year. When this show is over and the entries start for next year it's done on a first-come-first-served basis.
Reese and her staff are starting now to plan for the 2013 show, for which a theme has already been decided. Starting May 1, applications will open for people who want to apply to be clinicians at that show and those who want to exhibit.
For each horse fair, priorities are given to exhibitors, performers, events and clinicians that fit the theme. That theme next year will be "Horses and Heroes" when the horse fair will salute the patriotic spirit of Americans and their horses.
Reese said ideas for themes for the show come from board member suggestions, from Facebook page ideas and all manner of other places. "We get ideas from people we've met, just from being in the industry. We love ideas."
This year will mark the 33rd annual Midwest Horse Fair. It's a project that was begun by the Wisconsin Horse Council, a group that still owns and operates the show.
For those who can't get enough of the Midwest Horse Fair during its annual April event, organizers are planning a second event in August.
"Taking the Reins" is a first-ever event from the Wisconsin Horse Council, billed as an entirely new equine experience.
Rhonda Reese, general manager of the Midwest Horse Fair explains that her board of directors and the horse council, which owns and operates the Midwest Horse Fair, was looking for ways to grow.
"We're a small business and we're always challenged every year with rising costs. We have to look at growth potential. But we didn't think that adding another day to the Midwest Horse Fair was going to give us the growth we needed," she said.
With the Midwest Horse Fair as large as it is, there isn't much chance for attendees to work directly with horses. The new event will give them the opportunity to work hands-on with trainers and clinicians and perhaps even bring their own horse, she said.
The "Taking the Reins" event August 17-18, will also be held at the Alliant Energy Center, but will use far less of the facility. For this event they will utilize Willow Island, a part of the show grounds that has never been used for the Midwest Horse Fair, Reese said.
There horses and riders can try their hand at obstacle courses, work with top clinicians, be part of several competitions, get spa treatments, try trick training, get advice on saddle fitting and take in a Friday night concert.
Reese said the event will also include a chuck wagon competition, giving outdoor cooks the opportunity to compete in a cook-off competition to present the best meal using only items that were available on the cattle roundup trails in the 1860s.
Another competition that will be part of the August event will be "Project Cowboy" a live event that will look to select the best cowboy and cowgirl who will have the chance to win $10,000 and earn the title of "The Next Great American Cowboy."
It will be filmed as part of a reality show for RFD-TV, she explained.
The event will also include something that attendees have come to expect at the Midwest Horse Fair - shopping. Horse-related essentials will be available to shoppers on several levels inside the air-conditioned Coliseum. There will be outdoor exhibitors as well.
In addition, the event is slated to include an "artisan alley" that will feature craftsmen bringing art and equipment to life with their skills and then making those items available for sale.
Reese said the goal of this event is to make it a success so that another can be held next year.
For more information see www.TakingTheReins.net.