MADISON - When the Midwest Horse Fair premiered in Madison nearly four decades ago, it drew around 100 horses and 4,500 people who came to see and learn about steeds of numerous sizes, shapes and colors.
Fast forward to 2016, when the show — which was expanded from two days to three in 2000 — attracted more than 600 horses, featured scores of seminars and boasted an attendance of more than 62,000, said Rhonda Reese, who has been the event's general manager for the past 10 years. She said she's hoping for at least 700 horses this year and even more attendees.
Billed as the largest three-day equine show in the country, this year's fair will run April 21-23 at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison. It will feature 300 clinics and seminars on everything from grooming to training to keeping horses healthy, as well as musical entertainment, a Friday night rodeo, a parade, a youth rodeo and more than 500 vendors.
"It all began back in 1979 as a way to bring people in the Midwest together to talk about different equine things, see horses and sell stuff," Reese said. "It was for both the horse community and people who just like to look at these beautiful animals. Over the years, it evolved to have more educational seminars and letting people who have never been around horses get a little more acquainted with them."
Reese said the fair draws people not just from the Midwest, but from all over the country and Canada. Many, she said, consider it one of the top horse-related events of the year and mark it on their calendars months in advance.
She said the most popular horse breeds in Wisconsin — based on registrations for the fair — are quarter horses followed by American paints. Some people, she noted, prefer donkeys and mules, which will also be shown.
Reese said the top event for both horse-owners and wannabes is the Epic Night of the Horse show Saturday evening, when the fair's Star Search finalists and their mounts compete for more than $25,000 in cash. A panel of judges will weigh in on the performances, Reese said, but new this year will be the audience voting with their mobile devices.
"There will be a cowboy mounted shooter who hits balloons while doing reining patterns with his horse and things like sliding to a stop," she said. "And a miniature horse that is blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other who was rescued by a 13-year-old girl who taught it to do amazing things, plus an 8-year-old trick rider. Basically, it's a variety show in which the horses are the stars.
"Another couple will have a Star Wars theme for their act called 'Light Wars.' And one woman will have a horse and two zebras. You don't need to be a horse person to enjoy this show at all. It should be entertaining for everyone."
Reese also recommends the Grand March, which will feature 30 breeds of horses, ranging from tiny miniature animals that are only 20 inches tall (seven hands in horse lingo) up to giant draft horses that are 17 hands or 5 feet 8 inches tall at the withers, which is the highest point on the shoulders. Reese said the biggest draft horse ever to appear at the fair was Big Jake, a Wisconsin horse that stood 20 hands tall, or almost 6-foot-7 at the withers.
She said the Grand March will also have the Wonder Horse, a dazzling white steed ridden by a woman who will perform tricks with her mount. The Grand March will be presented twice, at noon on Friday and Saturday, in the Hutchinson Arena in Pavilion One.
"If you are looking for a fun family weekend and like animals, this is hard to beat," she said. "There will be music, too, and booths that are selling everything from jewelry to boots to clothes to hats and every kind of accessory for a horse that you could imagine."
Les Warzynski, who runs Sunset Sands Quarter Horses in Montello with his wife, Sarah Steuck, said they will be going to the show to do business and see old acquaintances.
"We go there first to market our stallions," he said. "But the best part is really seeing a lot of great people who you might only run into once a year.
"And you get to meet new folks who have no idea about equine, but just popped in with a friend because they are curious. We pick out the clinics that we'd like to attend, but unfortunately we often find we are too busy."
Warzynski's advice to fair-goers is simple:
"Enjoy all there is to offer and be a sponge. Check out the breeds and figure out for yourself which ones you like. It should be a great weekend to put all your problems to the side and just immerse yourself in the world of horses."
How to attend
Tickets are $13 a day in advance and $17 at the gate, with parking included. The cost is $30 in advance for the entire three-day run of the fair. Kids 7 and under are free. See midwesthorsefair.com or call (920) 623-5515.
For ideas on other things to see and do in Madison, see visitmadison.com.
Getting there: The Midwest Horse Fair will be held at the Alliant Energy Center, 1919 Alliant Energy Center Way, Madison, 80 miles west of Milwaukee via I-94, I-90 and Highway 18.