Horse shows riding high

Despite the loss of land to development, the Howard County Horse Show Association remains strong, conducting popular competitions.

Howard At Play

July 18, 2004|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Howard County Horse Show Association is a thriving organization, now in its 24th year, with a solid membership base and reputation for putting on good, competitive shows.

But most of those shows - horseman-speak for competitions that include jumps in a ring - no longer occur within the county's boundaries.

The pressures of development and the organization's growth, to the point where it needs a large venue to hold its shows, have meant that county competitors find themselves hauling their horses to farms in neighboring Montgomery County and as far away as Middletown or to McDonogh or Garrison Forest schools in Owings Mills.

"The only show left today that was in the original schedule is at the Howard County Fairgrounds," said West Friendship's Gretchen Mobberley, the association's president. "Most of the early farms are now [housing] developments. We had a lot of shows at the old Iron Bridge Hunt Club, but that's now a school. We sort of got eaten up."

Mobberley still holds the Medals finals - a show in which riders qualify to ride by earning points based on their placings at shows throughout the season - at her Summer Hill farm on Route 144.

Despite the loss of land, interest in horses and membership in the organization remain strong, Mobberley said. The organization has 250 members, including family memberships. About half live in Howard County.

Shows conducted by Mobberley's outfit draw competitors from as far away as Pennsylvania and the Eastern Shore.

A typical horse show offers competition in about 25 divisions, defined by things such as whether jumps are included, how high jumps are, the rider's age and experience, the type of horse and its size. Within each division are three or four individual classes. Some divisions judge the rider; others judge the horse.

The Howard association's shows - 16 of them from April to September - usually occur with two rings and take two days to accommodate all of the divisions.

The association got its start when a group of mothers took their children - now in their 30s - to the horse shows in the county.

They found that the lines, the distance between jumps, weren't set up properly, and the jumps themselves were unsafe, as were the areas for riders to warm up before competing.

"The schooling area was horrible, the schooling was unsafe and the footing was worse," said Mobberley, who was an original board member. In response, two women, Trish Scarcia and Ann Cockerell, starting making phone calls.

"We talked about forming our own association," Mobberley said. "We had nothing, [but] we didn't want to go to these other shows."

Mobberley had experience running horse shows herself, "but how to put together an organization - that was another story," she said.

Today, about 100 juniors and children show regularly, along with 75 adults.

Star Dalley, manager of Oatland Stables in Montgomery County, which has held Howard County shows for 11 years, said she had 314 entries in a recent event.

"Three-foot hunters was packed," Dalley said, referring to a division in which riders must navigate eight 3-foot-high jumps.

No matter where the show is conducted, one class offered is a "benefit hack," in which riders pay to enter the ring and walk, trot and canter without jumping. Proceeds from that are used to fund a college scholarship for riders who excel at riding and academics.

One of the secrets to a thriving membership is growing your own. The association has a board of junior riders, under 18, who do fund raising and address issues affecting junior competitors.

Jennifer Mehalko of Woodbine, a member since she was 6 and riding a pony named Aim To Please, served on the junior board. At 18, she has moved up to the association's 14-member adult board, and she continues to volunteer and show, these days on a full-size horse named Turn the Paige.

"Junior membership is definitely growing," Mehalko said. "People have been with this organization for a really long time - board members and trainers - and they keep bringing their students back."

The organization's health is good news for those who want a safe place to show their horses, one where horses won't slip and slide and strain a tendon in bad footing or slam on the brakes because a jump is set at an awkward distance from the previous jump.

The association's reputation is such that riders who often show at rated horse shows - a more demanding level of the sport - use the Howard County shows as a starting place for young horses that need experience.

"We've come a long, long way," Mobberley said.

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