When Jim Mills competed in the Arkansas State Championship Horse Show in its first year, a horse ate his bed.
It was 1963, and he'd gone to sleep on a pile of hay in the stable. By morning, he was on the ground, his horse having had a late-night meal.
This weekend marks the competition's 55th year at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock. Mills, 72, no longer rides, but he still attends the event, hauling in a trailer full of leather goods, iron wares and other crafts from a shop he runs with his brother in Cherry Valley.
Mills said he keeps attending "because it's home."
On Saturday morning, people wandering about or leading their horses around the State Fairgrounds stopped by Mills' table to admire the handmade saddles and knives with handles made from deer antlers.
Inside the arena throughout the day, contestants from across the state and region competed in one or more of 39 events. The competition had 2,000 entries and stood to run late into the night. Friday's 10:30 p.m. close was on the early side, show spokesman Neal Kring said.
The show will go on all day today and into midafternoon Monday. Daily admission is $8 per person and free for children under age 6. Net proceeds benefit Arkansas Children's Hospital.
Kring said the event may have at one time been the largest open-breed horse show in the country. Any kind of horse can be entered into an open-breed show, which generally has lower entrance fees, he said. Competitors range from age 6 into their 80s.
On Saturday, 18 ponies ridden by children in the peewee division stirred up dust as they trotted slowly around the ring.
For some events, judging is based on form and appearance, which can include the colorful, Western-style sequined shirts that some of the girls wore. In speed events, such as barrel racing, the fastest time wins.
Kring pointed to a girl in gold chaps, a friend's daughter. He said her father will likely give her pony to a child in some other family when his daughter outgrows it. Then, if the daughter ends up having a child who wanted to ride, the pony could be given back. It's a pattern many horse-showing families follow, he said.
He said showing horses goes hand in hand with a rural, agriculture-based lifestyle. Both have been on the decline in recent years. For some kids, horseback riding can't compete with other activities, such as team sports or video games, Kring said
That's one reason the Arkansas Farm Bureau, a nonprofit dedicated to agricultural advocacy, is a main sponsor of the event.
In the audience Saturday, two men talked across the aisle, pointing out their picks for winners of an event.
Knowledge of technique isn't required to enjoy the event.
Little Rock resident Bailey West said she took her twin 3-year-old daughters, Kenley and Kendall, to the show because they "really, really like horses." The girls wore matching cowboy boots, pink bandannas and pint-size Stetson hats over their braids.
Outside the arena, people hosed off horses in the shade of one of the stables. A sleek, dark-colored Tennessee Walking Horse with a braided tail flicked its ears as its owner, Derek Jone of Coldwater, Miss., doused the animals long neck. Jone said he named the horse Johnson and Johnson, like the baby oil, "because he's so smooth."
Jone said his father had a horse growing up, and he's been riding and entering horse shows all his life, traveling to Arkansas, Missouri and Kentucky.
"It's just fun," Jone said of the competition, adding "I don't know where I'm going to go next."
A few spigots down, Jenna Earls of Wynne washed her 10-year-old daughter's speckled gray horse, Sky. Earls said her daughter, Lolly, started entering shows three years ago, soon after she told her parents she wanted to learn to ride. Now she competes in various rodeo events in addition to the state championship show, Earls said.
Trailers and RVs lined a paved road stretching south beyond the fairgrounds. Kring said some people start arriving a week in advance to reserve their parking spots there.
Traditions run strong at the event, Kring said. Some groups that raise cattle cook hamburgers on the same night every year. Some have crab boils. Some camp. Some stay in hotels, renting about 500 rooms in the Little Rock area each year, he said.
Outside, Mills heckled people he knew as they walked by, calling them by nicknames such as "Dimples" or giving them grief for not giving him some of their fair food.
"I don't see any strangers here," he said. "And if someone's a stranger, in a few minutes they won't be."
Megan Tutor of Greers Ferry helps her 9-year-old sister, Lacy Tutor, get ready to compete during Saturday’s horse show.
Metro on 09/02/2018
Print Headline: Hooves, hay, sequins ride into Arkansas' capital city