Watson Lake doesn’t always have something to brag about these days, but the residents can speak with justifiable pride about their annual horse show, and the Grounds where it all happens.
This year’s event, held several weeks ago, not only marked the seventh time the Watson Lake Riding Association has hosted the event, but it was the year the local riders took home most of the ribbons.
When the show began in 2005, there were only two local riders competing. This year there were eight, with more and more people in the area expressing an interest in equine sport.
There have always been horsie people here, the Watson Lake Rodeo Association was active 15 years ago, with several of the members maintaining an interest in the organization when it morphed into being a “riding” rather than a “rodeo” association.
The name change was due to the fact they didn’t hold rodeos anymore; the last one, 10 years ago, cost $80,000 and members ended up kicking in $1,000 each to cover the costs left over from the event.
“A lot of Visas got maxed that day,” said Brenda Cornell, one of the members. “It was a testament to the sort of volunteers we had, and still have – people who love horses.”
It was when they were the Watson Lake Rodeo Association that the land was leased, cleared, fenced and the road put in – all accomplished entirely with volunteer time and resources.
They built the bleachers, the announcement booth, and hauled an old Cassiar Mines house onsite to be the clubhouse.
After it became the Watson Lake Riding Association, the Grounds, as it is called, became the show place it is today. The new association has put in power, drilled a well, built two arenas and an outfitter pen for overnighters.
There is a managed compost site now, complete with sprinkler, and the clubhouse has a shower.
A fully equipped outdoor concession feeds the multitudes, and a tractor complete with landscape rake, blade, forks and a posthole digger does the work that, until a couple of years ago, was done by human muscle.
The focal point is the barn. It is the best in the North. There are 10 stalls, a tack room and a feed room, all in tasteful dark green and natural wood. Some of the stalls have nameplates; all are neat and tidy.
It is an impressive structure and the members are justifiably proud.
“People can’t believe what we have here; they are agog when they see it. No one expects such a small town to have anything like this,” said Cheryl O’Brien.
The horse show idea was born seven years ago.
“It was a cold February night,” said Leatha Anderson. “We had money in the bank from our fundraising activities, and we’d just done a five-year plan in which we stated we would promote equine sports and youth development; we figured a horse show would be a good way to do that.”
None of them had ever organized such a show before.
“I not only had no clue as to how many jumps to buy, I didn’t know how or where to buy them, let alone mapping a dressage arena and getting ribbons and all the multitude of stuff needed to do it right,” said Cornell, “It was a very steep learning curve; we got books, and talked to anyone we could find who had done it before.”
The first show went off without a hitch; even the weather co-operated. The judge, Mr. Trimble from Saskatchewan who had judged shows all over the world, declared himself impressed by the quality of the facilities and the commitment of the volunteers.
“How do you do it?” one of the out-of-town riders asked, “How do you keep so many volunteers?”
“We pull ‘em off their deathbed,” Cornell joked, gesturing to the ring where Micky Thomas, fresh from a stroke, was surveying the dressage arena.
“We wanted it all perfectly set up,” she said, “We’re the only ones who surveyed our dressage arena and Micky still does it every year. His payment is dinner. I think we have the best volunteers anywhere.”
“Remember the year we had to boost Joyce Armstrong up the ladder to the announcer’s booth?” O’Brien said, “She was eighty years old, and determined to contribute. She can’t make the climb any more, but she is one of our best supporters; she talks up the show to everyone.”
The show grew year by year, with more competitors every time. It got tougher to organize and needed more and more volunteer time. “We talked about capping it but we never did learn to say ‘No’ and by 2008 it had become a huge amount of work.” said Cornell.
That was the year the judge got lost, the ring crew ended up in jail, and the washrooms flooded. “All before eight o’clock in the morning,” Cornell said. “I didn’t think we were going to make it, but somehow it all got sorted out.”
By 2009 there were 48 competitors, and so much rain that some events had to be postponed and others cancelled.
“It was exhausting,” O’Brien said. “The program started at 8 p.m. and finished at 10, the concession was packed all the time.”
But more and more locals were coming out to watch the riding, though one fellow after viewing an hour of dressage riding, left saying, “And some people think curling is boring to watch.”
More young people were getting involved, and the membership was growing.
There are even tourists; some have ended up camping, and staying over to help out.
Each year, judges are hired from all over Canada, and once unacquainted with the Yukon, are amazed at the facilities, the quality of horses and riders and the energy and cheer of the volunteers.
“No matter how crazy it gets, we can always find something to laugh about and somehow everything happens as it’s supposed to,” said Cornell. “No one wants to talk about the next year for a week or so after the event, but then it all starts to build again. We forget how tired we were and start planning.”
In 2010, there were 52 competitors at the Grounds.
A rider in a show does not come alone; there are horses with them, obviously, but they also come with supporters in the shape of parents, relatives, friends, and instructors, all swelling the number of people and animals to be fed, sheltered, and washed.
They were from BC, Alberta, Alaska, and Whitehorse and their numbers were such that, “We were building extra pens the night before the show,” said Cornell. “That was when we felt we had to limit it. It was too stressful, and the show was losing some of the atmosphere of fun and learning; it was getting more competitive, and we knew then we wanted to keep it small.”
“The wasps were really bad last year, too,” said O’Brien. “We had wasp patrol every morning, knocking down nests, but nothing helped. Lots of people got stung, especially around the concession.”
It was also the first year that guests met Tony, a llama who has ended up at the grounds through an accidental bid at an auction.
Some of the equine visitors registered various degrees of amazement to his presence, leading to unexpected moves in the ring during the show.
Once again the crew of volunteers worked from early morning till late at night; everyone got fed, watered, and had their moment in the ring. But the club members knew that they could not, would not, do it again.
It had finally got too big, even for this willing and enthusiastic group, and there was again talk of limiting the number of riders.
This year events conspired to make the show manageable again. The riders from Juneau lost the services of their vet, which means they cannot compete outside their borders, and the high cost of gas limited some of the other regular competitors.
The show was relaxed, with just 35 riders, and once again it became a valuable experience for young riders.
This year was a first for some of the new local riders, another learning time for those who have been riding for a few years, and a time of triumph for all.
The members are thrilled with their young riders.
“It is a big commitment for these kids, to get involved in riding,” said O’Brien, “It means they have to put the horse ahead of themselves and get up early, even in winter, to come out and muck stalls and haul hay.
“The evenings and weekends are more cleaning up of pens and caring for tack. The actual riding is the least time. You figure out pretty quickly how truly interested your kid is; it’s a lot of work.”
This year the judge was Shelley Hayes from Olds, Alberta.
The ribbon results
for local riders:
Rachel O’Brien: 6 firsts,
2 seconds, 1 third
Emily Anderson: 5 firsts,
6 seconds, 2 thirds, 1 fourth,
Maddison Moore: 2 firsts,
Lillian Burnett: 1 first,
2 seconds, 1 third
Rachel Anderson: 1 first
Jean MacLean: 6 firsts,
Brenda Cornell: 1 second,
Celine Skerget: 1 first, 1 third,
Overall Western Junior Rider
Overall High Point Horse:
Tie, with Wo Girl (Whitehorse)
and Rackla (local)
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer and author of North of Ordinary. She lives in Watson Lake.