The last ride

GREENFIELD — By the time the Hancock County Horse and Pony Club made its way into the arena to compete, the hustle-bustle of the 4-H fair was long gone.

There were no lemon shake-up stands, no barns full of farm animals. And most certainly no crowd of enthusiastic fair-goers.

Over the weekend, local 4-H’ers traveled 30 miles from their home fairgrounds to the Henry County Saddle Club to compete after rain forced the cancellation of both their fair-time event and its rain date weeks later. About 30 competitors, half the number that would normally be in the ring, made the trek out of town, sparking conversation — again — about the need for a new fairgrounds with facilities not so susceptible to rain.

This year’s twice-rescheduled horse and pony events, which are typically held in an uncovered arena, have served as a bullet point in the debate over a proposed new $30 million fairgrounds with covered facilities that would eliminate the chance of a rain-out.

The project, which would relocate the fairgrounds to county-owned farmland along U.S. 40 between county roads 400E and 500E, is slated to include an exposition center, rental barns and more.

But it’s that promise of an enclosed show ring that has horse and pony folks talking.

Friday and Saturday, project participants eyed their substitute facility — complete with covered show arena — with envy.

“Makes you wanna come here more,” said Heather Seib, whose daughters, Lauren and Leah, were among the weekend’s competitors.

A last-minute cancellation at the saddle club provided a golden opportunity for Hancock County 4-H’ers to hold their contests — rain or shine, said Barb Pescitelli, co-superintendent of the horse and pony project.

But with school having started at one local district and just about to start in the others, the cutback in participants seemed inevitable.

“Nothing’s been in our control this year,” she said. “What can you do? It is what it is.”

While local 4-H’ers said they would have preferred the experience of showing at their home fairgrounds, a small group of riders gathered alongside the show arena Saturday afternoon found reasons to be positive.

As Chloe Dillon rode by on Ollie the Appaloosa, her mother, Melissa Rush, beamed and pointed at her own cheeks, reminding her daughter to smile.

Rush said those in the horse and pony project have learned to adapt over the years. With an uncovered arena that also holds other events during fair week, sometimes making for messy conditions, anything can happen.

Getting a chance to ride at the saddle club after all that worry was a memorable experience for the kids, and unfamiliar territory is not as much of a distraction as a spectator might think, Rush said.

“They don’t think about anything else when they’re on their horse anyway,” she said.

The animals have never looked better, either, Rush joked. In preparation for show, riders bathe their horses.

With all the rescheduling, there have been a few more baths this year than normal.

“Except then they go roll in the mud the rain brought,” quipped Chloe, a second-year 4-H’er.

It was a little nerve-wracking performing somewhere new for the first time, Chloe said, but then it was all eyes on the prize.

And of course, when it comes to taking home that coveted blue ribbon, having a few no-shows is just another silver lining — better chances of winning.

Robin Eller hopes county officials, who have taken preliminary steps toward planning for a new fairgrounds, took notice of this year’s experience.

“I think the storms and the rain made things pretty clear,” Eller said.

And then, gesturing to the covered arena, “This is what we need.”

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Noelle Steele is editor of the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3232 or nsteele@greenfieldreporter.com.