2018-02-10 / Columnists


Reflections of the 1970 Mackinac Island Horse Show

February is a month where many a person’s thoughts go to summer, returning to the blue and green days on Mackinac Island. This winter has been a very cold one, starting right after Christmas, with a short reprieve in January. Yet, we have long weeks ahead before many of us, as well as horses, begin to return to the Island. While sifting through old copies of the Mackinac Island Town Crier issues for another project, an item from August 1970 caught my attention. It was a recap of the Mackinac Island Horse Show, which was held on part of the City Burrough lot and grounds near the “new” Mackinac Island Public School. That show, 48 years ago, began somewhat as an experiment, and ended up as an annual success. It should be noted the school, a proud addition to the Island, had only been completed less than nine years before.

Since many of us are already thinking of summer, it’s not too early to remember to put August 4, 2018, on our calendars, and add August 5 as a rain date. This year the horse show begins at 9 a.m. at Great Turtle Park. Looking back at the 1970 horse show evoked many memories of past horses and Island horse folk. Prior to this show at the school in 1970, there had been other shows, so, indeed, 2018 may be the official 50th year there have been riders showing up in a ring for a ribbon.

Present at the 1970 Mackinac Island Horse Show are (starting at top, from left) Leanne Brodeur, Ann Marie Bishop, Clarence Wightman, Mrs. Robert Milton, Mrs. Phil Hart, Trudi Martin, Amy and Ann Callewaert, Cathy Arbib, Brian Dunnigan, Bruce Goodwin, Mayor Otto Emmons, Paul Denton, Matt Porter, and Pete Deckert. Present at the 1970 Mackinac Island Horse Show are (starting at top, from left) Leanne Brodeur, Ann Marie Bishop, Clarence Wightman, Mrs. Robert Milton, Mrs. Phil Hart, Trudi Martin, Amy and Ann Callewaert, Cathy Arbib, Brian Dunnigan, Bruce Goodwin, Mayor Otto Emmons, Paul Denton, Matt Porter, and Pete Deckert. The Mackinac Island Town Crier, in August 1970, headlined: “Island Holds First Horse Show in Years.” This was the August 29 edition. “Participating in the show were summer and winter residents, besides visitors from St. Ignace. For many it was their first time in the ring. Even with as many as 19 horses in the ring at one time, there were few unruly horses and none unmanageable, with the result that there were no accidents or injuries of any kind.”

It dawned on me the similarities of the events, even 48 years apart. Many of these tots and preteens are still here and in the saddle.” At that time, teenager Leanne Brodeur was president of the Junior Humane Society, an entity that Charlotte Ernster of the West Bluff Annex had a key role in forming. Now approaching Social Security status, if not retirement age, the riding teens of Mackinac listed in the 1970 article included Phil Porter, Don Goodwin, Brian Dunnigan, Matt Porter, Julie Porter, Bruce Goodwin, Lydia Goodwin, Debra Orr, Shannon Ernster, Suki Sherman, Maeve Croghan, Nancy May, Marti McIntire, Trish Martin, Beth Brown, Freddie Brodeur, Tienne May, and Cathy Arbib, to name a few.

The announcer for the 1970 show was Island mayor Otto “Bud “Emmons, who also served as ringmaster. The judges were local and were a unique three panel of persons, all adult riders, who judged the 15 classes that day: Mrs. Phil Hart, Mrs. Robert Milton, and Clarence Wightman. It was Mrs. Hart’s idea for the panel, so that there was really a fair and objective viewing and a consensus of the trio, as opposed to that of one judge. No judge was paid remuneration for his or her service. It was, however, found in the notes that if there was any critique, the show entries could have been better organized and the classes were too many and too long. But the organizers were happy with the results of their endeavors. Originally there were only 12 classes planned for the show, but there were too many entries for the ring and so the classes had to be split. Ribbons were awarded to sixth place for each class, but because of the high turnout, the show was short of ribbons. Mrs. Mack Ernster reported to the Mackinac Island Town Crier that extra ribbons had been ordered and were on their way to delivery to the placing riders who did not get one the day of the show.

To enter a riding class that day cost 50¢, no matter the age. Local businesses proudly sponsored each class, and by the end of the day, the show netted $249.98, a sizeable sum. This money went back to the Senior Humane Society. The president, at that time, was John Croghan, of the West Bluff. I should add that today’s show fees, 48 years later, are still reasonable with entry fees of $3 for children and $5 for adults, preregistration. The cost for “day of show” extra classes is $5 and $10, respectively. The net last year (2017) was split by the Mackinac Island Children’s Riding Academy and the Mackinac Community Equestrian Center, both nonprofit organizations. Class sponsorship is now $50. One difference is that now, an off- Island judge is hired, and donations from class sponsors pay the fee. There is also now the presence of an emergency medical technician.

What is the difference in showing horses on Mackinac Island from almost half a century ago? In truth, very little. Costume class and games seem still to be the favorites. Everyone likes to watch speed and action such as jumping and barrel racing. Games included a tack up race, egg and spoon, and “musical chairs.” In that class, contestants all gathered on one side of the ring, while on the other empty grain bags were substituted for the chairs, with one bag fewer than participants. When the ringmaster blew his whistle, the riders raced to get to the other side, dismounted, tried to grab a bag, and then raced back. Gradually, horses and riders were eliminated. In 1970, Trish Martin, on Nugget, and Maeve Croghan, on Cinnamon, were respective second and third place winners, with Karen Chambers, on Red, taking the honors. I would not be too surprised to see the return of this class this August. Another favorite timed event was the tack race, in which riders raced to tack up their horse or pony. The fastest in 1970 was Matt Porter.

Today Mackinac still has bareback riders, although few, and high jumpers, even fewer. We have a lot of riders who ride Western as well as English, but there are differences. One is that there are fewer ponies here than in years before, and we have fewer families as a whole that ride. There is also the loss of a few trails on the Island to housing developments, Norton Trail and Sunset Trail being the most obvious. On the other hand, today we have a group of young riders who have been exposed to excellent equine health and grooming clinics, and we have two barns open in the summer, which offer lessons and special horse-related classes.

That 1970 horse show opened the gates for an annual horse show, which expanded to a large, two-day event. History has a tendency to repeat itself. We are back to a 12- to 15-class show at the city park. Now, years later, we still have a handful of original riders from that show who ride today. Some are still involved with the planning of the August 4 show. It would be fun to see who, from those “old days,” is going to make a repeat this August. It’s never too early to start thinking.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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