Regional velvet

The girls love their horses. The parents love their girls. And they'll all do just about anything win.

The Dream varies according to talent, of course, but also according to circumstance and tradition. Young hoopsters on city street corners may fantasize about a ticket to the NBA, while Canadian boys dream of ice and pucks, and prep-schoolers of glory in tennis, crew, or lacrosse.

And for young women of certain classes and cultures--that is to say white, middle- to upper-middle-class, and not too far removed from the farm--chances are, the golden vision involves a horse, as it does for 16-year-old Meghann Beverly.

"I don't go to football games, that kind of stuff," says the blue-eyed, brown-haired teenager, settling into her coach seat on an American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Columbus, Ohio. It's a Friday evening in October, homecoming night in McKinney, where Meghann is a junior. But while most pretty young women occupy themselves with chrysanthemums and cheering on lads in shoulder pads, Meghann has other concerns. "I'm too busy," she explains. After all, she has just three more years before she turns 19 and is out of the youth division of the American Quarter Horse Association. There are goals to accomplish, so boys can wait. "It would just be a pain to have a boyfriend come to a horse show," she says.

A few hours from now, she'll be hard at work in a practice ring at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress, the world's largest single-breed horse show. One of a handful of breeds to emerge in America, quarter horses were named for their prowess as sprinters--they are the fastest horses in the world at a quarter mile--and have long been the horse of choice on the great spreads of the south and west. They differ from the old-world breeds--the Thoroughbreds and the Welsh ponies and the big, Germanic warmbloods--not only in stature, build, and temperament, but also in their traditional uses. Though quarter horse shows feature competitions that range from jumping and pleasure driving to cutting cattle, the breed remains primarily Western.

The plane wings its way over Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, and Indiana, territory the breed has colonized since its studbook was opened in Fort Worth 58 years ago. Meghann is chasing a dream that began at the usual age--about the time she could talk--while I tag along to see what has become of the sport I remember as a girl growing up in rural Texas. Part of the answer, I already know. Even as the country has become increasingly urban, quarter horses have become phenomenally popular. In 1974 there were one million animals in the AQHA studbook; 24 years later, that number has nearly quadrupled. They have become part of the undertow sucking families from the city, an increasingly popular parental stratagem for countering drugs, sex, and body piercing.

Along with the increase in numbers has come increasingly fierce show-ring competition. The Congress itself is evidence. Twenty-five years ago, super shows such as the Congress were just getting their shaky start, lasting a few days and scrambling to break even. Today, the show is a massive affair. Held for 22 days every October, the Congress is to the world of quarter horse showing as the Belmont Stakes is to Thoroughbred racing, one of two or three annual events in the quarter horse galaxy where you get to test yourself against the best. Each fall they descend on the Ohio state fairgrounds from 50 states and three U.S. territories, as well as from Europe, Australia, and South America. This year, the show boasts 13,000 entries in more than 200 classes. More than 500,000 spectators will take in this peculiar combination of fashion and stock show, commerce and athletic contest, this strange piece of Americana that's at once crass and wholesome, kitschy and sublime.

"It's a great honor just to come up here and place," observes John Briggs, a young horse trainer headquartered in Pilot Point, east of Denton. "It means you're one of the very best in the nation."

On paper, Meghann already is. An extraordinarily sweet girl who takes honors classes and likes theater, Meghann is ranked second in the youth standings in one event, 12th in another, according to the Quarter Horse Journal, the fat, glossy magazine of record for the quarter horse world. "And I haven't been showing that much," she notes proudly.

She's also an increasingly rare phenomenon in the upper ranks of quarter horse youth competitors. She doesn't have the world's most expensive horse, doesn't have particularly wealthy parents, and doesn't have the money to travel to horse shows across the country week in and week out, which is why the AQHA has suggested her as a guide.

"Meghann competes against kids who spend more on a horse than I make in a year," says Bekki Beverly, Meghann's mother. "We do this on a budget." During the week, Bekki Beverly works as a pharmacist in Denison, while Meghann's dad, Stephen Beverly, installs phone systems for Lucent Technologies. They are working stiffs trying to compete in the most elite of sports. It's a world populated by wealthy, successful parents who are as competitive as little-league dads, where there are large gaps in sophistication and financial means. It's a world sharply divided between the middle-class, rural farm kids, the 4-Hers and the Future Farmers of America; and upper-class horse folk, where the have-nots suspiciously watch the haves, convinced the latter are getting unfair advantages even beyond those they naturally enjoy. In short, a world much like the one outside the horse arena.

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