Regional velvet

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

And most importantly, it's a haven where, underneath their carefully maintained Barbie-doll veneers, girls can, for a few hours, bare their type-A souls.

If some sports are a ticket out of poverty, equine sports are more of a way into it.

There are no Ivy League scholarships awaiting the victors, no fat six-figure prize-money checks, no cushy endorsement contracts. And traditionally, for lovers of quarter horses, not even Olympic glory.

"I just don't think they're accepted [in Olympic circles]," says Nancy Cahill, a quarter horse trainer based in Madisonville, a small burg outside Houston. "They like those big old [European] warmbloods, and you just get used to what's been generally used and won on."

This may soon change. The U.S. Equestrian Team, the organization that oversees Olympic equine sports in America, recently voted to make reining, a Western event in which horses execute a complex series of athletic maneuvers, an Olympic sport beginning with the 2004 or 2008 Games.

Until then, there's the AQHA. And lots of consolation prizes: Immense satisfaction. A chance to see the country. All-important bragging rights. Those schmaltzy values sport is supposed to confer: poise, confidence, family togetherness, and the pure thrill of competition.

"There are a lot worse addictions," says Bekki Beverly. And in a world where parents sometimes seem to view their tennis-star spawn and pre-pubescent gymnasts as miniature profit centers, horse showing offers a refreshing example of the old-fashioned sports syllogism: The parents love their kids. The kids love their horses. Therefore, the parents pony up.

Meghann is proud of the tradeoffs she's made. "Most kids ask for a car for sweet 16," she says. "I asked to go to the Sun Circuit." The Sun Circuit is a group of quarter horse shows held each January in Tucson, Arizona--a chance to get a jump on the competition in the show standings, as each January 1 wipes the slate clean and begins the endless cycle of horse shows anew. Serious competitors load up their $50,000 living-quarter-equipped horse trailers and their RVs and crisscross the country in pursuit of show points. (The AQHA awards one "point" for every five horses a contestant beats in an AQHA-approved show--and a show is held somewhere every weekend throughout the year.) Each year, hundreds of kids contend to rack up points and become the high-point exhibitor in one or more events.

Yet it's one thing to win at weekend shows with 20 to 40 horses in a class. To win consistently at the biggest shows, like the Congress, where every class features hundreds of the world's best entrants, is another. Meghann is trying to take it to this next level, to learn how to win world championship titles and sweep the most prestigious shows. She'll have to, if she is to realize her goal.

"If I could have anything, I'd have a really big live-in trailer," says Meghann, slipping into her own special fantasyland. "And trainers that would go with me everywhere. And I'd like to do the home schooling and have the cell phones and computers, and my mom and my little sister would come along, over the country. That would be really neat."

That, she knows, is beyond her family's reach. So she's pursuing a fallback dream. "The World Cup 2000 is in Rome [Italy]," she notes. The Quarter Horse Youth World Cup, a sort of Olympics for young quarter horse riders from around the world, is held every two years. It features team competition, with each country around the world sending a single team.

"What we want is the all-around rider," explains Nancy Cahill, who has coached the U.S. Youth World Cup team for 10 years. "Because the person who rides one horse in two events is gonna have a real hard time getting on a horse they've never been on. In general, it's not gonna be the quality kind of horse you've been on." At the Youth World Cup, she explains, the riders mount donated horses assigned randomly, which they train for four days and then show in eight events.

"This year, four of [the team members] were from Texas. All of 'em world champions," Cahill says. "They were like the dream team." Dream team or no, they were also an example of one problem plaguing the AQHA: the increasing marginalization of common horse folk. All five team members enjoyed certain advantages--chiefly wealthy parents or, in case of Nancy Cahill's daughter, Quincy, a parent who was a professional horse trainer.

Nevertheless, Meghann is determined to get there. In the meantime, though, the clock is ticking--and winning a class or two this weekend would certainly help the cause.

The American Quarter Horse Association was founded by wealthy ranchers, men with surnames like Clegg and Kleberg (founders of the King Ranch) and Burnett (founder of the Triangle ranch), who in the spring of 1939 met to talk about opening a studbook in order to preserve the bloodlines of the legendary cowponies and sprinters bred on their ranches.

Over the years the breed has been crossed extensively with Thoroughbreds, producing a much larger horse but one still marked by its musculature, refinement, intelligence, and versatility. The shows themselves, however, remain remarkably true to their original purpose: a civilized way for wealthy, opinionated ranchers to argue over blooded stock.

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