Regional velvet

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

In 1960, the AQHA launched a youth division, and in the intervening 38 years, the youth outreach program has become arguably its biggest success. Today, quarter horse shows offer youngsters as many as 25 separate classes in which to show their mares and geldings (stallions are shown only in adult classes). In 1997, there were more than 210,000 youth entries in AQHA-approved shows, and at many, youth contestants outnumbered adults.

Yet if at lower levels of competition these are 4-H and FFA kids, the top level of competition is far different. While rich folk are but a small percentage of today's quarter horse owners, they occupy disproportionate space in the sport's imagery, as well as in the upper ranks of competitors. They are supplemented by middle-class families who disdain urban life and idealize the rural past. According to an AQHA marketing study, 86 percent of quarter horse owners "consider themselves [to be] living a Western lifestyle through their clothing and music." Thirty percent live in urban or on the edge of urban areas; 69 percent live in rural areas.

Meghann is a fine example of how it all begins. As a toddler she rode anything in sight: cows, hobby horses, couch arms, Daddy's knee, the family dog. "She was always the one [saying], 'Please, Mama, can I have a horse? Please, Mama, can I have a horse?'" Bekki Beverly recalls. "She called them 'opies' when she was little. She couldn't say 'horse,' so they were 'opies.'"

Bekki understood. Growing up on a small farm in the Panhandle, she had dreamed her own cowgirl dreams. ("When I was a girl, every little girl wanted to be a trick rider," Bekki recalls.) As a child she had horses, among them a quarter horse mare named Lisa, which she showed at small local gatherings called playdays and 4-H shows in and around Amarillo. Still, Bekki resisted until Meghann was 9, when disaster granted the little girl's wish.

"The Corps of Engineers let the Red River flood, and my daddy lost 700 acres of wheat," recalls Bekki. "The horses had been out in the pasture, and he called and said, 'Either you take them or they're going to the sale barn.' So we went from zero to seven." A move to the country quickly followed.

Among the horses Meghann inherited was her mom's old 4-H horse, Lisa, by then 24 years old. When Lisa died a few months later, Bekki bought Meghann another quarter horse mare named Peaches. Meghann began showing Peaches in small-town weekend playdays and 4-H and FFA shows. "My first show was a midnight playday, at the McKinney Pinto Club," she recalls. "Peaches bucked me off."

She went through Peaches and another quarter horse before Bekki teamed her with her current partner, True C Bar, a 17-year-old black quarter horse gelding with a stoic attitude, bad feet, and a built-in radar for peppermint. Nicknamed "Shamu" after the killer whale, he is a big, stout, old-fashioned New Mexico-bred quarter horse, and the family's favorite pet. He was a top amateur trail horse for his previous owner.

As mom and dad pick up their daughter at Port Columbus International Airport, Bekki gives Meghann the horse report. For Meghann's parents, it's been a long night and day. To cut down on days taken off work, Bekki and Stephen drove the entire way after they got home the night before, tackling the 20-hour trip in shifts. To defray the cost of gas and Meghann's plane fare, Bekki hauled two yearlings that will be sold in the Congress' annual auction. "It paid for Meghann's ticket, and then some," she notes.

Bekki is not the only one who moonlights for the cause; Dad makes and sells faux horsetails. (Shamu is the photo-model.) The show-ring fashion of the moment calls for long, thick, Rapunzel-style tails that extend nearly to the ground, a look most exhibitors obtain by using fake tail extensions, which are woven into the horse's own tail near the end of its tailbone.

By the time Meghann reaches the show barn it's 10 p.m. The 20-acre show ground is humming, all neon lights and golf carts whizzing past dogs and horses and announcements over the PA system. Inside the main show arena, youth reining has just gotten under way; outside the arena, from a row of more than 20 fast-food booths, vendors hawk cinnamon rolls, apple turnovers, pizza, sausages. The whole place is electric, alive with people and smells--chiefly fried food, with strong notes of leather and manure. It resembles nothing so much as a small state fair devoted to the worship of a single breed of horse and, perhaps more importantly, to a way of life.

It will continue this way well into the early morning, when the two main indoor show arenas will clear for a few hours. Even then, the activity will not end; at two and three in the morning each of the 10 or so practice rings will have half a dozen competitors moving in endless circles and figure eights. The Congress never sleeps.

Back at the barn, John Briggs, Meghann's trainer, is waiting for a last-minute practice session with his pupil. Twenty-five years ago, it was the rare youth competitor who had the luxury of a trainer--much less one who followed them around to shows. Today, it is a practical necessity. As in grand slam tennis or golf or any other highly competitive sport, champions are made not only from hard work but from hours of sustained, nitpicky criticism and attention to detail. Such help doesn't come cheaply; Meghann's parents pay $600 a month to board Shamu with the Briggs, an arrangement that carries limitless lessons and tune-ups for horse and rider alike. (They pay additional charges for the Briggses to attend shows.) They're lucky; it's relatively cheap. Like Meghann, John and Jill Briggs are looking to make their mark. At 29, John is a multiple world champion who worked for a number of top trainers before striking out on his own. His wife and partner, Jill, 24, is a former youth world champion.

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