By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Meghann is not the only youth competitor in the Briggses' barn. Across from Shamu's stall, 16-year-old Nicole Story is standing on an overturned can, carefully banding the mane of her big sorrel horse, Zircon Zipper, "ZZ" for short. A pretty, blonde junior at Granbury High, Nicole has the tough-as-nails mien that popular teenage girls sometimes develop, and palpable ambition. Though Nicole has been showing horses for nearly as long as Meghann, until recently it's been mostly in 4-H and local shows; this is her first Congress. The same goes for Sibyl Parsons, a precocious 12-year-old from Combine, Texas, located near Seagoville. Like Meghann, both Nicole and Sibyl are the daughters of middle-class parents, trying to compete in a sport that is ruthlessly up-or-out.
Meghann takes Shamu out of his stall, only to discover a crisis: a weepy, swollen eye. It's a potential disaster. Her first class, at 8 a.m., is Showmanship at Halter, one in which appearances are critical, and the competition is fierce; in Meghann's age group alone, there are 240 entrants.
Normally, it is one of Meghann's best events. With limited showing, she's ranked 12th in the national standings. But when you're showing against a few hundred of the world's best horses, the tiniest thing--a puffed-up, mattery eye--may earn you poor marks.
Bekki trots off in search of a vet, while Meghann and John head for the practice ring to brush up on fine points of Meghann's body placement and Shamu's pivots. Like Bekki and Steve, Shamu looks exhausted; even the good eye is at half-mast.
After 45 minutes, they treat the bad eye, put Shamu to bed, grab something to eat, and turn in for a few hours' sleep, fingers crossed. It works; the next morning, Shamu's eye is fine. Bekki is up at 6 a.m., primping Shamu. His faux tail in place, his feet polished with black hoof dye, his muzzle carefully slicked with baby oil, he looks ready for the winner's circle. Meghann throws a light sheet on him and heads off for one of three indoor arenas that hold a full day of competitions.
What a show is unfolding inside.
The interesting part isn't what goes on in the ring; watching a seven-hour Showmanship at Halter class is only slightly more interesting than five hours of sitting at a golf hole, watching endless rounds of contestants take their best shot. The fascination is primarily cultural. Though today's quarter horse owners are located all over the globe, though some of the biggest shows are held in the Midwest, the sport retains the cultural trappings of the wealthy Texans who started it all. Gear and the exhibitors alike display all the taste and subtlety of the Cattle Baron's Ball, Dallas' premier over-the-top society event. (Indeed, more than a few Dallas debs and socialites are women who, as teenagers, regularly graced the pages of the Quarter Horse Journal.)
"It's a major fashion show," Meghann says of the sea of shiny-coated horses in silver- and gold-mounted halters, led by pretty young women in stage makeup and wildly flamboyant western outfits. There are rhinestones, Rolexes, suede, silver and gold lame, faux fur, real fur, Austrian crystals. ("The big thing now," explains Meghann. "They shine more.") Many of the girls sport gold-and-diamond jewelry that would make an NFL running back blush. But for the dirt and manure, the scene would qualify as camp.
"The Barbie factor," Meghann calls it. And, outfitted in black moire silk trimmed in royal blue and rhinestones, she's no Raggedy Ann herself. Like those of most contestants, Meghann's show clothes are specially whipped up by a seamstress. As with ice-skaters' costumes, there is a cottage industry of needlewomen across the country who specialize in the designs. The Chanel of the moment is Paula from Arizona, whose number is handed around like a secret code.
"There's Joetta," says Bekki Beverly, looking up for a moment from her endless horse-polishing duties.
In a pen outside of the arena where showmanship is being held, 16-year-old Joetta Meredith is putting a small dun gelding through his paces. A wisp of a girl, so tiny and thin she could easily pass as a gymnast or ice skater, Joetta, who lives in a hamlet outside Houston, is the current big dog, the competitor to beat. According to the latest Quarter Horse Journal, she is ranked in the top five in two events. She's won multiple world titles at the youth world show, the by-invitation-only Super Bowl of youth horse showing.
"Family money," Bekki explains.
But it would be deceptive to write Joetta off as a rich kid whose parents bought success. In fact, she has the perfect combination of wealth and fire-in-the-belly determination that makes kids practice dozens of hours a week and forgo normal teenage lives.
"Joetta's been working on it for a long time," says Nancy Cahill, the Youth World Cup coach, whose teams have included Joetta. "She was kinda plopped on at the gate for a long time. But she finally said, 'I want to ride every event. I want to stay here all day long. I want to do it all.' And that's when her folks finally bought her that dun horse...