49th US National Arabian and Half-Arabian National Championships

By Linda White

The 2015 US National show program weighs four pounds. That alone should tell the tale. The US National Arabian and Half-Arabian Championships has become a very big deal: one of the three largest horse shows on earth, irrespective of breed. A US National title is a much sought-after, unarguable gauge of quality and value - not to mention the perfect marketing tool.

For the past eight years, Arabian folks have been bringing their finest to Tulsa, Oklahoma. “In it to win it” may be a cliché, but that’s exactly what every individual is thinking about. They may be in the cab of a luxurious, high ticket horse van, or pulling a humble, tag-a-long 2-horse trailer, but they all have a dream in common as they pass through Expo Square’s main gate: winning a 2015 US National Championship. At the gate stands the 76-foot Golden Driller, an avatar of the halcyon days of Oklahoma’s oil boom; a gaudy, towering figure from an earlier age. The enthusiasts who brought 1,782 horses onto the show grounds this year - up from last year’s number - are all about what tomorrow will bring.

Judges this year were, alphabetically: Julie Addante, Salida, Shannon Armstrong, Kathy Callahan-Smith, Steve Colclasure, Leslie Connor, Laura Jean Duran, Wendy Gruskiewicz, Nancy Hitt, Hollie Hover, Bryan Jackson, Van Paul Jacobsen, Steve Lieblang, Leon Matthias, Patrick Newby, Allan Preston, Marilyn Randall, Martha Rattner, Cindy Reich, Mitch Sperte, Susan Witte, and Eric Wolfe. Look for judges’ profiles at the AHA website, or arabdatasource, under “Competitions”. Each is a top shelf horseman or horsewoman in his or her specialized area of interest and expertise.

Martha Murdock Rattner has missed the national show only once since the early 1980s. She judged US Nationals the first time in 1997. As a member of the 2015 judging panel, what did the show look like from center ring?

“The show this year seemed more positive,” she said thoughtfully. “The exhibitors seemed to be having fun. Another thing that stood out, from my perspective as a judge, was the huge improvement in class scheduling.

“Highlights?” Rattner mulled over the question. “There were many highlights, and they’re hard to rank, but one very special moment would be when Paul Heiman rode into the arena to receive his US Top 10. He took off his hat, and had a huge smile on his face. At 89, Paul is still going strong! In 1997, the first time I judged US Nationals, Paul’s trainer, Matt Siemon, won his first national championship as a pro, aboard Paul’s horse, Supreme Decision. Eighteen years later, Paul is still riding and driving in Half-Arabian classes, and Matt Siemon is still training his horses.

“Another special time for me was judging Beyoncé LOA in Half-Arabian English AEPH. This amazing filly is out of a Saddlebred mare – a great show mare – I trained and sold for a customer. I had never seen the mare’s filly, Beyoncé LOA, until she trotted through the in-gate here. Like mother, like daughter. It was great to have the honor of judging something so close to my heart.

“Watching Jessica Clinton win the purebred open English pleasure championship brought to mind a time years ago when I judged Jessica and her older sister, Leah Clinton, in Houston,” Rattner remembered. “After the show, I told their mother, Vicki Humphrey, that I thought Jessie would be the one to stay in the business.” Clinton rode JK Heiristocracy to the 2015 title for Ron and Deborah Pearson, of Aiken, South Carolina. For the record, Rattner’s own mother is esteemed horsewoman and educator Cecile Hetzel Dunn. Like mother, like daughter.

The US National Show outgrew its previous locations, but as the US Show Commissioners discovered long ago, somebody was always ready to find fault. The size of the sprawling Expo Squares campus has been a sore point with some exhibitors since the show moved there. “You have to rent a golf cart!” was an often-heard complaint. “Everything is so far from everything else!” The distances between the stabling and the show arenas are inconvenient, but West World, home of the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show, has many of the same problems. Does the warm desert sun lessen the inconveniences? Halter classes and trail classes were held in the Pavilion; English performance classes and youth judging took place in the ring on the second floor of the Ford Truck Arena; fortunately for the halt and lame, there was an elevator in the lobby. The Mustang Arena, behind the larger Ford Truck Arena, accommodated most of the western and working western classes.

What prompted the move? Louisville’s Kentucky Fair and Expositions Center has a more condensed layout. Classy Freedom Hall has a romantic history and an ideal indoor show ring, but ultimately, Louisville had too few stalls. Albuquerque is a fantastic tourist destination, but the facility is costly to rent, and some of those stalls out by the racetrack at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds are quite a hike from Tingley Coliseum and the Indoor Horse Arena. Golf carts have long been welcome horse show transportation; patrons were thankful for the golf carts that were included in their patrons’ packages.

“This facility is fine,” R.O. Lervick Arabians trainer Dennis Wigren conceded, shrugging. “It serves our needs. It’s a little ‘cowboy’ - not glamorous - but everybody likes the covered work arenas here, and the main ring, in Ford Truck Arena, has long straightaways and wide corners, better for driving horses and big-moving English horses.” R.O. Lervick Arabians, now celebrating 40 years, has bred many national champion performance and halter horses. Roger and Linda Lervick have been nominated Breeders of the Year for the past five years.

“I see some improvements to the facility,” John Rannenberg agreed. He has been head trainer at Rohara Arabians since 1985. “There seemed to be a better energy about the show this year. The quality is always wonderful, of course, but I would like to see a return to more pageantry and tradition. This is a horse show, after all. Shouldn’t there be a little suspense and excitement, to interest spectators?

“And I think we’ve diluted the glamor and prestige of winning a national championship or US Top 10. Year after year, more and more classes, with more and more specific qualifications, have been added, so that now, it seems like there’s a class for everybody. Widening the opportunities for exhibitors to take home a national championship - in something – may sound great from a marketing standpoint … but doesn’t that take away from the award’s scarcity and importance? Just something to think about,” Rannenberg offered with characteristic humility.

“Double or Nuttin (Undulata’s Nutcracker x Engennue, by Hucklebey Berry) won the 2015 US National Half-Arabian Country English Pleasure Futurity Championship in a class of 17 for Linda and Vince Musso, his breeders,” Rannenberg continued. “That pleases me because I suggested the breed the mare to the Saddlebred stallion, Undulata’s Nutcracker. Double or Nuttin was born at Rohara, I raised and trained ‘William’, his barn name … and here he is. Before I took him to the National Show Horse Finals last month (he won his class) he had never left the farm, or ridden in a horse trailer. This is only his second show!”

If you walking through the River Spirit building around Wednesday noon, October 28, you might have noticed that the Rancho Sonado stalls were festooned with 14 US Top 10 ribbons, and four US National Reserve Championship trophy. The inscriptions on those trophies, and the photographs displayed, revealed that this was a ranch devoted to performance Arabians and Half-Arabians whose gifts lay in the working western disciplines, western pleasure and trail.

Rancho Sonado Arabians and Half-Arabians have won numerous national championships and reserves for owners Dick and Nan Walden. One enviably high profile belongs to 6-time national champion Agracie Girl V (Sundance Kid V x Amazing Grace) whose career includes many Scottsdale, Regional, US and Canadian National Trail Championships, often AAOTR with Nan Walden.

Youth judging is inherently hopeful. The young participants’ earnest faces and their eager intensity gladden the hearts of the most jaded observers. This year, 115 individuals from 29 different 4-H, FFA, AHA and collegiate judging teams participated in the 2015 Arabian Horse Judging Contest held in Ford Truck Arena. The highest-scoring team came from William Woods University. Highest-scoring individual was Silja Alexander, from Wyoming’s 4-H team.

Commercial exhibits, national championship awards, trophies and sculpture, and AHA’s temporary office setup filled Central Park Hall. Vendors returned this year knowing that business, light during the show’s first few days would pick up the last several days. Shoppers snapped up merchandise, and signed up for services they had been thinking about all week. Tulsa’s late October temperatures were brisk, creating a windfall for the gourmet coffee stand on the perimeter of the commercial exhibits. Exhibitors who object to the Tulsa facility’s long distances between stabling and buildings are reminded of the wildly popular Scottsdale, Arizona show. On West World’s 386 acres, everything is a bracing walk from everything else.

Exhibitors had gotten pretty attached to Louisville and Albuquerque, for decades the extravaganza’s host cities on alternate years. Great restaurants in both places aside, the show eventually outgrew those facilities, triggering relocation. Costs, Expo Square’s considerably larger number of stalls, and Oklahoma’s nearness to the geographic center of the lower 48 states, were major considerations as the US National Show Commission looked for the show’s new home. This, the show’s eighth year in Tulsa, ran smoothly. The extra goings-on: inducting judges into the Hall of Fame, the Wine Walk that raised money for the Arabian Horsemen’s Defense Fund, and several other worthy organizations and projects. If you were there, or happened to watch the show online, you know that all victories and losses, joys and disappointments that are inherent in a horse show of this size and import, will become indelible memories; a chapter in the book of Arabian horse history.

“The moments we’ll remember connect to what is so special about our industry, and what separates it from the others,” Martha Rattner noted. “We are connected … like family. This is why the Arabian Horsemen’s Defense Fund has had such a major impact. Each year, the support of donors and participants in incredible fundraising events - is second to none, because we are like family.”

Congratulations go to every participant, at every level, who came to the 2015 US National Arabian & Half-Arabian Championships to compete for the breed’s loftiest honors. The horses’ quality was exceptional, and horse and human performances in every division seem to get better every year. Best of all, the fellowship and good sportsmanship so typical of the Arabian horse community were in full swing, from the show’s start to its conclusion.