Tennessee Welcomes First-Ever EquiFest:

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An Equine Extravaganza Of Education And Entertainment
Article & photos by Allison Armstrong Rehnborg

During the last full weekend of October (24-26), 2014, the Williamson County Ag Expo Park in Franklin, Tennessee, played host to one of horse country’s new premier events: EquiFest of Tennessee. Designed to celebrate every facet of the equine, this extravaganza first took shape as the fundraising brainchild of UT Extension and the Williamson County 4-H Equestrian Club – and then quickly took on a life of its own.

The inaugural EquiFest featured clinicians such as world-famous Australian horseman Guy McLean; nationally-renowned hunter/jumper trainer Nick Karazissis; and million-dollar barrel-racer Molly Powell. All weekend the arena hummed with cowboy drag races, mounted cowboy shooting competitions, and ranch rodeos, as well as mounted demonstrations from head-lining clinicians and local farms alike. A Breyer Kids’ Village engaged youngsters with hands-on horse demonstrations, pony rides, and other fun activities, while vendors lined the concourse selling everything from horse feeds to hand-forged metal collectibles to show attire. Lecture-based workshops, hosted by equine educators such as the Tennessee Equine Hospital in Thompson’s Station and the Meridian Equine Education Center in Lebanon, TN rounded out a full program of horse-focused educational opportunities and entertainment.

From its horse-focused workshops to its family-friendly atmosphere, EquiFest stayed true to its roots in 4-H, serving the kids and families of Williamson County well. According to Mat Horsman, UT Extension Agent and leader of the Williamson County 4-H Equestrian Club, the event started out as the answer to an age-old question of finances.

“Every year, we try to come up with new ideas for fundraising, but there are a lot of different groups in Williamson County. You’re always in the rat race, trying to get your project going,” Horsman explained. “So we wanted to come up with something new, exciting and different. We had some families in our group who were originally involved in EquiFest of Kansas, and we thought this idea had legs – so we went with it.”

Alongside Horsman, Jared Beam of Horseplay Promotions played an integral role in organizing and building Equifest; he said that it was the needs of the 4-H group that drove him more than anything else.

“I’d like for this to be where the kids don’t have to go knocking on doors to sell cookies or candles to raise money,” Beam said. “I want this to be an event where everybody wants to come and it’s fun and they look forward to it all year. And I want it to go boom! There’s your donations for the year, and the rest of the time, the kids can go do the real stuff – the meaningful stuff – that Mat plans on a daily basis for them.”

With the help of UT Extension and local sponsors such as Bonnie’s Barnyard, Franklin Horse Supply, and Saddle Up! Therapeutic Riding Center, the families and children of Horsman’s 4-H group quickly found themselves on the ground floor of an amazing opportunity – not only to raise funds for the future of their organization, but to gain a whole slew of experiences while building a massive multi-discipline equine event from scratch.

“EquiFest was really a three-pronged attack for us,” Horsman said. “One, it was a fund-raising event – not necessarily this first year, but down the road. Two, it was to help market our name – UT Extension – as well as the Williamson County 4-H group. Not everyone knows about all the wonderful programs we have for kids and adults. And the third was, to give our kids a whole new experience – one they’d never had before. There’s a lot of future to this and we want to work for it. Our kids are not content to sit back– they want to try things out and have new experiences. So we want to create those new opportunities for them.”

One such opportunity occurred when clinician Nick Karazissis, one of the most successful trainers on the West Coast, asked for local riders to participate in his hunter/jumper clinics that weekend. Several lucky 4-H riders got to bring their ponies into the arena and receive customized instruction from Karazissis over poles and fences, constituting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these aspiring young riders.

Other opportunities arose unexpectedly, like when the crowds at this event were smaller than expected – in part due to the massive reconstruction efforts going on at nearby Goose Creek Bridge. But rather than diminishing the event, the relative peace and quiet lent a valuable air of intimacy to the arena, allowing audience members to interact with the clinicians more closely. For example, Guy McLean and his wife, Emily, frequently sat in the stands near their booth, welcoming audience members to come and chat with them between clinics.

As a world-famous horseman and two-time world champion of Road to the Horse, McLean travels all over the United States, Canada, and Australia, performing demonstrations and clinics in front of crowds of hundreds and thousands – but the more intimate setting at EquiFest didn’t faze him in the least.

 “Other events, the arena is fuller,” McLean admitted. “But it doesn’t hurt for me to come to events like this. I can’t help but have enjoyed it, because I know that everyone wants to be here more than anywhere else in the world. That’s important to me – more quality than quantity. The only thing I’m upset about is that the stands aren’t full – and when I say upset, I just think people are missing out on the knowledge being shared here. Horses can teach us things that no human can teach.”

During the weekend, McLean held multiple sessions in the arena, covering topics like starting the young horse and developing control under tack and at liberty. Three of his sessions involved starting and riding a young horse from Taproot Farm: a three-and-a-half-year old mare named Moon that had never been ridden prior to the weekend. On the last day of EquiFest, Guy McLean rode Moon at a lope around the area, turning and stopping her at will, with the help of his trained liberty horses, Hope and Sequel.

“As a horseman, I think it’s a craft and it’s a mastership,” McLean said. “A lot of people don’t get to see that when we’re at home, doing it in our own paddocks and round pens. As good as we might be, if the world doesn’t see it, they can’t emulate it. By coming to events like this, I’m hoping people will go home and not necessarily train like me, but go home and think, ‘There’s more to these animals than what I thought. They’re not just a tool; they’re not just something for me to get on and ride when I want. They need a leader, and I can be that for them. We can accomplish incredible things together.’”

Susan Ingraham, owner of Taproot Farm and a volunteer with the EquiFest program, loved watching McLean work his methods on her horse, Moon.

“What he proved to us this weekend is that the connection between the person and the horse is the most important thing,” Ingraham said. “He showed you don’t have to break that horse’s dominant streak to create an obedient horse. Guy is such a good fit with us here, because he loves to do things with kids and to be part of a horse community. And people are interested in learning from him. Here, we’ve got people with a specific interest in horses. They’re here because they love horses, they have horses, or they love being around people who have horses – and we need more of those people to come out here.”

For information on next year’s EquiFest, please check out www.equifestoftn.com

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