Winston Churchill once said, “No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.”
Equestrians and horse lovers no doubt agree. Horses are mysterious and grand, yet fragile creatures that have captured hearts and imaginations for centuries. These natural athletes dazzle in the show ring and have a huge following worldwide among competitive circuits.
Among the stopping grounds for such major events is central Pennsylvania, which boasts an enthusiastic equestrian community. The Pennsylvania National Horse Show (PNHS), now in its 74th year, attracts some of the show-jumping world’s premier athletes while giving up-and-coming hunter/jumper riders the opportunity to compete with their peers as they try to rise up through the ranks of the sport.
Held every October at the PA Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, the show is one of the marquee events for riders and one of the largest indoor shows in the country. Riders come from all corners to compete for top prize money, ribbons and recognition. Attendees are treated to a show that features the best of the best in equestrianism.
Seventeen-year-old Paige Jones of Landenberg in southern Chester County will be among those competitors. She’s competing for the first time at PNHS in the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Dover Hunt Seat Medal final on her mount, AF Cassini.
“I’ve been competing since I was 5,” she said. “My mom used to train ponies, so that’s how I started riding and showing competitively. The show grounds here are really nice, and it’s fun showing against riders from all over the country.”
Jones wants to start competing with the medium and high amateur owner, or A/O, jumpers this winter and eventually move up to Grand Prix, the cream-of-the-crop class in jumping. And, as in any sport, there are role models to admire. Nayel Nassar is one of Jones’ favorite Grand Prix riders.
“He is very calm, consistent and successful,” she said.
The Pennsylvania National Horse Show is just the latest stop for Jones. She just committed to Oklahoma State University to ride on the Division 1 equestrian team and will be heading there next fall.
Beyond jumping, the show features dozens of events and activities for horsey and non-horsey folks alike, such as Family Fun Day on Oct. 12. Book readings by authors and wagon rides are among the activities. Noodles normally used to keep afloat in the pool will be part of a craft activity. Kids will learn how to form the noodles into—what else?—a pony that they can ride around the concourse.
The now-famous Libre, a Boston terrier who was discovered suffering from neglect and shed light on the plight of dogs in puppy mills, also will make an appearance that day. Hunt Night on Oct. 14 is another big feature at the show, as it is the only indoor hunt night in the country devoted to local clubs.
PNHS Executive Director Susie Webb, who has been with the show for four years, said the competition remains one of the premier national sporting events in the United States by remaining dedicated to horse enthusiasts, while engaging and educating the audience with unique features such as the therapeutic riding championships, which take place on Foundation Friday, Oct. 18.
Initiated in 2016, Foundation Friday is the setting for two riding championships—assisted and unassisted—and the presentation of the foundation’s “Therapy Horse of the Year Award.” Therapeutic riding is an equine-assisted activity that contributes to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well being of people with special needs.
“Our ‘Therapy Horse of the Year’ two years ago became a Breyer horse,” Webb said, referring to the toy horses made by Breyer Animal Creations. “Zipped Black Magic, a 20-year-old appaloosa, is also special needs, as he is totally blind.”
Anyone who has collected the famous Breyer model horses knows that a horse has to be very special to be chosen for that honor.
Webb also emphasized how special the families of the children participating in the therapeutic riding event are.
“Thanks need to go to the families who participate,” she said. “They are always thanking us, but we thank them for their commitment and time.”
The event’s big night is the Grand Prix, when famed professional riders like McLain Ward, Beezie Madden and the Millar family from Canada come to compete in what look like impossibly insurmountable jumps. The Grand Prix wraps up the 10 days of competition.
“That’s what this sport is—families, young, old, dad, daughter, all competing on the same level.” Webb said. “It’s in another league from most other sports.
The PA National Horse Show takes place Oct. 10 to 19 at the PA Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg. For more information and a schedule of events, visit www.panational.org.