COLUMBUS, OHIO — This coming October, the All-American Quarter Horse Congress celebrates its 50th anniversary. Beginning in 1967 as a three-day weekend horse show, it has grown to a show of over three and a half weeks, Oct. 6-30, the largest single-breed horse show in the world. It has been described by some as “the Disney World of horse shows.” It has everything anyone wanted to know about horses, particularly the Quarter horse breed, and more.
It’s the largest annual convention in Columbus, Ohio. The show is held annually at the Ohio State Fair Grounds, a stone’s throw from Ohio State University, just a couple miles north of the center of downtown Columbus.
The city of Columbus has in recent years committed itself to keeping the Quarter Horse Congress there by having a new, huge, state-of-the-art 1,015-stall horse barn built on the grounds to go along with all of the other related arenas that host the event. The show hosts some 6,000 horses moving in and off the grounds over the three-plus week time period.
For those who may not know, the Quarter horse breed is an American creation, crossed in 1756 between an English Thoroughbred stallion, “Janus,” brought to North America and bred to Spanish colonial mares — it produced what became the foundation stock of the American Quarter horse. From that time on the horse was used primarily by what eventually would be called cowboys to cut cows from herds because the horse was extremely quick and versatile being able to stop and turn.
The name “Quarter horse” came from early Virginia settlers racing the horses along straight quarter-mile paths in about 20 seconds. The horse is also known for its calm and cooperative temperament, a valued quality with any breed horse.
Generally, the Quarter horse ranges from 58 to 62 inches tall, and weighs between 900 and 1,250 pounds, falling into a category of “light horses.” The American Quarter Horse Association, to promote the breed, was formed in 1940.
In the mid-1960s, “Congress” founder Blair Folck proposed the event before the Ohio Quarter Horse Association Board. Several board members expressed serious reservations. “They were worried that with only $2,000 in the treasury, a loss on Congress could bankrupt the local association,” said Dan Evans, chairman of the board of Bob Evans Farms, one of the originators of the Congress.
The first Congress in November 1967, netted $15,000. Since then the event has grown beyond the wildest dreams of its founders with several hundred thousand equine enthusiasts coming every year. The show is possibly the most comprehensive anywhere. It has volumes of quality commercial exhibits located primarily in “Congress Hall” — everything from horse trailers, tack, equestrian attire, stylish jewelry, specialized horse nutritionists, equine art, colleges that have equestrian sport, and more. There is also a very popular “Puppy Alley,” where dog breeders of all kinds offer puppies for sale.
The QH Congress pioneered mixing education with competition. Each year a lengthy published list of equine specialist guest speakers talk about the horse industry’s hottest topics, all available with the cost of admission.
Even with all this, the centerpiece of the Congress has always been competition. Following its successful first year in 1967, the Congress was quick to add competitions that included youth, seizing on the idea that young people were the future of the industry.
In 1968, the first National Youth Activity Team Tournament (better known as NYATT) was held with 14 teams from across the nation competing in four different classes. A team from Oklahoma was the first to win the tournament. Since then there have been six competitive listings for NYATT: Showmanship, Western Pleasure, Horsemanship, Hunter under saddle, Reining, and Barrel Racing. For the 50th anniversary of Congress, a new class has been added, English Equitation, bring the total to seven classes.
Each team must have no fewer than four members, and each is allowed up to 14 team members, not exceeding the age of 18. Two team members can compete in each class, however, no one team member can compete in more than two competitive NYATT classes. The tournament, which will be Sunday, Oct. 23, starting at 7 a.m., clearly brings together many of the most talented young equestrians in the nation.
Alongside the NYATT tournament, a five-day competition for the prestigious Congress Queen. The contestants for Queen come from state QH associations. The entries compete in three categories: oral interviews, written essays, and finally, a Queens Horsemanship competition. Each contestant is scored by a panel of judges and the young woman with the highest score wins. The Queen travels the nation representing the Quarter horse industry at many different events. She also receives a large scholarship toward her education.
Congress has become very much a family tradition. Jennifer Ridgely, now head equestrian coach at Delaware State University, one of 24 Division I equestrian teams in the nation, competed as a member of the Delaware NYATT team in the late 1980s.
Ridgely is almost moved to tears when she talks about how her late father greeted her following her first Congress Youth competition.
“He ran down the shoot following the end of my Showmanship pattern embracing me and expressing how proud he was,” she said. “I’ll never forget it!”
Ridgely also competed for Congress Queen. She won the oral interview portion of the competition. Her passion for everything equine is clear for everyone who meets her. She, however, did not win the overall Queen contest that year. She now guides other young women pursuing an education, most on scholarship as members of the DSU equestrian team.
Ridgely’s daughter Peyton carries on the tradition as a member of the Eastern Maryland Equestrian Association NYATT team the past three years. One of the top barrel racers in the nation, at the 2015 Congress, Peyton was Reserve Grand Champion in NYATT barrels, being edged out by four one-hundreds of a second as Champion. Peyton’s team, Eastern Maryland Equestrian Association, scored 14 points with her placing second overall in barrels. It was the first time EMEA had a team member score in NYATT in the team’s short three-year history.
“Placing in the Top 20 teams is quite an accomplishment,” said Dr. Scott Myers, executive director of the Quarter Horse Congress. He added, “NYATT is a very competitive event.”
The Ridgelys are just one of many families across the nation who have made the pursuit of excellence at Congress a continued goal.
Don and Leah Recchiuti, of Mineral City, Ohio, are another family that continues the tradition. The Recchiutis brought their sons, John and Donnie Jr., to compete in NYATT in their youth. Donnie is now one of the top 30 most successful horse breeders and trainers in the nation.
Donnie said, “If is wasn’t for NYATT, I may never have gotten started in my career with horses! (which now spans more than 20 years).
“The NYATT competition is a tremendous program. It’s an amazing team tournament. Kids can come as part of a team, which makes the whole experience more comfortable. They don’t have to come and feel overwhelmed at this huge show, being all alone. The team process is really good for beginners at Congress.”
Don Sr. and Leah, continue to support Congress; Don Sr. has been the official NYATT chairman the past 15 years with Leah at his right hand in support. NYATT started with only 14 teams in 1968; there were over 60 teams in 2015.
During Congress, there are many Open competitions, including numerous Halter and Showmanship classes, Hunter, Equitation, Reining, Cutting, Calf Roping, Small Fry classes, Novice, Youth, Select, Western Trail, Pleasure Riding, Pleasure Driving, Barrel and Pole Bending races, Jumping, Equestrians with Disabilities classes, and much more.
There is also a special ticketed event during Congress — the fabulous, always entertaining Open and Non-Pro Freestyle Reining program.
Come to the annual “Super Sale” of horses usually held the third weekend of Congress. Congress winners, mares, mares in foal, geldings and foals are auctioned. Top quality Quarter horses have brought some fantastic prices, one selling for as much as $100,000.
World-class entertainers have come to Congress, not to perform, but as QH fans and owners, including Lynn Anderson, Doc Severenson, Charlie Daniels, Olivia Newton-John and Terry Bradshaw. Congress has earned its recognition as a premier national and international equestrian event.
2016, the 50th anniversary of the show, will indeed be a special All-American Quarter Horse Congress, possibly the biggest and best of all.
For more information, go online to quarterhorsecongress.com.