Trail horses mixed with show horses, people of all ages competed together, and skills such as balancing a lemon on a spoon while on horseback were rewarded with ribbons at yesterday's English/Western Play Day at the Howard County Fair.
Unlike nine other horse shows at the fair - most of which are for specific breeds - play day offered few rules, no dress code and lots of lighthearted games, drawing about 50 riders on all types of horses.
"It's got a lighter feel" than the other shows, which are often serious and competitive, said Peggy Schultz, general superintendent of the fair's Horse Department.
The day was organized by Ashley Fahey of Woodbine and Samantha Hull of Ellicott City and attracted many of their friends from the Maryland Western Horse Association to West Friendship. But, Schultz said, "we drew so many people from elsewhere. All of us like to come out and play once in a while."
The first contests focused on speed, with horses weaving through a line of poles and racing around barrels. One event had partners trying to ride without breaking a ribbon. Another measured how much water was left in a cup after a few turns around the ring.
Other contests had riders going to the end of the ring and putting on a coat, putting on a shoe, or bobbing for apples before they returned. A costume contest was held and a "walk race" was on the schedule to see who could keep their horse moving and still finish last.
Each event had one open class and one class for children, which required that they stay at a trot or slower.
It was the first time in such a competition for Christie Baker, 14, of Ellicott City and for her horse, Hawk, a Tennessee Walker/Rocky Mountain crossbreed. Usually, she rides on trails and around the farm in Montgomery County, where Hawk is boarded.
"It is so much fun," Christie said, as she petted her horse. "He's been so good."
They were not among the fastest competitors, but Christie found Hawk's smooth gait to be an advantage in the lemon-and-spoon contest: They finished second.
"He's having fun, I'm having fun, that's all that matters," she said.
Sue Lydick of Woodbine also was new to the show ring. She usually rides her Clydesdale, Joe Slick, on trails.
Joe Slick was the only draft horse in the competition, but Lydick, a system engineer for Lockheed Martin, coaxed him through pole and barrel racing as fast as she could.
"He's doing great," she said.
She did well in a contest to ride around the ring bareback without losing a piece of paper from under her shin, but Lydick was concerned about the games in which she would have to dismount. "He's awful tall to get on, and I'm short," she said.
The play day is a new activity for the Howard County Fair, although area 4-H clubs have had similar events. But for at least a decade, the fair has had about nine or 10 horse shows, one of the largest numbers in the state.
"Horses are big in Howard County and in the state of Maryland," said Vaughn Turner, president of the county fair association. "There is always a good turnout" for horse shows.
A equine census last year by the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Maryland Horse Industry Board reported 87,100 horses, mules, donkeys and burros in the state, concentrated in the central and northern counties.
Of those, 42,000 are light breeds most often used for pleasure riding.
Howard County has 5,190 equines, according to the survey.
The fair has responded to the local popularity of horses with 10 shows, including exhibitions for draft horses and mules, gaited horses such as Tennessee walking horses and Paso Finos, Arabian horses, Shetland and Welsh ponies, miniature horses, hunters and breeders, and quarterhorses.
On Saturday, the Howard County Horse Shows Association will hold a show at the fairgrounds.
On Sunday, the fair will have the 26th horse-pulling contest, in which teams of horses try to pull the most weight loaded on a sled.
The fair board also upgraded the horse ring this year, lining it with stone dust. "It gives a much firmer base than the sand, which is what we had before," Turner said.
If the play day is successful, it could become a regular part of the fair, Schultz said. In addition to being fun for riders, "the games are fun to watch," she said. "It brings a lot of spectators."
For Katie Snyder, play day was a last chance to ride Cookie, a Shetland Pony that the 11-year-old has outgrown. She was especially looking forward to a race involving bobbing for apples. "I think I'll do good," she said.
Katie was at the show with her mother, Tina Snyder, and other students from Snyder's Safe Haven farm and equestrian school in Sykesville.
"It's a very nice, low-stress day," said Snyder. Her students spend so many weekends competing, she said, yesterday was "just a day to have fun."
Howard County Fair highlights
The Howard County Fairgrounds are at Exit 80 of Interstate 70 in West Friendship. The fair ends Saturday. Hours are from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Parking is free. Admission is free for children younger than 10, $4 for ages 10 and older; and $2 for those ages 62 and older. Information and complete schedule: www.howardcoun tyfair.com or 410-442-1022.
Today: Rides $1 each all day; 8 a.m., hunters and breeding horse show; 7 p.m., amateur variety talent show.
Tomorrow: Health and Wellness Day; 8 a.m., quarter horse show; 10 a.m., health fair; 7 p.m., parade of floats.
Saturday: 8 a.m., 4-H rocketry contest; 10:30 a.m., baby contest and miniature parade, 26th horse pull; 3 p.m., ninth annual antique tractor pull.
Every day will feature a petting zoo and agricultural education center, magicians and clowns, pig races, pony rides, 4-H and home arts demonstrations, 4-H and open livestock shows, amusement rides and games, and health and lifestyle seminars.