The first thing you notice when pulling into the Expo Square fairgrounds during the U.S. National Arabian & Half-Arabian Horse Show is a metallic sea of gleaming horse trailers, parked in leisurely order.
Then you notice the costumes. The three featured riding styles -- Western, English and Hunting -- each require specific attire. The proper English suits with their delicate pinstripes, the Western shirts and chaps with their swagger and bold prints, and the understated Hunting attire with their formal earth tones all add a heightened sense of the theatrical to the high-status horse show.
We toured the buildings with Arabian show veteran and Expo Square agribusiness event coordinator, Vick Barker.
Barker's iPhone rang and the two-way radio hooked to his belt shouted static-y missives, but it's to be expected. He's in the midst of one of Expo Square's busiest weeks.
Holding the Reins
Barker tells the story of the horse show by tossing out numbers like logistical horseshoes. You have to be a little obsessed with numbers and logistics when you're the guy heading up Expo Square's transformation from the Tulsa State Fair in full multi-colored swing to a renowned horse show. In just five days.
Here are some numbers to give an idea of the sheer scope of Tulsa's preparations for the show, lauded as the most prestigious North American championship in the Arabian horse industry:
9: Days of the Arabian Horse Show held in Tulsa.
1,800: Approximate number of Arabian horses brought to compete in the show.
3,000: Temporary stalls built inside three fairgrounds buildings.
40: Approximate number of "strong, husky people" who work on six crews in charge of stall construction, Barker said.
All these numbers add up to one much bigger number. "During the two weeks that the Arabian Horse Association (AHA) is in town, it's estimated that some $33 million dollars are left in our regional coffers," County Commissioner Karen Keith said.
Hundreds of people from all 50 states pour in for the championship in hopes of winning trophies, points, cash, titles and oh, the ribbons. AHA judges award prizes in about 170 different classes or competitions held in three arena rings.
"I thought I knew a lot about horses, until this," said Barker, waving a hand toward the main show ring in the Ford Dealers Building, where about 15 Western-shirted riders walked then galloped their horses under bright lights.
Barker was raised around ranch horses, not the long-tailed show variety with meticulously bred DNA. Enter Bob Hart, an Afton horse trainer who operates Vallejo III Farm and has spent his whole life around Arabians.
Link to Fame
UTW caught up with Hart as he took two-time national champion stallion, Link to Fame, out for some playtime.
Hart said he loves Arabians more than other breeds because "they're the most personable."
"Arabians are the father of all the breeds," Hart said. These equines are an ancient breed that originated in the Middle East. After hundreds of years in harsh desert climates, Arabians became stronger and hardier than other horses.
So, how can you pick an Arabian out of a lineup? There are few minor distinctions, which can be tough for the untrained eye to pick out. Look for an arched neck, high-sitting tail and a slightly concave or "dished" forehead.
Or wait for a friendly, people-loving horse to mosey on over to you instead. While Hart answered UTW's questions, Link to Fame slowly stepped closer and closer until his snout was sniffing this reporter's notebook and nudging pen from page.
"He likes you," Hart said.
Color me flattered, though Arabians are naturally curious, spirited and comfortable around humans. They are one of the few breeds authorized by the U.S. Equestrian Federation to be exhibited by children in most show classes.
Out in the practice ring, 14-year-old Link to Fame whinnied and tossed his mane and pranced through his paces. "Oh, he's a big ham," Hart laughed.
Link has mastered the complex steps he must perform in the ring. The deep chocolate brown horse with black mane and tail debuted in shows when he was three, and is still going strong 11 years later.
Before the pageantry begins, what goes up must come down. As the state fair shuddered to a halt on the night of Oct. 9, workers began cleaning out barns. Amount of manure shoveled: A lot.
Barker said the "most laborious part" of preparing for the show is the quick building of thousands of stalls by crews. For five straight days.
After six electricians and one plumber get thousands of hook-ups connected, it's "critical crunch time," Barker said. A surprising amount of dirt goes into creating an ideal site for a horse show.
Thousands and thousands of yards of arena dirt, clay and black dirt are heaped, truck after truck, from where it's stored (near a Tulsa racetrack) to the fairgrounds.
Number of dump trucks Tulsa County pitched in to help move dirt: 29.
Number of seconds to load one truck with dirt: 11. With many horse shows to prepare for each year, Tulsa County and Expo Square employees have developed a finely tuned assembly line of loading and unloading dirt from dump trucks.
Arena dirt is used specifically for the show rings, while black dirt and clay are used for other areas of the fairgrounds. "They're very particular of any stones or pieces of wire anywhere near the horses," Barker said.
This is first-rate dirt. Rings are plowed frequently "to keep the dirt leveled, not compressed or uneven," Barker said.
The Arabian Horse Association brings its own conditioned dirt, too, and a laser leveler, a sort of high-tech tractor, which reacts to transmitted data about the dirt's condition. "It adjusts to float dirt from one part of the arena to another, and to make it as dead level as we possibly can," Barker said.
Once the serious work of dirt is done, a production company and interior decorating firm flock in to add the "show" part of the event.
The finishing touches are polished off just in time for the first hopeful arrivals. Spotlights are in place. Stages are set. The awards room is full (number of prizes: 1,700). Whew.
"A tremendous amount of work" goes into the Arabian show, said Barker, who mentioned the fairgrounds' next horse show, the Pinto Horse Association's Color Breed Congress, would start Nov. 2 and run through Nov. 6.
On Oct. 30, workers began breaking down and storing all 3,000 stalls, all the decorations and configurations, and of course, all the dirt.
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