Tens of thousands of Minnesotans will pass through the State Fair’s historic Horse Barn in coming days, and the question most of the Pronto Pup- and cheese curd-toting visitors will ask is, “Where are the draft horses?’”
“Either that,” said Adam Thesing, “or it’s, ‘Where are the miniature horses?’ ”
Just 26 years old, Thesing is in charge of the fair’s 81-year-old Horse Barn, a hyperactive human-and-animal gathering place unlike any other at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
With the help of up to 50 temporary employees, a laptop computer that never shuts down and a cellphone that rings, buzzes and flashes day and night, Thesing during the fair will oversee the comings and goings of big horses, little horses and those in between, including the American quarter horses he grew up riding.
“Our family lived in Lewiston, not far from Winona, and in addition to breeding horses, my mom and dad managed horse shows,” Thesing said.
This year, all of the fair’s 713 stalls will be occupied all of the fair’s 12 days, with draft horses staying an average of five nights, and other horses, three nights. Cost per night: $35.
“Logistically, draft horses are our biggest challenge, because most of the best teams are on the national state fair circuit, and the Minnesota fair is among the last state fairs of the summer,” Thesing said. “So, sometimes the horses will come here needing veterinary work. And their drivers and staff will be tired. But mostly, draft horses are challenging because they’re so big, and the equipment needed to keep them on the road, and to show them, and to get them into the fair is also big.”
In recent years, the fair’s horse program has undergone a resurgence and today is one of the largest such expositions among fairs nationwide. This runs counter to trends on the east and west coasts, where fairs increasingly are downplaying agricultural exhibits, including those involving horses.
“What we’re doing here at the Minnesota fair is reclaiming the Horse Barn,” Thesing said. “For many years, our show numbers were declining pretty rapidly. A lot of that had to do with the economy. But we also needed to change the way we operated. We’ve lowered our stall prices. Also we’re offering more prize money, which this year has helped us attract some of the best draft horse teams in the country.”
Preparation for the arrival of thousands of horses to the fairgrounds began months ago. The barn and the nearby Lee and Rose Warner Coliseum were pressure-washed, tons of pine bedding were ordered and staffing was ramped up.
Carmen Wanczycki is a retired school teacher from Rockford, Minn., and is among those who toil in the Horse Barn’s small office each August. Endlessly, horse riders and drivers ply her with requests for keys to nearby (human) showers, while fairgoers pepper her with questions.
“Mostly,” she said, agreeing with Thesing, “the questions are, ‘Where are the draft horses and where are the miniature horses?’ ”
Other barn workers clean stalls and tote manure to a nearby pit, from which it is hauled either to university farm fields or an off-site farm to be used as fertilizer.
Thesing’s boss is Mark Goodrich, a 32-year fair veteran and cattleman who also breeds American quarter horses. Overseeing everything at the fair that concerns agriculture, Goodrich is, by general agreement among those who know him, as country as country gets.
Stricken with cancer 10 years ago, for example, and given only four months to live, he convinced his wife to borrow enough money to buy a famously bred stud colt in Texas.
“I always wanted to have a son of High Brow Cat,” Goodrich said. “I told my wife I’m going to be dead anyway, so she could pay off the loan with my life insurance. She felt sorry for me — I was dying, after all — and she said OK. But I didn’t die, and we had to pay off the loan over about five years.”
Livestock exhibits at state fairs, Goodrich said, are being affected by the loss of family farms to large corporate operations.
“Many of the big farms don’t have kids that show animals at fairs,” he said. “Still, most fairs in the Midwest are doing well because they, as we have, work closely with the FFA [Future Farmers of America] and other youth groups to give them opportunities to show their animals at the fair.”
Horse competitions will be featured every day of this year’s fair. Many will be event-specific, from hunter jumpers to cutting horses (see www.mnstatefair.org/competitions/horses for a complete schedule). Each is free with a fair admission.
“Historically, the fair did all-breed horse shows, and when the industry changed and become more specialized, we didn’t react quickly enough,” Goodrich said. “That’s when we declined and struggled.”
Already by Monday of this week, stalls in the Horse Barn were filling fast. Hay was being hauled into the old building, and jodhpur-clad riders, most of them young, led saddled equines to the coliseum to practice in advance of pre-fair hunter jumper shows.
Paradoxically, perhaps, though seemingly consumed by horses and all things horse related, Thesing is no longer among those who ride.
“Maybe someday I’ll take it up again,” he said. “I’d like to. But not right now.”