The Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden is underway this week and for the ninth year in a row, our Haflinger horses aren’t there on display. I feel wistful as I wake up too early on a foggy summer morning, remembering the twenty years where I would gather up our sleepy children and their friends and head into the fairgrounds to clean stalls, walk the ponies and prepare for the day. We are no long “doing” the fair as a farm, and I’m still a little bit sad about that.
Our farm, BriarCroft, had been a consistent presence at this fair for nearly two decades, promoting the Haflinger breed in a well-decorated outdoor display, providing 24 hour a day coverage for the horses for the 6 days of the fair. We petitioned the Fair Board for 5 years in the late 1980s to allow us to display at the fair, and they finally said “okay, here’s the space, build it yourself” and we did! We were not there for classes, competition, or ribbons. We were there because people enjoyed our Haflingers and we enjoyed the people.
But now that our children are all grown up and moved away, we lack their help to “man” the horse stalls. I miss spending that intense one week time with all of the several dozen “kid” helpers from over the years, most of them now with children of their own.
Every year between 1992 and 2012, we were there, sometimes sharing space and duties with other Haflinger farms (Rodenbergers and McKees), along with several brave young women (Kelsy Smith, Chesna Klimek and Emily Vander Haak) who did Haflinger “trick riding” as part of the daily Grandstand show. The older kids watched the younger kids, the in-between kids did most of the horse stall cleaning duty, and we adults sat and shot the breeze.
Our display created good will for the fair visitors who depended on us every year to be there with horses that they and their children could actually pet (and sit on) without fear, who enjoyed our braiding demonstrations, and our various Haflinger trivia contests with prizes. Our horses came to represent what dreams are made of.
Countless times a day there would be a bright eyed child who approached our stalls, climbed up on the step stools and reached up to pet a Haflinger nose or neck and looked deep into those big brown Haflinger eyes, and lost their heart forever to the breed. They will not forget that moment when a horse they had never met before loved them back. Haflingers are magic with children and we saw that over and over again.
Our first year, in 1992, a mom and her 6 year old son came up to our stalls, as do some 10,000 people a day, and spent a long time petting the horses and talking to them, and enjoying them. They walked off, with the little boy looking over his shoulder at the Haflingers until they turned a corner and went out of sight. An hour later they were back and spent more time with the Haflingers. I offered the little boy a chance to sit on a Haflinger, and he agreed readily, and sat and sat and sat, playing with the mane and petting the shoulder and neck and was simply in heaven, quietly dreaming his own dreams on the back of a horse. His mom told me that they lived in a suburb near Seattle, but always spent this particular week in August at a local beach cabin, and the fair was one of their favorite activities each year. Her son Gary had never had an opportunity to sit on a horse before.
Next year, they were back, and Gary was a little taller, but still a quiet boy, and he kept dragging his mom back to the Haflingers, and she’d sit and visit as he’d sit on the Haflingers. He watched as we watered the horses, or fed them hay, or cleaned their stalls, and pretty soon he was asking if he could do the scooping, or dump the buckets or brush the horses. So he became, out of his own initiative, a helper.
By the time he was 8, he was spending several hours at a time with us at the stalls, taking his turn at the chores, and his mom, trusting that he was in good hands, and that he certainly wasn’t going to wander away from the Haflingers, would check back with him now and then to see if he wanted to go on rides, or see a performance, and his response was always “no, I can do that anytime, but I don’t get to see Haflingers very often!” He would talk a little about his hope someday to have a farm where he could raise Haflingers, and one year even said that his folks were looking at property to buy with acreage, but apparently a job for his dad didn’t materialize, so he remained a city kid in reality, even if he was a future farm kid in his heart.
Gary was one of our regular kid helpers every year until he was 12 when he started turning out for junior high football, and the football summer camp coincided with our fair week, so we’d only see him briefly on Saturdays as he got into his teens. He’d stop by to say hi, pet the horses, catch up on the Haflinger news, and because he only had a few hours to spend at the fair, he’d head off to other things. I really missed him and his happy smile around the stalls.
When he was 15, I missed seeing him because I was working when he stopped by. When he stopped by at age 16, he strolled up to me and I found I was looking up at this young man who I had to study to recognize. I’m a tall woman of 5’10”–he was at least 4 inches taller than me! He told me he wanted to come by because some of his best summer memories were of spending time with the Haflingers at the fair and he wanted me to know that. He thanked me for welcoming him and allowing him to “hang out” with the Haflingers. He told me his hope and dream someday was to live somewhere where he could raise Haflingers, and he was working hard in school so he could make that happen. He was a 4.0 student and the first string quarterback on his high school football team. I was as proud as if he was my own son.
This young man received a full scholarship to play football at a major university, and over four years waited his turn to be the starting quarterback. Once he had his chance, after only a few games of being the starter, he was tackled hard, sustaining a neck fracture which thankfully resulted in no permanent damage, but his college football career was suddenly over.
I have lost track of Gary over the years and I hope he is faring well. I hope his connection with our horses left him with a legacy of love for animals he’ll pass onto his children someday.
So on this misty late summer morning, instead of heading to the fairgrounds to clean stalls, I’m going to turn our dusty, unbathed Haflingers out in the field as usual. They don’t even know all the excitement they are missing.
I do hope the fair-goers still miss the friendly golden horses, with the big brown eyes, who helped make dreams come true.
Thank you to Lea Gibson Lozano, Emily Vander Haak, Kelsy Smith, and Chesna Klimek for their photos in this collection.
A photo of our Haflingers and poems are found in this new book from Barnstorming, available to order here: