The mid-’60s were some of the last days in Columbus before the highway system sliced apart urban communities, and the sneaky fingers of suburban sprawl started to inch their way across the rural landscape of central Ohio. A seed of an idea was being planted in the heart of it all: One of the greatest horse shows the world has ever seen.
The American Quarter Horse Congress, held at the Ohio State Fairgrounds, is a tradition that stretches back into the mid-20th century, and has grown to become the largest single-breed horse show in the world. It’s one of the largest annual events in the city, which people at large seem to know the least about.
The agile Quarter Horse has the temperament and power to pull off ranching duties by working in tandem with their handler through reign, leg, and voice commands. Their name comes from the straight quarter mile stretches they would race over since their development in colonial times, soundly beating other breeds. Fast forward several hundred years, and the Quarter Horse had a love affair with the American west. The quintessential cowboy of old was often seen on a Quarter Horse, cutting through herds of cattle, roping, and trick riding.
Though Americans came to rely on horses less and less as time wore on and properties became smaller, spaghetti westerns still filled silver screens. John Wayne strode across open landscapes, punching out drunkards, and swooping damsels in distress onto his horse. The image of an unrestricted, masculine cowboy loomed large in the American psyche and pop culture. As farming communities dwindled, those who made their business on the backs of hoofstock doubled down on tradition. They wore their grandfather’s hats, literally and figuratively.
The sprawling family ranches that remain are empires built on handshakes. Like any subculture, they have their own lingo, dress, and sets of norms that may go against the modern grain. But that’s just how they like it.
Bedazzled dressage queens with jewel-encrusted jackets and perfectly curled hair perch atop their horses as they parade through pageants on horseback. Trick riders show off their hard-learned skills in competitions that have broken down ancient and dangerous ranching techniques, and given them a point system. The arena walls are a structured environment in which to showcase and literally spotlight the skills that can only be learned through having a daily interaction with the animals and activities valued by the congress and its culture.
And value it they do. Horses are big business. The rows of stalls in the fairground barns are transformed during the month-long congress. Facades of buildings are constructed over the entryways to the designated rows reserved by ranchers who travel with their animals from all over the continent for the event. Pop-up homes and offices are literally drywalled and painted and furnished to create a home for a family, or an office for business deals.
Everywhere you walk, people will lock eyes across the way and holler for someone they know, running over to embrace or shake hands. This is a tradition where fiends are made and kept over years and generations and decades.
After the bull riding competition one night, people pour onto the arena’s dirt floor to mingle with the bull riders. The thrilling whiplash spectacle of mountainous animals versus fighters and riders has concluded. The bulls trot back to their stalls, and the riders come out to mingle with the crowd, folk heroes that you can touch and talk to. They sign hats for little boys and young women drape their arms around them for photo ops and slipped numbers. These young men embody the old American cowboy ideal. (And they’re always young. The retirement age for bull riding hovers well below 30—should they reach that age after escaping serious injury or even death in the arena.) The ‘aw, shucks’ attitudes somehow mesh with a hint of bravado that swells under their button-up shirts. Their shoulders bear the weight and pride of an ancient human need to conquer the natural world, and do a little dance with danger.
Hats cast a striking shadow here, and dirtied work boots are traded for goin’ out boots when the day is over and the horses are put up for the night. There’s an entertainment circuit here for the after-hours crowd. There are multiple bars, and each year’s congress hosts a concert series of local and national acts. This is a business trip and a reunion and a proving ground. Every year for a month, just north of our ever-evolving downtown, Columbus hosts a spectacle thousands of people and animals strong that links us directly to a hidden but still strong industry, and an idealized vision of what we once were.