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Children’s Benefit Honors the Past and Looks to the Future

By Sherrill Ducharme

LOGAN TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Children’s Benefit Horse Show has been the pet project of UPHA Chapter 15 for the better part of its 21 years. Although exact figures for attendance are hard to come by, most everyone agrees that the show saw its heyday some years ago when it drew competitors from Michigan to Kentucky and all points in between, with upwards of 400 horses entered and showing for top honors at this prestigious event. Even as recently as 2004, USEF figures record 278 horses competing at the venue. Incomplete data from Saddle Horse Report’s 1998 show results indicate that entries in the Junior Exhibitor and Novice Show Pleasure divisions were large enough to make split sections necessary.

A lot has changed in the mid-Atlantic region for the Saddlebreds, Morgans, roadsters and Hackneys in the two decades since Children’s Benefit Horse Show was launched. The industry struggles in this geographic area, which is dominated by the more well-known hunter/jumper and dressage disciplines. The venerable old Quentin Riding Club, home of the show for the majority of its first 19 years, is being crowded out of its pastoral existence by housing developments and is laboring to maintain its property. Some exhibitors and trainers became concerned about the upkeep and safety of the stabling at the Club. Against this backdrop of challenging circumstances, the determination was made last year to move Children’s Benefit to the brand new, state-of-the-art facilities of The Gloucester DREAM Park in Logan Township, N.J., just across the river from Philadelphia. This was a tough decision for show management and long-time exhibitors, some of whom were strongly against moving the show from its traditional iconic setting. But show attendance had been in a steady decline for several years. Many theories were posited for this downturn in entries: among them, the weather and its vagaries. It seems that Children’s Benefit wouldn’t be Children’s Benefit without at least one strong thunderstorm sweeping through during a session. Another weather-related complaint revolved around the "extended" length of the show, as, owing to the extreme heat of the day in the outside ring, sessions were only scheduled for evening hours. To be sure, when the resolution to move was finalized, many folks protested the loss of this outdoor show venue, as others rejoiced at having the shelter of a new indoor arena in which to perform in relative comfort.

When Children’s Benefit premiered back in 1989, despite a somewhat precarious national economy, the equine industry in the mid-Atlantic region was robust. The area easily supported a vibrant and active Saddlebred community. Marty Waldman, a founding member of UPHA Chapter 15, remembers almost 20 Saddlebred farms operating in New Jersey.

Show farrier Chuck Ruitenberg reminisced with Little Lexington’s Skip Shenker about the many Saddlebred stables in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania area that have been lost to time and economics. "There was Gearhart Chevrolet Stables, Gordon Spencer’s Glen Burn Valley Farm, Sullivan Davis Stables, Americana Stables, Symbol Acres, Mary Brewster’s Holiday Acres, Iron Horse Farm and ‘Doc’ Covino, just to name a few. There was also Greystone Manor Stables where Allen ‘Twisty’ Reber, the real founder of this show, worked for a time with Redd Crabtree," noted Shenker.

Skip Shenker remembers Reber as a talented trainer of Tennessee Walking Horses, who was always ready with a kind or encouraging word and a smile for those he met. Asked how it came to be that a walking horse trainer founded a premier Saddlebred show, Shenker relates, "Twisty had some wonderful walking horses that he trained for the Hildebrandts. After her husband died, Mrs. Hildebrandt decided she wanted to branch out, and she got some Hackney and harness ponies, some cobtails and some Saddle Horses as well. She never did ride those walking horses, but she rode the Saddlebreds and she wanted to start showing them." Shenker has fond memories of Mrs. Hildebrandt as a "grand lady who always tried to do everything up ‘just right’."

Contacted at her home in central Pennsylvania, Fay Hildebrandt graciously provided more details in the story. "I was starting to feel some ‘age’ in my knees and back, and wondered if driving might work better for me. Marlene Sweigart told me I ought to try a pony, but I said ‘Oh, no, they’re too hot!’ Well, she convinced me," continued Hildebrandt, "and I just loved it." As for Reber, Mrs. Hildebrandt had high praise for the boy who grew up in a Pennsylvania Dutch family and had his first experiences with Saddlebreds at Greystone Manor. "Twisty was a great horseman. He’d first experienced Saddlebreds working with Redd Crabtree, then he did walking horses, and when I asked him to train my ponies, he just jumped in like he was born to it. I think that his great talent easily transferred to any protocol," she explained.

Children’s Benefit did not originate at the Quentin Riding Club. For its first five years, the show was held in Linglestown, Penns., before moving to the Club in Lebanon, where it remained in residence through 2008. Marty Waldman of Royal Crest Farm in Titusville, N.J., is an 11-term past president of UPHA Chapter 15 and remembers those early days of the show fondly. "The grounds were right off a main highway," Waldman explained. "And because of that, we attracted a lot of outside spectators; families with children. We had a great country fair kind of atmosphere, which was a lot of fun for everyone. Alan Reber was one of the nicest men you’d ever want to meet. He got everyone to work together and all the trainers pitched in to make the show really nice. We tried to make our grandstands like the set-up in Lexington. Larry Bender and Dave Dorn were the farriers and they donated their time, as did many of our judges. And we tried to get good judges, too. We had Claude Shiflet up to judge early on. Everyone gave of themselves to put the show on," continued Waldman. "And there was a wonderful camaraderie among us all."

Mrs. Hildebrandt also emphasized the fun family atmosphere at those early shows. "The Twin Brooks Show Grounds were very scenic, placed as they were right up against Blue Mountain. The ring was beautiful, but we had to put up tents for the horses," she reminisced. "We didn’t have much money and I remember once making two big turkey-roasters full of baked beans for the exhibitors’ party. I think we also had some potato salad or cole slaw, and of course, the roasted corn from the blacksmiths," she continued. Mrs. Hildebrandt remembers bushels of the freshly picked and roasted sweet corn being brought in to the delight of the exhibitors and their families.

Carson Kressley, along with his sister, Diana Kressley-Billig, is a long-time supporter of the show. In fact, Kressley has shown at Children’s Benefit in each of its 21 seasons. He recalled the early days of the show at Linglestown, where the lights in the exhibition ring would blow the circuits and how the local fire company would come in with their trucks and park ringside so the show could run its lights off their generators.

"Children’s Benefit has always been, first and foremost, a show put on by horsemen," Kressley said. "There was a wonderful, low-key ambience, yet we all had the privilege of seeing some very competitive horses. Our area once had so many active Saddlebred barns. We just don’t have the numbers that we used to and that makes things challenging," Kressley noted.

Robin McGahey shared a memory of putting then Junior Exhibitor Jessica Savinelli Verrill into the ring on the walk/trot horse Moroccan King. Verrill now continues the tradition of showing at Children’s Benefit as a trainer, putting her own customers into the ring to compete.

Although the Linglestown site was a favorite with early exhibitors, the time came to move on when the regularly failing electrical system, coupled with the town’s reluctance to provide liability insurance proved too troublesome for the show. So, five years after its start at Linglestown, the show moved to the Quentin Riding Club, where despite initial doubts from some participants, the show thrived.

"It’s just life," Waldman laughed, "Things change. It was time for a change then and it’s time again." Waldman is one of many "old-timers" who sees the move to the DREAM Park as a "real shot in the arm" for the show.

Carson Kressley, too, expressed his hope that changes in this show would contribute toward rebuilding healthy competition in the area. "I really think everyone needs to put their differences aside and support the industry as a whole, instead of just deciding to support individual shows," he urged. "I’m not just talking about Children’s Benefit, but about all of the regional shows, big and small in this mid-Atlantic area. The best way to promote the American Saddlebred is to support shows and show our breed." Kressley spoke by phone while en route to Harrodsburg, Ky. "I’m on my way to a show now, driving to Kentucky. That might sound glamorous and all, but it’s not very much fun to drive 14 hours to a horse show – for me or the horse, nor is it particularly economical or environmentally friendly. It is very important that we have regional shows throughout the United States so that exhibitors at all levels are able to participate," he continued.

When Jessie Richardson and her show committee were brainstorming ways to build new traditions at Children’s Benefit, they struck on a winner borrowed from the ASAW (American Saddlebred Association of Wisconsin) Summerfun Horse Show. "I had been trying for a long time to get someone to do limited edition horse prints as trophies for a show in the same way ASAW has been having artist Tim Starck produce a series for their Summerfun shows for years," said UPHA member Nealia McCracken. "No one knew what I was talking about until Jessie Richardson heard my idea. Having grown up in the Wisconsin area knowing about the Tim Starck prints, Jessie understood immediately the possibilities for Children’s Benefit."

Chapter 15 stables drew lots to see who would have first choice and honor of choosing the UPHA Chapter 15 Horse of the Year to be portrayed on the inaugural series of trophy prints. Siren Song drew the lucky straw and Annika Bruggeworth chose her stunning black three-gaited gelding, Follow The Sun, for the distinction. With hopes to tie the past to the future, Barbara Southgate, the creator of the original Children’s Benefit logo, was commissioned to create two different renderings of the horse, one for the qualifying trophy and another for the championship prize. After the original artwork was approved, the prints were made, signed and numbered by the artist and framed. Exhibitors receiving the trophies expressed a real appreciation for the unique and beautiful mementos.

Another innovation in the prizes given were the five new perpetual trophies commissioned by Annika Bruggeworth and individually sponsored by Siren Song Stables, Cater Stables, the Ehle family, Carson Kressley and Kierson Farm.

Carson Kressley gave his time and talents to providing a beautiful center ring setup, complete with a gazebo in a nod to the show ring icon at Quentin. Black-eyed Susans and greenery made way for exuberant roses, lilies and other pink blooms to highlight the display of perpetual trophies on Saturday’s Pink Ribbon night.

This year’s exhibitors’ party was billed as a Mid-Summer’s Evening Luau and was deemed a huge success by those attending. An open bar, plenty of delicious food and performances by the Hula Ho Aloha Polynesian Dance Company made for a lively evening. The youngsters and young-at-heart in attendance were brought center stage by the dance troupe’s leader and given the opportunity to try their hand at this dance style.

The 50/50 Raffle continued as a highlight of the exhibitors’ party, albeit not in its traditional "reverse" format. A live auction included many valuable items, the centerpiece of which was two tickets, with travel accommodations, to the Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago, generously donated by Carson Kressley. Silent auction items included gold jewelry, imaginative gift baskets and a photo shoot by Jason Molback.

Returning to Children’s Benefit after an absence of several years, Cater Stables made the trip south from New Hampshire to the state-of-the-art facility in Gloucester County. "Nealia and Mark McCracken had been after us for a while to come Children’s Benefit. We were looking for another show between Lexington and Louisville and thought we’d give it a try," explained Kristen Cater. "We were excited about the Mid-Atlantic Summer Saddle Seat Event, and that was a draw, too. The facilities here turned out to be everything they said they were. We are really glad we came, and we’ll be back next year."

Jill and Gary Saccocia and their family took advantage of one of the great amenities at the new show grounds, the campground. Jill Saccocia related, "The campgrounds were very nice. Each site had water hook-ups and a new 30-amp electric hook-up so we had A/C all week without popping a fuse, which was very important considering the heat! There was lots of space for parking and a new playground for all the kids to play on. They also had brand new, very clean air-conditioned bathrooms, which had four shower stalls with attached changing rooms. My girls have never taken so many showers at a horse show! I really enjoyed the show."

UPHA Chapter 15 President Jessie Richardson was elated to see how the hard work of her show committee had paid off. "2010 proved to be another great year for Children's Benefit," she stated, "2009 marked a new start for the old Children's Benefit with a move to the brand new DREAM Park facility and again this year, the facilities were a hit. With great numbers in all divisions, competition was fierce. The equitation division set a standard all its own with full classes and mighty riders. I especially thank all of those who helped to make CBHS 2010 another successful year!"

"We are excited about the possibilities for this show going forward," said Show Manager Mark McCracken. "And we hope to welcome back some long-time supporters next year, as well as introducing new exhibitors and trainers to the Children’s Benefit experience. We saw a fresh generation of riders and their families begin to make memories here and share the excitement of competition with our wonderful horses and ponies."

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