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ICYMI – We Ask The Industry: What was Your First Congress Experience?

Originally published October 2018

Congress is like Christmas for many in the horse industry – it is their favorite time of the year. It is one of those special events where you will always remember your first time in Columbus, Ohio.

For many, it is the food and stall fronts, others the unpredictable weather and circus-like atmosphere.

Regardless of what exhibitors remember, it is something that stays etched in their minds for years to come.

We asked exhibitors to tell us about their first Congress experience.

Do you have a story to share? Please let us know.

Debbi Trubee – The first Congress I attended, I was second in the Working Hunter behind Sandy Vaughn. I remember being first to go and how incredibly nervous I was. I couldn’t believe I was reserve behind one of my all-time idols. What year…maybe 1979? The horse’s name was Boo B Trap.




Lauren Louw – So this is one of my favorite memories of first moving to America. I’d barely been here a month, and we moved into the Congress. I was amazed at the size and the number of horses and people. I was 22, and I never knew there could be a horse show that size. I remember being awake for about three days and loving every minute of it and meeting people that I’d only ever watched on a live feed. This year will be my fifth Congress, and I’m just as excited. The sense of camaraderie between everybody after being at the show for that long and working those hours and going on that emotional roller coaster is indescribable.


Libby Rinder – My first Congress was in 2004 for my last year in 11 & Under. I remember just being in awe of the size and amount of people and horses. As a kid, the best part was being able to take off with my friends on the golf cart and go cruising around and going through the McDonald’s drive-through. This was before we all had cell phones so our parents made us carry walkie-talkies so they could tell us when we needed to go ride or when it was late and we needed to be done for the day. It was an awesome time and probably why I haven’t missed a Congress since.


Carrie Warren – This is always one of my favorite times of the year. The All American Quarter Horse Congress is such an incredible show where everyone who loves the quarter horse comes together to enjoy and dream. Of course, I remember my first one. I was 12 and it was 1974. I wasn’t doing it for me at the time. My family showed halter horses and they had a great mare that I showed in halter that year. Her name was Zusa Chance. I didn’t understand the scope of the show at the time. Anyway, I did everything they told me to do, and because she was a great horse, we ended up winning. She went Grand, and I got the trophy and neck ribbon. My family was thrilled. Today, I realize how fortunate I was. I still have that trophy after all these years. I keep it with my current wins. I will treasure it forever. I hope everyone gets a particular moment and has a memory with their family and friends…that’s what this is all about.

Beth Case – It was 1999 and I showed a mare named Shaloma Bay (I think that was her name) in the Novice Youth Hunter Under Saddle and was fifth, and a mare named A Sweet Innocence in the Novice Youth Pleasure and was fourth and in the Novice Youth Horsemanship and was third.

Steve Heckaman – My first Congress was in 1972, and I was still showing in 13 & Under. Those days, having a trainer was a huge luxury and one that my father did not believe in. He wanted me to experience the growth of learning to compete on my own, to make my own mistakes and to learn from them. I showed in showmanship, horsemanship, pleasure and earned my only placing in hunt seat equitation, where I was eighth. The class sizes were very intimidating, but I was so sad when it was over and vowed to one day win a class there. Ten years later in 1982, I won the Open Two-Year-Olds at Congress on Shy Prescription.

Brian Isbell Garcia – I have so many fond memories of my first few times at the Congress: attending for the first time in 1980 as a spectator, showing for the first time as a youth in 1982. I would spend hours watching at the overhang, and on the track watching big-time trainers like Tommy Manion, Pete and Tamara Kyle, Casey Hinton and Diane Eppers school their horses and students, dreaming of one day being a big-time horse trainer. But by far my most memorable Congress was in 1996 when my husband, Kevin won the Novice Amateur Western Pleasure. Watching him win was way more special than any of my Congress wins.

Heather Lange – It was 2003, and I was very new to the Quarter Horse world. After a successful season in New England, my friend Christie and I headed to my first Congress. I was riding my horse, Chipahde Do Dah (“Odie”) in the outside area that was in front of the reining tents when a barrel horse came racing up behind us. Odie lost it. I’m sure his bucking is bigger and scarier in my memory, but I’m sure I earned my eight-second ride. I bailed just before he jumped the short barrier edging the outdoor riding space and slid on the wet pavement. He and my brand new Harris saddle went down under the slide-out of a trailer parked nearby. I spent the rest of the night hosing his hocks and treating all the scrapes. I was so afraid we would not be able to show. We made it to the pen. I don’t remember the shopping, the queen, or the tons of food I’m sure I ate. But, I remember the thrill of my first ride around Celeste.

Johnna Letchworth – Congress brings back all sorts of memories for me. Although I cannot remember my first time at the Congress, one of my favorite Congress memories was in 2003. I was 11 years old and I had made the finals of the NYATT Horsemanship in the Coliseum, and meanwhile, my very best class, 11& Under Hunt Seat Equitation was showing over in Celeste. As soon as they placed the horsemanship, I will never forget my mom grabbing Stanley and Holly (Spagnola) grabbing me and running to the women’s bathroom. She had set up the handicap stall with all of my clothes to change as fast as I could for the equitation. Holly and I ran over to the Celeste, and I made it in time for the equitation. Good thing, that was my first Congress Championship, and it was by unanimous decision. Good luck to everyone showing this year. Remember to hold your head high at all times; you never know who’s watching.

Jadasi Jablonowski (Dasi) – What I remember about my first Congress was that I could not believe that I was showing there. I’m from Europe and showing at one of the big US shows was a huge dream. So when the gate opened, and they called “trot in please,” I was thinking: “I’m doing this – I can’t believe it.” It was in 2015, and I was 35 years old (oh my god, I’m old). I did not make it out of my split, but everyone was so happy for me and about my ride. I got so many compliments, and so many people from Europe cheered for me. At that moment, I did not realize what a huge door had opened. The year after, I won it and still get goosebumps when I think about it. I can not thank the Highpoint family enough for giving me the chance to do this. Now, the Congress has almost become a set date in my yearly calendar.

Liz Long – I think my first Congress was in 1984 and I was 14 years old. There are a couple of things that I remember most, first was showing in the western riding in the Cooper Arena. I remember thinking that the arena was tiny for western riding. Well, I was right. I couldn’t imagine showing western riding in there now. The second thing I remember is getting food poisoning from the Steak-on-a-Stick food truck. It took me a few years to try one of the food trucks again.



Nikki Riddle – My first Congress was I think ’87 and I had always dreamed of going. The biggest show I’d ever been to was the Florida State 4-H show which, back then was big, but not compared to the Congress. Most people said we were crazy for wasting our money going up there, but the determined redhead I was wanted to prove I was good enough. My mom and looked through tons of magazines and designed my outfits to be Congress worthy and off we went in our two horse bumper pull to my first Congress. Hard work paid off. I was fifth in 12-14 Showmanship, ninth in Youth Hunter Hack on my little 14.3 hand mare and tied for tenth in the Jr Trail. Not too shabby, I thought for my little $5,000 mare that I trained all by myself. That’s the most memorable Congress that I’ll never forget.

Jerry Erickson – Late 70’s, maybe 1980, I was just out of college and had a small training barn located in Northwestern Wisconsin. The owner of a nice junior hunt seat gelding wanted him to go to the Congress, so I went with one horse. I was stabled underneath the parking garage that is now Gilligan. I was at the end near railroad tracks and the first several days were sunny and beautiful. Then, it rained sideways and flooded all the stalls on that side, miserable to say the least. I made the finals with the horse and was so pleased. I did not place and was so disappointed. However, leaving the Coliseum had three people approach me asking if the horse was for sale. This had never happened to me before. I sold the gelding to Beth Lancaster Moon, and she did very well with him for years. This is the story of the small town boy who ventured into the big city.

Livvie Van Lanen – My first year at the Congress was 12 years ago. I remember showing in the 11 & Under Showmanship. I loved the showmanship and ended up tenth and was so thrilled. At that time, the Cooper felt massive, and I was filled with nerves and excitement. That same year, we also got my dog, Stella.





Andrea Kail – My first Congress was in 1992. We only went to look at horses which is when we bought LT. My first Congress showing was ’93. I showed Zippo LTD in the Small Fry Horsemanship and was third. I was ten years old, and what I remember most was the Sweet Shop. My dad loved their cinnamon rolls. The other thing I remember was how big it was. I had shown in walk trot all year against maybe ten kids. There were so many kids showing; it was so awesome. I loved it. It was great to be exposed to that so young because I was so used to it. I never really got nervous showing there.

Nicole Barnes – My first Congress was my first horse show. I was eight years old and as my mom tells the story, “Your YiaYia and Apou (grandparents) called and asked what we were doing the next weekend and, without plans, they invited us to Columbus, Ohio to attend a horse show.” Little did we know that we were going to the largest single-breed show in the nation. What I remember is vague, but a few things stick out and are entirely random at that. 1) Albert Burton dressed as Barney carrying balloons – no doubt that Dianne Eppers talked him into that. 2) Watching people practicing outside of the Cooper Arena, likely this must have been a showmanship class. 3) The smell. Not the kind we all have come to know and hate in the Gilligan barn after two weeks but that of horse, barn and dirt. I think it must have been the latter that got me hooked on showing. Well, that and an integral relationship that formed between my grandparents and Dianne. That first weekend trip to a horse show was in 1994. My third horse show ever was the Congress the following year. Since then, I have attended every Congress and shown at all but one (that’s 23 years if you’re doing the math).

Beckie Peskin – I attended my first Congress as part of my 4-H horse judging team. So, I was probably around 14 or 15. I desperately wanted to show at AQHA shows, but my parents couldn’t swing it at that point. But, I remember attending the opening ceremonies and watching the crowning of the Congress Queen that year. I was hooked. I told myself that was going to be me one day. I don’t think I showed there until I competed in the Queen’s contest several years later.



Candy Parrish – Well, I honestly don’t remember my first Congress because I think I’ve attended the Congress every year of my life. My mom, Darlene Trein had me there with her when I was a baby. My early memories of the Congress include getting elephant ears and steak on the stick on the food strip, which was much less crowded, and the exit traffic flowed through there. Also, as a teenager, we all gathered to watch in one of the upper corners of the Coliseum; that show pen felt so big back then, but now it seems small when we show in there. It’s been fun to see the Congress grow into a top premiere show for our industry, and we are grateful to have had success at such a highly competitive level. The Congress is simply a marquis event.

Brandy Baldwin Bunting – I don’t have any specific memories of my very first Congress as I’ve been attending the Congress since I was tiny, well before I started showing the Small Fry there. I have so many wonderful memories of Congress when I was that small. It was the most fantastic place and I loved going. One funny memory related to Congress does stand out. Once I started school, my dad would drive me back and forth all three weekends (a six-hour drive one way) so that I could go to school during the week and be at Congress and with my mom, Christa Baldwin, on the weekends. One year, when I was about six years old, my mom called my grandma’s house where I was staying until my dad got out of work and told me, “It is so rainy and cold down here, don’t make your dad drive down here this weekend, just stay home.” When my dad got out of work, we packed up the car and took off. As soon as we left I said: “Dad, tell me when we are half way.” Once he told me we were halfway, I said, “Dad, mom called and said we didn’t have to come.” I knew if we got half way, I would make it to Congress, my favorite place to be. Thank goodness there were no cell phones back then.

Ashley Hadlock – My first Congress was in 2001. At the time I was showing 22-year-old Handee Rap (Amos). I was 12 years old at the time, and it was my first year showing AQHA. My trainers at the time were Mike and Charlene Carter. Mike was judging that year, so I was fortunate enough to have Kendra Weis help me. I remember I learned a fundamental lesson in the western riding. I thought I had one of my best goes. Little did I know I had hung too tight to the cones on the line and stepped on the corner of one. It was disappointing learning the primary consequence of disqualification, Needless to say, it was the last time I made that mistake.

Charlie Cole – My first Congress was 1986 and I was working for Doug Lilly. I was 16 years old and I had never seen it snow before. It was snowing a lot the morning of the two-year-old western pleasure and my job was to longe the two-year-old for an hour. I remember thinking, “Who longes a two-year-old for an hour?” I get it now. I guess watching the open versatility class was by far my favorite memory of that year’s Congress. I always dreamed of entering the versatility. Sadly, my next Congress was in 1990 and the open versatility class had already been retired from the schedule.

Kristy Starnes – It was 1991. I showed in the Walk Trot Horsemanship and I was with Carl and Trisha Yamber. My horse was a big palomino gelding named, Mr Yella Beaver and he bit another horse in my split of the Small Fry when it cut me off.




Ashley Dunbar-Clock – My first Congress was in 2007. It was my first time to show there. I remembered being excited but scared all at the same time. I was 18 and was showing in all open events since I had decided to become a trainer. I remember being so excited to have been tenth my first year.





Ellexxah Maxwell – My first Congress was only days after I was born. Just three days after I was born, we were moving into Congress. I’ve spent every year of my life in October at the Congress. The first thing that comes to mind when I think about Congress is the first time I showed. It was such an honor to get to show there with the toughest competition in the country. I was merely happy to be standing in the make-up pen with them.

Brad Jewett – I want to say my first Congress was 1998, and I remember being elated getting one of my clients to be in the finals of one class. Also, I remember bringing home a puppy from puppy alley. One of my favorite Aussies of all time.





Lauren Stanley – I was late to the Congress game. Being based out of California made the drive to Columbus something not very high on our bucket list. When I was a youth, I would dream of going to the great All American Quarter Horse Congress, but we never made it out. In 2016, we bought Rooster from the Lakins who were based out of Ohio. We figured if we were ever going to go to the Congress, that was going to be our best chance of ever doing it. We had Kenny and Ashley prepare him and I to show in the three-year-old pleasure classes. I remember walking into the fairgrounds to try and find their stalls and having to pick my jaw up off the floor. It was huge. Can we take a minute to appreciate the alley of food, a trade show and a horse show? I had no idea so many great horses could be in one place. It was so fun to be able to watch all of the futurity classes and pick out which ones might one day go onto be a great all around horse. The best part of the show was that Rooster helped me accomplish our goal of getting a Congress Jacket by earning a Top 5 and Top 10. Congress is an event that all horse lovers should experience, even if it’s just as a spectator. It’s simply one of a kind.

Katy Jo Zuidema – This is about my second Congress when I showed in the 11&U Hunter Under Saddle. It was a three-year-old named Secret Seven Bars and Trish Yamber (then Romanelli) showed him that year in the Three-Year-Old Miller’s Hunt Seat Futurity. Carl and Trish were indeed like my Uncle Carl and Aunt Trish. I remember being excited and nervous because I had never gotten a lesson from them, but Carl was a pretty intimidating guy, let alone coach. I do remember trotting around getting ready to go in the pen and my dad was standing with Bill Coffman, and he told me to slow down trotting and not to go in first. Well, I think I said something like, “Dad, if you wanna win you got to go in first.” He and Bill tell the story. So, I show and I remember I backed and the whole place applauds. I’ll never forget that. Truthfully, I remember that more than the placings. I won and when I came out everyone was so excited. Judy and Trish and mom were crying, and dad was dad. You know the happiest teddy bear in the world with the big bear hug. But Carl was pretty emotional. Even at 10, I recognized that. Big scary Uncle Carl almost had a tear in his eye. The next year, we came back and did it again. Just like that in the same class with a different horse. His name was Deep Running Current and he was Trish’s open three-year-old as well. Those two years with my parents and Carl and Trish are memories I still cherish today. There’s so much tradition at the Congress, it seems like there are memories everywhere you look.

What was your experience like at your first Congress? Let us know.