An exposé of the fringe culture that is model horse showing
A grey horse was trotting toward a short white jump. Her tail flowed out behind her and her ears were pricked forward in anticipation. She prepared to push herself off from the ground and sail over the single white pole and long bed of bright red and yellow flowers below.
But she never reached the jump. In fact she was frozen in motion. She was not trotting over grass, kicking up clods of dirt, but in fact was positioned on a long table in the middle of a Knights of Columbus hall in Spencer, Mass. The horse was only about eight inches tall and made of resin.
The 50 feet by 30 feet hall was full of long tables covered with model horses, all poised in different scenes. The owners of these model horses, who sat at their own tables around the perimeter of the room, were competing in the New England Performance Challenge, a model horse show held Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014.
Although the show saw only 21 entrants, the model horse showing hobby is widespread, with enthusiasts of all ages. What started out as a few collectors getting together in their homes to talk about model horses in the late 1960s, morphed into a worldwide hobby. Breyer Animal Creations, an American-based company that specializes in manufacturing model horses, produces and ships approximately 5 million models each year to 15 countries, according to the company’s website. In 2014 alone, Breyer earned $17.5 million in revenue, according to Zoom Information Inc.
Model shows attract horse lovers, especially those who can’t have real horses due to financial reasons or being psychically unable to care for horses. Anything they might do with a real horse (rodeos, show jumping, racing, etc.), they replicate in miniature. Yet the competitors love more about the hobby than just the horses. They love the camaraderie. Even though they are competing against each other, they maintain friendly relationships and cherish being part of a close-knit community full of individuals who share their interest.
Thirty-one-year-old Laura Bernardi, the owner of the trotting grey model horse – which she named Lavender Sky – sat at her personal table on the right side of the hall, a tattoo on her left wrist peeking out from underneath her long-sleeved shirt. Like many competitors, she finds it difficult to explain to outsiders why she would want to collect so many “toys” or why she would want to go through all the trouble of setting up the scenes or driving hours away to attend shows. The entrance fee for the New England Performance Challenge cost Bernardi $40, though fees vary across shows and levels. Why again would she choose to spend her hard-earned money to buy models and enter shows?
“Unless you’re in the hobby,” Bernardi said, “you don’t get it.”
Competitor Niki Hertzog finds that making comparisons is often necessary in order to eliminate peoples’ confusion.
“If people don’t understand, it helps to equate it to doll houses or model trains, because for some reason, people get that!” Hertzog said emphatically, throwing her arms up.
Model horse showing is hardly different from any other niche culture, whether the interest is in collecting baseball cards, stamps or comic books. Enthusiasts pride themselves in their often vast collections that may have cost them thousands of dollars. Model horse shows, like comic book conventions, are a way in which enthusiasts can show off their collections with a community of other people who understand their passion.
Although a handful of spectators (who were most likely relatives of competitors) milled around the long room, most “spectators” to model horse shows are in fact the competitors themselves. Because they understand how much hard work and passion goes into making beautiful, lifelike scenes, they can appreciate a good entry in a deeper sense than someone visiting a show for the first time.
This lapse in understanding between model horse enthusiasts and outsiders has even caused Bernardi to create a second Facebook page where she only friends people who are involved in the hobby. One of them, named Stephanie, she met when they were both in high school and Bernardi bought a model from her. Although they lost touch for a while, they reconnected again in the same manner – when Bernardi bought a second model from Stephanie. Although the two have never met in real life, Bernardi said she texts Stephanie pretty much all day, every day. Bernardi explained that she meets a lot of really nice people because of the hobby, people who understand.
“We’re like a whole family,” said organizer Nancy Timm. The 63-year-old woman with glasses and short, light blonde hair, has organized the New England Performance Challenge for at least 15 years. “It’s very friendly competition,” she said.
Timm participates alternately as an organizer and a competitor apart from her daily job as an Application Counselor with UMass Memorial Health Care, where she helps patients apply for health insurance. She started showing in 1994, after her then 15-year-old daughter Jen got her interested in the hobby. Since then she has amassed 500 horses which she has on display in her house in Holden, Mass.
Timm’s enthusiasm for the hobby influenced her to travel throughout the country. Since 1990, she and her daughter have made over a dozen trips to Kentucky to experience an annual event called Breyerfest, the world’s largest model horse collector and equine festival named after Breyer, the most popular brand of model horse. She has attended shows as far away as Nevada.
The United States, Mexico and Canada are divided up into 11 regions by the North American Model Horse Shows Association (NAMHSA). Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut and Rhode Island make up Region 10, which local model horse enthusiasts more affectionately call Region X. This year there were 14 shows in Region X. Competitors who do particularly well during the year will be eligible to compete at the national competition, called the North American Nationals (NAN). NAN is held at the Breyerfest on even years. On odd years, enthusiasts put in bids to NAMHSA with suggestions on where NAN should be held. NAMHSA chooses a location based on the cost and size of the hall and how far it is from the airport, since many competitors and spectators take planes to get to the event.
Timm described her experience at the 2005 NAN. The event was held in Las Vegas that year, and naturally, many competitors were from California. Timm recalled how competitive the Californians were. Many would say, “’I can’t believe I didn’t win that class, I had the best entry!’”
“Here people congratulate each other,” Timm said. “It’s not cutthroat.” She explained that competitors will also lend each other props if someone forgets to bring theirs.
Depending on the class, competitors utilize different props. Saddles, bridles and other riding equipment (collectively known as tack) are necessary in performance classes, where the goal is to create the most realistic scene of something you would see happening in the live horse world. Real horse show rules apply for appropriate classes. Tack must fit the horse well and be positioned in a way that assures the imaginary rider would have maximum control of his or her mount. Some competitors do extra work and include a doll riding the horse, however judge Robin Briscoe explained that they are not required and can often cause problems.
“Dolls can be a friend or a foe,” 46-year-old Briscoe said. “If you do well with a doll, you get extra credit…But you won’t get penalized if you don’t have one.” She explained that dolls can cause competitors to lose points if they are positioned incorrectly. Dolls don’t bend like real people, so it can be difficult to make them replicate real life events.
In addition, competitors use miniature traffic cones, wagons, bridges, trees, pebbles, logs, flower pots, fences, barrels, buckets, whips, jumps and even other model animals to make their scenes look utterly realistic. An entrant in a trail riding class will add vegetation and woodland critters to bring the scene of a relaxing ride through the woods to life. An entrant in a gaming class would have her horse navigating an obstacle course, weaving around barrels and cones. And a competitor who positions her horse running along the beach might even bring a container full of real sand to put him in.
Often, enthusiasts will make their own props and customize their own models. At RioRondo.com, it is possible to purchase pre-made kits full of metal and leather pieces that allow enthusiasts to build their own saddles. With some silky fabric and an abundance of tassels or beads, they can sew together intricate costumes for their models. Or, using paint, miniature wooden pots and plastic flowers that are easily found at craft stores, enthusiasts can make colorful, realistic-looking flower pots.
According to Briscoe, there is something that people outside of the model horse showing community seem to respect about the competitors’ craftsmanship.
“Once people realize you build things for these horses, they understand they aren’t just toys,” Briscoe said.
Briscoe moseyed around the long tables, bending and twisting to peer at every model up close, taking in every detail. She took notes on her clipboard, jotting down information about the entries in the class she was judging. She could easily find the models’ names, the names of their owners and other identifying information on small white ID tags which were tied to the models’ legs.
After coming to a conclusion on the placing, Briscoe carefully laid a ribbon down next to each entry, always pinning from last to first – the same order in which she wrote the placing on her clipboard. Eager competitors rose from their seats to collect their horses and ribbons. Those who didn’t win asked Briscoe for advice on how they could improve their entries; the encouraging judge was always willing to share her expertise.
Briscoe herself is not just a judge – although she did stand out as one because of the green Region X t-shirt she wore, decorated by four horses on the front and her last name and a number printed boldly in white on the back, rather like a sports jersey. A blonde with a round face, she is also an avid collector and model horse show competitor, having started competing in 1990 and judging competitions in 1991. She even brought one horse with her to the New England Performance Challenge, an Arabian breed named Skaska. Briscoe dressed her horse in an elaborate costume covered in red tassels and entered her in a class that she wasn’t judging, where she won second place out of three entrants.
When asked how many models she owns, Briscoe initially responded jokingly, “You don’t want to know.” That’s because the number is astonishing: 3,000. Briscoe owns over 3,000 models. In addition to having models at her own house in Epping, N.H., she keeps some in her parents’ barn and in the basement of her parents’ house. She doesn’t have enough shelving space to display all of them, so many are “languishing in cardboard.”
Briscoe’s collection has become so vast that she and her husband Rick are putting an addition on their house. Her models have begun to spew over into the basement as well, where Rick often works on his motorcycles with his friends. Briscoe said that once the motorcycles are displaced to the garage, she will have more room for the models she currently has in storage.
Like many other competitors, Briscoe’s love for horses – the real kind – is what led her to take up model horse showing. After a tragic riding accident that resulted in her horse being hit by a car, Briscoe was left severely injured.
“The horse broke my pelvis,” Briscoe said. “I was in bed for about eight weeks.”
Once she had recovered, she learned that Breyer was putting on a model horse show and was instantly attracted to the hobby.
“These horses don’t leave a mark,” she said.
This is a sentiment shared by Bernardi, who is from Bridgewater, Conn. and works at B & B Mason Supply in New Milford, Conn. during her daily life. When she got up from her table to retrieve Lavender Sky, who won reserve champion in her division, Bernardi walked slowly, with a visible limp. She explained that she used to show real horses until she broke her hip, an unfortunate result of her autoimmune disease, which attacks the joints. Although she still owns three real horses and there is a possibility that she will be able to ride again, Bernardi said that she will continue to participate in model shows just because they’re fun.
Bernardi believes the hobby “probably attracts a lot of people who can’t actually own a horse… Sure, the cost of tack is expensive, but you don’t have the cost of upkeep, for feed [or for] riding lessons.”
As Bernardi indicated, the hobby can get pricey. It is possible to purchase a Breyer model horse in a store for around $50, but limited edition models can sell for thousands. This may be because Breyer’s artists hand paint each and every horse. The same is true of the tack; because it is custom made, by hand, customers pay for the craftsmanship. Sixty-nine-year-old competitor Terry Heath put a basket full of saddles she made on the end of her table and was asking $65 apiece for them, a conservative price at that.
It is a fairly common site to see competitors put models and props on the ends of their tables with “For Sale” signs next to them. Heath and Briscoe bought a couple of saddles from an older woman on the other side of the hall. Another woman, a couple tables down from Heath, was selling unpainted model horse parts that customizers can use to craft their own models. Near the end of the day, everyone in the hall shared a laugh when she called out, “Does anyone want a head?” holding up a resin horse head in each hand.
Without the hard work of these artists and craftswomen, the replicated scenes would not look anywhere near as realistic. The competitors use these pricey props to their advantage, along with their own skill and eye for the particulars, to make awe-inspiring scenes.
“You might think [the hobby is] just for little kids,” Bernardi said. “But you’d be surprised how much goes into it, the attention to detail.”
Terry Heath, on the other hand, is proof that the model horse hobby isn’t just for little kids. Remarkably, she didn’t buy her first Breyer until she was 58-years-old. It all started because Heath had a friend whose 12-year-old granddaughter took an interest in horses, but was allergic to them. Heath and her friend took the girl to a model show as an alternative.
“We were all hooked [after that first show],” Heath said.
Since then, Heath has amassed a collection of “only” 500 horses, which take up seven china cabinets – her husband’s limit – in her Middlefield, Conn. home. This is in addition to her 11 Miniature Horses – real ones. In the past she also owned and rode larger horses, which she feels has improved the authenticity of her scenes at model shows.
Heath, like Nancy Timm, appreciates the camaraderie amongst model horse enthusiasts.
“Everybody here is soooo nice,” Heath said. “They’re competing against you, but they’re telling you what to do to make [your entry] better.” This good sportsmanship can even involve sharing props.
“If I hadn’t been able to find a whip and she had one,” Heath said, pointing across the table to fellow competitor Kelly Martin, “she would have loaned me the whip. She needed a cone earlier and I loaned her a cone.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Martin, a short brunette with an inviting face, also likes the “social aspects” of the model horse showing hobby. “What keeps me here is coming out and hanging with my friends,” Martin said. “You don’t meet the same kind of people other places.”
Martin has been showing since 2001, but started collecting models at the young age of six. “I got my first Breyer from a neighbor in 1991,” Martin said, going on to describe her neighbor, a retired Navy veteran who didn’t have any children of his own but was like a grandfather to her. “My grandmother followed with the second and the third shortly thereafter and I’ve been collecting ever since.”
Martin even goes so far as to say that model horses changed her life, explaining that when she was in the seventh grade, her family moved and she was very upset about being torn away from her friends. Then, on the second day of the school year, Martin met a girl who owned 200 Breyers, which completely changed her mind set about being in a new school.
Martin now keeps around 250 models at her mother’s house in Groton, Mass. In her daily life, she works as a nurse at the rehabilitation center within Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass. She said that her boyfriend, Arthur, isn’t as affected by her hobby as perhaps Rick Briscoe, in part because she hasn’t “completely taken over his house” with model horses. Yet.
“I assume everyone thinks it is a weird hobby, but he seems to handle it pretty well,” Martin said. “I think he’d be horrified to know what I’ve spent, but at the same time he spends a ton on motorcycles, so we’re pretty even.”
Like Robin Briscoe, she is a show judge as well as a competitor. She has judged for five or six years, competing at about half the shows she attends. However, she and Briscoe judge classes at different levels.
Martin explained that show organizers like Timm “do a general shout out,” looking for judges to volunteer. If they don’t receive enough volunteers, they will actively recruit judges.
“Judges are always in demand,” Martin said. “While judges aren’t well paid, usually they are paid something. Usually judges get lunch and like $50 to go towards gas to get to wherever the show is.”
That is the case for smaller shows during the year, like the New England Performance Challenge. According to the NAMHSA website, NAN judges are paid “$100 per day, plus $10 lunch allowance.”
Typically, there are three levels at model horse shows: novice, intermediate and open. What level competitors show at depends on their experience in the hobby, with novices being the least experienced and open level competitors being the most experienced. The New England Performance Challenge only offered open and novice divisions, with the novice division attracting two competitors: 13-year-old Hailie Brown and 38-year-old Kristine Gardner.
Gardner, a thin, wide-eyed brunette, has shown since 1994 but is competing in the novice division because she is unfamiliar with performance classes. She usually competes in halter classes, where judges focus only on the horse, assessing whether the model seems to be a good representation of his or her breed. Halter class judges also consider how collectible a particular model is, or, if the model has been customized, they consider the quality of the artist’s work.
Gardner started collecting for similar reasons as Briscoe and Bernardi: because she could not be around real horses for medical reasons.
“When I was little I was deathly allergic to horses,” Gardner said. Model horses “are a good substitute if you’re a horseless person.”
Although she has since outgrown her allergies and was able to get a real horse, Gardner hasn’t shifted her attention away from models. During the 25 years she has been collecting, she has amassed an impressive collection that is displayed on floor-to-ceiling shelves all the way around a spare bedroom.
“The last time I counted I had over 2,000,” Gardner said. “Right now I don’t really know.”
The age difference between Gardner and Brown, her only competitor, is obvious. One might think that putting a 13-year-old girl in the same division as a grown woman is unfair. But even though Brown is young, she’s not new to the world of model horses, nor is she any less serious about collecting or showing than Gardner. Brown has been collecting for ten years, since her cousin gave her two old Breyer horses when she was three. She keeps her estimated collection of 300 horses in a spare bedroom at her house in Worcester, Mass. and even makes her own props in her spare time.
“I usually make my stuff from scratch or I buy Breyer stuff and customize it to make it more realistic,” Brown said. “I want to get better tack eventually to show at the open level.”
Despite it only being her third show, Brown, who has curly brown hair dyed a faded green at the bottom, held her own at the New England Performance Challenge. Of the two out of three divisions where both competitors had entries – with each division showcasing a different riding discipline – both Brown and Gardner won a championship. Brown had named her champion horse Heza Spotted Legacy; Gardner’s was named Banat Er Rih.
Of model horse show enthusiasts, Brown said simply, “I guess you have to be a really horsey person to want to collect or show.”
I am one of those horsey people. I started competing in model horse shows as a 12-year-old girl living in St. Albans, Vt. In such a rural, loosely populated state, only one show was held each year in Burlington, Vt. I would return home from the Vermont Live Model Horse Show in late October, return my models to their shelves in my room, hang up my ribbons and immediately start planning for next year’s show.
Although the number drastically decreased when my family went through financial problems, I estimate I have over 200 models carefully packed away in bubble wrap envelopes within plastic totes in my grandmother’s closet and my father’s attic. My hope is that one day, when I’m no longer a college student confined to dorms and hole-in-the-wall apartments, I’ll be able to return them to shelves where I can appreciate them.
My infatuation with models didn’t arise because I couldn’t have real horses, like Gardner or Briscoe. I had my own Shetland pony named Luc. When you truly love horses, you admire their beauty – whether they be furry and tall or short and made of resin. You admire the skill of the craftsman who created the beauty of a horse in an eight-inch replica and you admire your fellow model horse show enthusiasts for seemingly bringing models to life within their entries.
Although it’s always thrilling to bring home a blue ribbon, to model horse enthusiasts, competition is secondary to the admiration of the horse. It is this common ground, a love of horses, which brings the model horse showing community together. For many, their passion for horses is not a childhood phase, but a lifelong devotion.