In 1957, Nevada equestrians were abuzz with news of the formation of a Nevada State Horsemen’s Association. “Saddle Chatter,” a weekly column in the Nevada State Journal, mused: “There are a lot of rodeos in Nevada, but not many horse shows. With our Nevada State Horsemen’s Association in operation, and giving points for events, there will be an increased interest in horse shows. It will be of real benefit in the future years to state that one has a Nevada state championship horse or a championship for horsemanship.”

The Nevada State Horsemen’s Association (NSHA) originally formed with five regions across the state. Region 1 included Washoe, Storey, and Ormsby counties. Region 2 covered Mineral, Lyon, Churchill, and Douglas counties. Region 3 represented Pershing, Humboldt, and Lander counties. Region 4 combined White Pine, Elko, and Eureka counties. Region 5 encompassed Clark, Nye, Esmeralda, and Lincoln counties. Each region had its own leadership and a state president oversaw the association as a whole.

Reverse lead line fun class, circa 1976. Photo courtesy Kathy Obenhaus.

For decades, the Nevada State Horsemen’s Association sanctioned shows, hosted their own competitions, and sponsored events around the state. Horse shows approved by NSHA increased from five in 1957 to 41 by 1972. In 1973, the Nevada State Journal boasted: “From the ages of 5 to 85 the horsemen can find any type of horse shows he wants in Nevada. A horseman on the Nevada circuit against the best competition can come up with a Nevada champion horse.”

But, the horse world is always changing and so is Nevada. Over the years NSHA regions shrunk and folded. Today only one chapter of NSHA remains – region five which now focuses on the Las Vegas area. This year, NSHA-V is celebrating its 61st year of horse shows, but they also find themselves at a crossroads. Participation in their shows has waned and the club’s leaders are pondering the future. Can the last chapter of the Nevada Horsemen’s Association keep going?

Jessie Mix and Chris Meier share a laugh at a NSHA show. Photo by Ed Mix.

“We had a pretty good group, a bunch of people up in the north,” says Chris Meier, president of NSHA-V. “They came down to us, we went to them.” Chris has been involved with NSHA-V for more than 30 years and has been president several times. She’s seen the highs and the lows of the group over the years. She says as more localized horse groups formed throughout the state, fewer people wanted to haul their horses long distances. “A lot of those people didn’t want to come down and it was kind of silly to make everyone travel up there,” she says.

One by one NSHA chapters shut down, but region five seemed to thrive. For years the group showed at an arena behind the Stardust Resort and Casino on the Strip and their shows were the hottest horse event in town. “When my step-daughter was showing in NSHA, this was the mid to late 80s and early 90s, the shows were huge!” says Kathleen Obenhaus, secretary of NSHA-V. “They would go all day and into the night and then they’d get up at 8:00 and they’d run their Western [classes] and that would go all day and into the night.”

Though they were the only region left, NSHA-V was still going strong at the beginning of the twenty-first century. But that changed when the recession hit. “NSHA has fought really hard, since 2008, trying to stay alive,” says Kathleen. Club leaders say local equestrians didn’t have extra money to spend on showing. “All their money, if they had horses, was focused on just keeping their horses,” says Kathleen. But even once the country bounced back from the recession, NSHA did not. Why didn’t equestrians come back to NSHA?

Club leaders point to several possibilities. They think one reason is that some equestrians decided to pursue other activities. “There’s such a variety out there for people to do things with their horses, that showing isn’t necessarily as important,” says Chris. In fact, in a recent survey of more than 9,000 equestrians across the U.S., only 32% described themselves as a competitive rider. Pleasure riding and trail riding are most frequently identified activities with horses. “I think the typical hobby horse person may have realized that there were other things they could do with their horses,” says Kathleen.

A young rider watches the show. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Obenhaus.

In addition to new specialty clubs and sports that have popped up in the state, there is also competition from other competitions. NSHA-V isn’t the only game in town anymore. NSHA chapters closed, but new associations sprung up in their place. There are a number of groups throughout the state now that host their own shows with points and year-end awards. A lot of southern Nevada riders are even traveling to Utah and Arizona to compete. NSHA leaders say they are paying attention and trying to learn what those communities are doing right to attract competitors.

For some riders, money is still a barrier to participation. Sure, the economy is doing well and equestrians certainly know how to spend money, but show costs can add up, especially with two-day shows. “They involve either trailering back and forth or stalling overnight and it’s expensive. Although it really is not the most expensive show in town, it’s still expensive,” says Kathleen. In addition to show clothes and tack, competitors pay a fee per class, membership dues, plus the costs of travel.

NSHA-V is also trying to understand changing demographics. Whereas NSHA-V used to see big participation from youth riders, adult women dominate the arena today. “We’re seeing mostly women in their 40s and 50s who now have more time and money to spend on a horse and riding,” says Kathleen. NSHA-V is faced with the question of how to get the next generation of riders into shows. “I see mostly the parents of young children not wanting to purchase a horse,” says Kathleen. “As we all know, it keeps you busy and a lot of these young families, the parents don’t have time.”

Other factors have impacted NSHA-V too. Las Vegas’ population has swelled to more than two million people in the metropolitan area. The big national shows that come to town do well, but not all the residents support the smaller community shows. “We would have nighttime shows because of the heat,” says Kathleen. “But as the development started encroaching out, the neighbors did not like the lights or the announcing.” NSHA-V had to cut out their evening shows entirely. They now have a tight window for their showing season.

The organization has also grappled with some internal issues. “Some of the members became disgruntled with the leadership in NSHA,” admits Kathleen. A few years ago, in-fighting brought NSHA-V to the brink of the end. It took a complete overhaul to keep the group in tact. Not everyone was happy with the restructuring and NSHA-V is still dealing with hurt feelings. “We can’t control what they say or do. But we can work really hard to create the atmosphere that we want,” says Kathleen. “We’ve been working really hard and I think it’s starting to pay off.”

“We have a great group right now!” says Chris. Today, NSHA-V hosts six two-day shows each year at Horseman’s Park on the eastern edge of Las Vegas. Each day features a robust schedule of classes. Day one includes halter, showmanship, lead line, rail classes, English equitation, English trail, and classic dressage. Day two includes ranch reining, ranch riding, Western pleasure, Western stock seat horsemanship, Western trail, and Western dressage. There are also barrel racing and pole bending classes.

Sarah Layton and Captain Jack Sparrow show off some of their ribbons. Photo by Jessie Mix.

The diversity in NSHA shows is meant to help create an all-around and versatile horse and rider. It’s also a chance for riders to try something new. “One of my hunter jumper students may not want to ever go to a dressage show, but if we’re at NSHA anyway, let’s go ahead and do a dressage class!” says Jessie Mix, a trainer based in Henderson. “There’s a nice variety of classes that they can do, even if they’re just at the walk-trot level.”

Jessie says that even riders who aren’t interested in moving on to bigger shows can benefit from a season of competing with NSHA. All the shows use carded judges from a variety of disciplines and associations. Riding in front of expert judges is a great way for equestrians to discover their strengths and weaknesses. “I always like to say at the shows you either win or you learn, and if you had a really great day you get both. The ribbons are just a bonus,” says Jessie. Sharpening the fundamental skills of riding can then carry over into other sports.

For riders who do plan to move on to bigger shows, NSHA leaders say they can help get you there. “The goal of NSHA is that next stepping stone before you go to regional shows and then to nationals or the circuits,” says Kathleen. Riders working with a trainer can have a measure of their progress as they work their way up. As an added bonus, competitors accumulate points throughout the year and can win trophies or buckles in various divisions.

What NSHA has done well is change with the equestrian community and adapt to member desires. “We’ve had parents who said ‘you know it would be fun to have the kids do gymkhana type classes,’ so we opened up barrels and poles,” says Kathleen. A few years ago when Western working classes started sweeping the nation, NSHA was quick to incorporate them into their shows. Today, they offer a Working Western Horse division with five classes: reining, ranch riding, horsemanship, trail, and dressage. Those are now their largest classes.

Liaym Horack, age 8, competing in a Nevada State Horsemen’s Association show. Photo by Ed Mix

NSHA has also made an effort to change the culture of shows. “What we’ve figured out is that it’s not only important to be nice, but it’s important to create an atmosphere where trainers want to bring their clients to our shows,” says Kathleen. Group leaders admit that showing has the potential to lead to bad sportsmanship. “Dog eat dog,” says Chris. “I saw that for a little while with my own kids. They didn’t like the attitudes so they kinda backed out.” Today, NSHA stresses the importance of kindness to their members and riders.

“NSHA seems to be the show that I often start my students with if they’ve never shown before because it has such a great atmosphere,” says Jessie. Experienced riders are encouraged to chat with new riders and there are opportunities for socializing outside of the show season too. “The biggest part of what makes the NSHA shows appealing is the helpfulness, the friendly people, not being cliquey. It’s a welcoming environment,” says Jessie. That atmosphere of kindness and good sportsmanship is most important for the youngest riders to see and emulate.

Kathleen recalls a show in which an eight-year-old rider’s horse refused a jump and bolted. When they caught the horse all the other children went running in to comfort the young rider. “All the little girls ran up to her and put their arms around her and said it’s okay, it’s okay,” remembers Kathleen. “I want my granddaughter to learn horses, but I want her to be in a position where she has the opportunity to be a competitor and yet be empathetic to the people she’s competing with. To me that’s the biggest thing.”

To get more kids involved, NSHA-V has a Youth Horsemanship Incentive Program. Kids under 18 can collect points throughout the year by doing a variety of activities including riding, volunteering, mentoring, and writing an essay. By collecting points they can earn special end of the year awards including a plaque and cash prizes. “We’ve had some fabulous youth come up,” says Kathleen. Many young NSHA riders have gone on to compete at the university level and higher.

Jessie Mix and her mare, Cactus Candy, in a Working English Pleasure class. Photo by Ed Mix.

NSHA-V wants to see more success stories for their riders. There’s been a lot of talk at their meetings lately about how to do that. Club leaders say they need to keep focused on fostering a positive environment for competitors of all ages. “We will help you to the greatest extent possible to achieve whatever your goal is for showing,” says Kathleen. “I think that’s what the true heart of NSHA is, that we’re all very competitive and we all want to win, but we want you to win too.”

NSHA-V leadership is spending a lot of time on self-reflection these days. They’ve managed to survive for 61 years, making them one of the state’s oldest horse groups. Now they face their biggest challenge – how to continue. Despite their struggles, NSHA-V is determined to keep going and they are confident they can do so. “It’s how you almost die and try to rebuild from that point on,” says Kathleen.

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Story by Samantha Szesciorka