At Equifest, the free festival of all things horse-related Sunday at the Hamburg Fairgrounds, thousands are expected to come from as far as Syracuse, Ohio and Canada to shop for trailers and saddles and watch demonstrations of miniature horses, polo playing, equestrian fashion and even “cowboy shooting” from horseback.
People can come learn about hoof anatomy and watch a kind horse dancing, almost like ballet, called dressage. Vendors sell everything from horse massages and saddles to “horsey pottery” and fancy chocolates without any particular horse theme.
“Most of the people that hang out with horses are women,” said Peter Tarnawskyj, treasurer of the Western Chapter of the New York Horse Council. “So chocolates sell very well.”
The festival that drew 1,000 in its first year in 2011, attracted 5,000 last year. Now that word has been getting around, Equifest has found a niche. It’s a one-day happening in contrast to the bigger weekend horse shows he knows of in Columbus and Connecticut.
“There’s really nothing like this upstate,” Tarnawskyj said. “We just found out that we’ve got two buses with 4-H kids coming up … I like it because it gets a whole diverse group of horse people together.”
This year, festival coordinator Debbie Huckle has tried to feature young people in the programming, which includes a family area where children can make “stick horses” and decorate horseshoes.
“We need the kids to start learning,” she said. “They are the future for the equine community.”
At 10 a.m. Sunday, the Little Bits 4-H from Niagara County will show how they have trained miniature horses, which are about a third the size of a regular horse and smaller than Shetland ponies. They’re too small to ride, but they can be easier to train because they’re less intimidating.
“They almost have mannerisms of a dog,” Huckle said. “They’re very sweet, very kind.”
Maureen Quillin, who runs a stable for Arabian horses in Elma, appreciates the festival for the way it brings all kinds of horse people together. Owners and their Quarter Horses, Warmbloods, Thoroughbreds and Haflinger draft ponies will do clinics and be on display.
“It’s kind of a fun thing to know how many horse people there are that we’re not even aware of,” she said. “They’re all over the place.”
Her daughter Kaitlyn, 14, has decided to use it as a business opportunity. To raise the $2,000 she needs to take her horse to a show in Albuquerque, N.M., she and a friend are making $15 “dickeys” – bibs that look like shirt collars and are worn under riding outfits.
“They’ve been going nuts trying to sew these things,” Quillin said. “I’m surprised that my daughter is so inventive and she wants to sit there and make some money.”
The expensive hobby of caring for and riding horses can motivate and lead aficionados to sacrifice other niceties, like new cars, said Tarnawskyj. He cited a 2005 state survey that found horse owners were a growing and lucrative community contribution.
New York’s Department of Agriculture counted 7,900 horses in Erie County. That was 10 percent more than the 7,200 counted in 2002. An average of about $5,600 gets spent on a single horse in a year from vet bills to hay, feed, boarding and training.
“Most people don’t really even know that this horse industry even exists in Erie County,” he said. “It produces jobs. It’s something that doesn’t hurt for people to be aware of.”
“People that are interested in horses are interested in horses for the long term,” said Tarnawskyj. “It’s really more of an avocation. It’s a commitment.”
He and his wife now keep six horses in their barn in South Wales. Unlike going to a gym to work out, Tarnawskyj’s athletic endeavor can never be skipped. Every morning he must get up and do barn chores and feed and water the horses.
“It’s a physical activity that I’ve got to do,” he said.
Hanging out with his horse Chocko is one of the pleasures of his avocation. The Thoroughbred came here from Florida after his wife read online that his owner could no longer afford his care.
“Twenty-six hours later, the horses were at our farm,” Tarnawskyj said.
They knew Chocko had raced, so they traced the tattoo on his lip and discovered his regal heritage.
He’s tall enough that his riders have to duck tree branches and spider webs. He’s also so well trained and gentle that Tarnawskj’s nephew, who’d never been on a horse before, rode him with ease. Maybe it was in the Florida heat where he learned to like the freezer pops that he reaches for if he spots someone eating one.
“He’s just a nice horse to ride and he’s got a lot of personality,” Tarnawskyj said. “We like to think he’s now got a good home.”