Riders add local touch to horse show

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DORSET — Dorset's annual Vermont Summer Festival draws riders from across the country, but for some, the festival is a bit closer to home.

Andrea Conrad and Susan Wheeler has each ridden in the horse show for decades, and both are based right here in Manchester.

Conrad, who grew up in Londonderry, started riding in the horse show about

20 years ago as a teenager, but has been riding horses all her life. She rode in her first show at just 3 years old.

"My mom had a training position in a show barn

before I was born, so I was really born into it," she said.

Both women participate in the hunter division, in which riders wear formal attire and horses have braided manes and tails and any jumps are usually no higher than 4 feet. The Vermont Summer Festival also has a jumper division, in which riders and horses are less formal and jumps are up to about 6 feet.

Wheeler also grew up with horses in Millbrook, N.Y., where she started showing with her local Pony Club at around

12 years old.

"I have been riding my whole life, which is a long time," she said, jokingly. "It was always in my blood to become an equestrian."

After a break from showing while raising her children, Wheeler began riding in the horse show 25 years ago. She has extensive experience on New England's show circuit, but believes that the Vermont Summer Festival is one of the best in the region.

"This particular show is very special," Wheeler said. "First, it's one of the top-rated freestanding [meaning tent-based, rather than permanently constructed] shows in the country. It's right here so it's easy for me, and it happens to be one of the best summer shows in New England. I can show, I can work, and I always have family around, which is nice I just love it."

Conrad added that the show offers diverse competition levels.

"The amount of classes and divisions they offer are great — there's really something for everyone," Conrad said. "The courses are really exhibitor- and horse-friendly, they do a really good job finding good designers, they spend money in all the right places. The facility is good, and the location is great — it does really well for our town."

Conrad and Wheeler, who both work in the hospitality industry — Wheeler as the spa manager at the Equinox Hotel and Conrad as the co-owner of the Barnstead Inn — agree that the Vermont Summer Festival is absolutely vital to the area's economy.

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"It is so valuable," Wheeler said. "First of all, the exposure that it gives Manchester as a destination location, but also, the horse show brings in approximately 600 to 1,000 horses a week, and it's six weeks long."

Conrad agreed.

"This horse show is key to our success," Conrad said. "It just brings so much revenue. It's not just about people showing up to bring their horses; they have to eat, they have to sleep somewhere, they need activities while they're here. They also have a lot of down time so they're spending money at the stores. It drives our economy for a long time in the summer."

But riding is also valuable to Conrad and Wheeler themselves.

Conrad even majored in Equine Studies in college.

"It's who I've always been it's a struggle to find time, but it's a key ingredient to my sanity," Conrad said. "Just like some people have running as their outlet, or something that they need to do every day, my check-out time is at the barn."

Wheeler said it's about doing her best.

"I get prepared, I ride the show, and I win a ribbon or I don't, but I know in my heart that I've ridden the best I can," Wheeler said. "That's a win for me."

Wheeler appreciates being able to show now more than ever. Three years ago she was severely injured after falling from her horse in training but was able to win the Novice Adult division of the horse show her first year back.

"I had a long recovery, and it was really hard for me to get back and ride again, but I did because it's so passionate for me," Wheeler said. "It's something I love so much. So I started riding again, and

that's when I won that division. I think that's what life is all about it's about getting up and starting over again after you've been hurt. I think it makes you a stronger person, and it makes you love your sport even more."

Conrad's proudest equestrian achievement occurred outside the show ring, when she rescued and raised a foal that was a Premarin baby. Premarin, an estrogen-replacement drug, contains hormones found in the urine of pregnant mares, and the resulting foals are often sold to slaughterhouses.

"It isn't always about the trophy at the end of the year I adopted a foal from slaughter and I got him through all the way from when he was a baby until he was showing and sold him to a perfect home when he was 10 years old," Conrad said. "That was pretty gratifying."

Even if they don't win every show, Conrad and Wheeler both love what they do.

"The horses are members of our family if they're not happy, I'm not happy," Conrad said. "But just riding makes me happy. I love it."

"[My injury] made me a more mindful rider it's in everything I do, not that everything always works out perfectly, but it's something that I strive to be," Wheeler said. "It's wonderful to win a championship, but also, just getting to these events and competing and having a good time is a big win for me."


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