The riders keep their horses steady as the grand entry wagon, decorated with gold tinsel and containing half a dozen members of equestrian past royalty, proudly rolls along. Some of the riders carry the turquoise and white flag of the Up River Saddle Club. Bernadine Baltz, the queen of the inaugural Saddle Club horse show in 1961, wears a blue flannel shirt and a gold sash decorated with roses. Frank Michael, an announcer for 30 years and whose mother helped found the club, has come out of retirement to announce the festivities. This day marks 50 years that the Up River Saddle Club has been in existence, making it one of the oldest saddle clubs in Northern Idaho. “It turned out real good.” Frank says with satisfaction.
The Saddle Club was founded because it is more fun to ride in a group than alone agrees Bernadine and club member Christine Ashmead. The land the saddle club leases – the same for fifty years — offers a place for people to ride together and be part of a community of horse enthusiasts.
The weekend-long show focuses on showmanship on Saturday and o-mok-see, which are games and timed events like relays and ribbon races, on Sunday. A memorial belt buckle in honor of Frank’s mother is awarded to a current member who goes “above and beyond” for the club. Frank Michael says his mother began the club as kind of a family thing: “It was just a fun day for the family is how it started out.”
Over the years, the Saddle Club has engaged in all kinds of events outside of its annual August horse show, including Christmas potlucks, youth rodeos, family dances, pie auctions, and Halloween costume contests. “These memories go way way back,” says Christine.
Festivities are interspersed with equine wellness clinics on shoeing and vaccinations and youth workshops on basic groundwork, reining, and performance. “We always try to move in a direction where we are doing the things the current members like to do,” says Christine, citing guest clinicians or performance coaches, also adding they like to get together with other North Idaho saddle clubs. Fundraisers are also an integral part of the club. One popular fundraiser has been poker trail rides where participants stop at stations along the trail and obtain a card. Whoever has a winning hand at the end of the ride wins the game. There also have been four wheeler poker rides and auctions of items popular to members.
The money the club earns goes to help a family in need, one with overwhelming medical expenses or who have lost their home to fire. Occasionally they use funds to make improvements to the arena, always doing the construction work themselves. In 2003, they replaced the painted fence with a maintenance-free steel panel fence. They have also torn down the old corrals, built a new announcer stand, and fixed the floor in the clubhouse.
Bernadine reflects on what it was like to be part of the club from the beginning. She said there were only two younger women associated with the club at its inception, and their conversation went something along the lines of, “do you want to be queen this year or next?” Bernadine also remarks on how many of the men associated with the club were loggers or worked outdoors and were physically strong with the right equipment to improve the arena. Additionally, she says there were no horse trailers when she began riding so members rode to club events. Mostly, she remembers, “We all loved what we were doing.” On Saturday nights of the weekend-long show, she recalls pot races, where everyone would put a dollar in a pot and whoever’s horse was the fastest would win the pot. “We all knew each other. It was just so much fun.”
Frank Michael recalls that they had egg races where riders had to keep an egg on a spoon while going over a jump and water races, where competitors raced around the arena with a cup of water. The rider with the most water still in the cup won. Frank says it wouldn’t have been unusual to have the riders soak each other with the water left over in their cup. Frank says, “You never knew what was going to happen.”
Years later, many of the same families are involved, and the history of the club is as important to them as ever. Frank’s father, Keith Michael, has given Christine the club memorabilia, including scrapbooks filled with pictures, flyers, and entry forms. Christine, who calls herself the self-designated historian, is keeping up the tradition of involving family as she teaches her 6 and 7-year-old grandchildren to ride, perhaps hoping they will be part of the Up River Saddle Club royalty one day. Christine says, “There’s a lot of families that have been members for years and years. . . It’s a common interest that brings them all together.”
Frank agrees, saying, “It’s just a good deal to the community and it’s been that way for a lot of years.”
Appeared in the March 2012 issue of The Ruralite
Contact Shane Minden, president