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Show Ponies

The Spring Grove Horse Show has been an integral part of McHenry County with a focus on competition, community and the love of horses.

It’s been 45 years since the first Spring Grove horse show took place at cofounder Bill Schmidt’s home on Main Street, but the spirit of the inaugural show is still very much alive with multiple crowd-drawing shows per year. Today, Spring Grove Horse Show hosts six horse shows annually at Spring Grove Horse Fair Park (8105 Blivin St.), which are open to all breeds.

These free shows feature different disciplines, including Hunter, Dressage and English/Western, as well as a Fun Show. The shows draw people from all over Illinois, as well as Wisconsin and Indiana.

Just like the first show, the profits go back into the show and improving the community. The goal of these events remains to foster interest in horses while providing an atmosphere where good sportsmanship and having fun are encouraged.

A Growing Tradition

Cofounders Jack and Shirley Thompson’s daughter, Sally Thompson Smith, was 13 when the show started and was the first recipient of the high point trophy.

“The number of participants was very small back then and there were only 14 or so classes, but we all rode in every one,” said Thompson, who today acts as one of three directors. “We were a small farm community at the time and most of the children either had a horse or had access to one.”

Every year, she said, the show grew exponentially. “[It soon became] one of the largest shows in the area,” she said.

Money raised through the events went toward countless community improvement projects and purchases.

“Through the profits, we purchased land for the community park and fire station, a full kitchen and cafeteria, a library, playground equipment and school buses, and paved the parking lot for the Spring Grove Elementary School,” Thompson Smith said. “We now make contributions to the Spring Grove PTO, police, fire, park departments, Girl and Boy scouts, and a handicapped riders program.”

Milestone Year

This milestone year means participation incentives. “This year, we are adding extra incentive to come to all our shows and Community Clovers 4-H shows [by] offering a jackpot prize of $500 to the highest point riders of all of these shows,” Thompson Smith relates.

In addition, R. A. Adams Enterprises Inc. — a trailer dealer in McHenry — is matching the prize.

“It certainly looks to be a fun show season,” she said.

In addition to the excitement of competitive shows, spectators are sure to enjoy the Fun Show, “where we all let our hair down and relax and play games on horseback,” she explained.

Today, the shows draw anywhere from 75 to 150 participants — with at least as many spectators. “We have a pleasant picnic atmosphere where the whole family can enjoy fresh air, sunshine, green grass and beautiful horses,” she added. “This is where you can bring your whole family to enjoy all of this and there is no fee, just come and see.”

Though the event is free, profits from concessions provided by Boy Scout Troop 459 support their involvement in the community, as well as help fund their camping trip, Thompson Smith said.

A ‘Needed Outlet’

In addition to horse shows being fun for families and a vehicle to funding community developments, they offer “a needed outlet for up-and-coming horsemen and women to practice their skills,” Thompson Smith said.

The English/Western Performance Show is open to novice and amateur riders of all ages and has a variety of classes that show off their skills. The Hunter/Jumper Show covers jumping various obstacles at different heights. The Dressage show brings the elegant dancer out of the horse and connects the rider to the horse in precision training.

“This is the place novice riders and horses get their feet wet,” she said. “We reward good sportsmanship and good horsemanship and encourage community service. We are hoping in the next year to set up a youth equine college scholarship for deserving young horse people.”

The Horse Show organizers are always looking for ways to improve the events as the needs of the community and the trends in the horse show industry evolve, she said. A Wild Ride

The Thompsons, Bill and Margaret Schmidt, the couples’ friends and the local 4-H club organized the first horse show. The shows became a fundraising event and later were taken over by the parents of the Spring Grove Elementary School as a way of providing things that would otherwise strain the school budget.

Under the leadership of the Thompsons, the group became an Illinois not-for-profit organization known as the Spring Grove Horse Fair and Junior Horse Show Inc.

The first major step taken by the organization was to purchase 10 acres of land behind the school. The first arena and entry stand were built. The ever-growing horse fairs provided money for the mortgage, as well as more improvements to the show grounds, and continuing support of many community and school needs.

The annual events not only offered competition for the local riders, but became one of the most popular events of the year for the whole town.

There were tents with games for young and old, pony rides, live music and a two-seater dunk tank for everyone’s amusement.

Thompson Smith fondly recalls these shows. “We used to put up these huge circus tents where we served the steer and pig roast dinners,” she explained. “We had dances and bands after the shows and people would come in buses from Chicago to spend the day with us. One year, we had a huge storm blow in and I watched as the men trying to hold down the tent were picked up 10 to 20 feet in the air. Luckily, no one was hurt.

“The show was truly the highlight of everyone’s summer back then.”

Many changes have taken place over the years. After the mortgage burning party, the property was donated to the Village of Spring Grove for a park, with parcels to the Spring Grove Fire Department and Burton Township, with the provision that the Horse Show would continue to host “horse events” on the property.

The Horse Fair retained a small piece of property and built a 50-by-60-foot pavilion. This building was later given to the village, helping to make the Horse Fair Park a popular site for parties and events.

In 1996, the pavilion was remodeled and a new announcers stand was added. In 1996, many tons of sand were added to the arena to keep the footing appropriate for the many disciplines offered.

The current 200-by-300-foot sand arena is the biggest and one of the best in the area, according to Thompson Smith.

>> For more information, visit or call 815-675-6048.

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