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Pontotoc, Miss., resident Byron Steen shoes horses at the World Celebration Arena in Priceville for the Racking Horse World Celebration, which starts Saturday.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Pontotoc, Miss., resident Byron Steen shoes horses at the World Celebration Arena in Priceville for the Racking Horse World Celebration, which starts Saturday.

Racking Horse World Celebration
Back in the saddle
Obstacles remain, but better
days may be ahead for horse group

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com 340-2395

Rumors attract dissension like a dirty horse barn attracts flies.

Don Stisher knows how to clean a barn. Now he has to prove he can dispel rumors that the Racking Horse Breeders Association of America is a dying industry.

"The rumors are not true," he interjected last week at the beginning of an interview. "We are alive and well."

And by "well," he said he doesn't mean the association is as strong as it was five years ago or that it has put all its troubles behind it.

But it does mean the RHBAA is not broke. Stisher, the former Morgan County commissioner who became arena and grounds manager for Celebration Arena in June, said the association can pay its bills.

"Revenue is not great, but we're overcoming it," he said. "We owe a whole lot less than what we're worth."

More importantly, he said, some of the uncertainties that clouded last year's World Celebration — namely, would it still be able call Celebration Arena home — have cleared or are beginning to clear, so members' tensions are easing.

The membership exodus of 2006 and the previous three years has slowed, he said. The 1,812 members at the end of 2006 dropped to 1,500 this month. The encouraging note is the decrease was only half as bad as 2006, and some members believe it has hit bottom and can only improve.

Barbara Johnston, show chairwoman for the 36th Annual Racking Horse World Celebration, which starts Saturday, said she's optimistic about getting a good attendance.

"I think people have a more positive attitude than they did last year and that's mainly because we got the lawsuit behind us," she said.

The lawsuit to which she refers is easily the darkest cloud to clear in 2007. It was a $54 million case filed over a land deal by Hubert Porter, a local attorney.

Porter claimed the association board withheld the property deed after he paid the past board president. The board said it never gave its approval so the sale was never legal.

Both sides reached a settlement in March. Porter received 60 acres — not affecting the arena grounds — for $70,000 as well as another 52 acres for an undisclosed amount.

With that issue settled and finances stabilized, the association decided to take the for-sale sign off Celebration Arena as an indication it's here for the long haul, Stisher said.

The State Products Mart Authority of Morgan County does have a pending purchase offer to buy the arena property, he said. It made an offer in June and RHBAA President Judy Jones made a counter-offer, to which Products Mart has not responded.

"If they accepted our offer, would we take it, I can't say," Stisher said, noting the association board would ultimately decide.

One stipulation of the agreement would be that the association could maintain an office on the arena grounds and still be able to collect revenue from renting horse stalls, he said.

The decline in membership began in 2003, during which time the association lost about half its members. Last year members and officials cited a variety of reasons for the decline: high fuel prices that made traveling to horse shows too expensive, moving on to other hobbies, trainers going exclusively to walking horses and years of internal division that took the fun out of shows.

One major cause of dissension was the question of whether to let show horses perform with ankle chains. The chains, also called action devices, help the horses exaggerate their showy gait. Tennessee walking horses allow chains, but the RHBAA had banned it since forming in the early 1970s.

While the association held firm to its ban, a competing 10-year-old, pro-chain association had grown to 1,000 members.

To test the association's response, the 2006 World Celebration allowed 11 show classes with chains. These classes not only attracted new participants but also were among the largest classes for entries. The 2007 World Celebration will have 16 classes for chains.

"I think it went over better than expected," Stisher said, further explaining the controversy has cooled but not fully resolved.

Stisher said he sees two obstacles to overcome before the association can restore the enthusiasm that in 2002 drew enough members to fill nearly 2,700 hotel room nights during world Celebration. (Last year it was down to 1,042.)

One is keeping the arena rented enough to pay for itself and not be a drain on membership. The other is to rebuild the association's reputation.

The arena needs to have an event occurring every week or weekend, and this year's 16 events are on schedule to occupy 21 of the year's 52 weeks, he said.

Since June, Stisher has added one new racking horse show, and has verbal agreements on two new quarter horse events. He has also confirmed a motor-cross race for a weekend in mid-February and said he's confident about securing a circus in October and a flea market in early January. Two rodeos, one sanctioned with the Pro Bullriders Association, and another locally sponsored event, also are in the works, he said.

The Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau has also started helping promote the arena. It developed a color press kit earlier this year, sends press releases about arena events to its state tourism affiliations and advertises events in national magazines.

"I think the biggest obstacle right now is just the attitude of the association," Stisher said. "Turning from not knowing what direction we were headed. A lot of times that scars your image and reputation.

"I think when we do that, everyone will say 'Hey that's great,' and we'll bring the excitement that we had once before."

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