Renew Creative by Shelby Ridgway
Category: Cover Story

State Horse Show saddles up for 60th anniversary

Photo: Renew Creative by Shelby Ridgway

The Arkansas State Championship Horse Show celebrates its 60th anniversary over Labor Day weekend. The show brings horsemen and women to the Arkansas State Fairgrounds and Barton Coliseum each year to compete for the title of State Champion.

It is unofficially known as the largest open horse show in the world. Horses of all shapes, sizes, colors, and bloodlines compete over the fast-paced, four-day event, held this year from September 1st to 4th.

Photo: Renew Creative by Shelby Ridgway

Over 1,800 exhibitors travel to Little Rock each year in horse trailers and campers, and prepare for an action-packed weekend filled with adrenaline, smiles and celebrations, as well as quality time with good horses and even better friends.

It all began when three Arkansas horsemen shared a vision to bring horses and exhibitors to one central location to compete at the highest level.

In 1963, Sonny Noble, Boyce Cook, and Trigger Walls each paid $1,000 out of their pockets to host the first Arkansas State Championship Horse Show. Over the next six decades, this event would become a destination for thousands.

Exhibitors compete in 43 classes focused on speed, performance, and ranch disciplines.

Western class competitons like ranch riding and reining celebrate the impact horses have made on American history. Photo: Renew Creative by Shelby Ridgway

Neigh-Borly Competition

Although it is the highest level of exhibitor competition, the State Show represents more to those who attend.

Jerry Fuller of Poplar Grove says the State Show is “like a time capsule and a horse show family reunion.”

Fuller and his twin brother, Terry, started competing at the State Show in the 1960s when they were children and continued that tradition with their families.

Fuller’s children, Katherine and Kyle, grew up riding and competing in various youth events. Now, Katherine is teaching her 7-year-old daughter, Sadie, the traditions of the State Show.

Jerry and Terry Fuller as children competing at the State Show. Photo: Renew Creative by Shelby Ridgway

“It is like a holiday, second only to Christmas, for my family,” Katherine shares.

She continues, “We have our ‘holiday traditions’ in setting up our stalls and getting the horses ready. We enjoy spending time with our friends who we have gotten to know well over the years.”

The Fuller family has won numerous accolades at the State Show, including multiple championships and high point awards in performance, ranch and speed disciplines.

As with the Fullers, the State Show is a tradition for the Neal family of Batesville. The Neal family primarily competes in the speed discipline.

Clay and Amber Neal met as competitive youth exhibitors. Independently, both Clay and Amber were highly successful at the State Show over the years. However, once they married and had two sons, Layton and Cash, they became a powerhouse family in the arena.

Clay says, “Amber and I competed against each other through our youth careers. We now get to see our boys place and win in the same classes that we did 30 years ago.”

Lead line is one of the most popular youth competitions. Photo: Renew Creative by Shelby Ridgway

Outside of the arena, the Neal family has traditions of their own. “We’re all together at the back of the arena every time before someone runs. That’s just our thing,” Amber says.

Cash sums it up perfectly when asked what makes the State Show unique for the boys.

“It’s just State,” he answers, which loosely translates to “There’s nothing else like it.”

For Chairman Mike Verkler, the State Show has changed how he and his family spend their time together.

Pony class competitions, such as pony pole bending, are designed for exhibitors 10 years and younger. Photo: Renew Creative by Shelby Ridgway

The Verkler family has risen to competitive ranks in classes like barrel racing and pole bending. He has led the statewide association as chairman for the past 4 years, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My first year as chairman was in 2020, and more people told me we could not have a show than those who said we should. However, I was determined not to let the 3 founding horsemen down by canceling the show. That year, it was reported that Arkansas had the largest show in America and was successful.”

The State Show is proud to be a nonprofit dedicated to giving back.

The Fuller family and friends celebrate a successful show for Sadie Thompson. Photo: Renew Creative by Shelby Ridgway

Carissa Griffin, the statewide association treasurer, says, “The State Show raises our operating money each year to help produce this show through exhibitor entries, fees, and multiple corporate and individual sponsorships. With these collective monies, we have given a generous annual donation to the Arkansas Children’s Hospital (over $131,000 since 2001) and helped support their superior care level for their precious patients. Some of our exhibitors have been Arkansas Children’s Hospital patients in past years.

“We have become like family and take care of our family.”

The public is welcome to attend the State Show at Barton Coliseum from September 1st to 4th, beginning at 7:50 a.m. each day and lasting until competitions conclude. General admission is $10 each day.

The Neal family celebrates an incredible weekend of high-point accomplishments in 2022. Photo: Renew Creative by Shelby Ridgway