Fairgrounds stall closure threatens young horse enthusiasts

Kayla Hayes poses with her horse, Bonnie.

Kayla Hayes poses with her horse, Bonnie. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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DAYTON — For most of her life, Kayla Hayes was difficult to get along with. The Dayton High School senior struggled with attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder and several other undiagnosed disabilities. She talked back to adults and failed most of her classes when she bothered to go to school at all.

But in the past six months, Kayla has become a straight-A student who adults say is a pleasure to be around.

The change, she said, is all because of her horse, Bonnie.

“I’ve never bonded with anything like I bond with my horse. It’s a bond like you can’t explain,” Kayla said. “It just makes you calm.”

But all is not well.

Her mother, Jennifer Irvine, fears her daughter’s ability to ride her horse may be in jeopardy. Irvine leases two horse stalls at the Columbia County Fairgrounds, which makes it easy for Hayes to ride regularly and stay in shape. But county commissioners recently approved new rules that close fairgrounds stall rentals for horses from May 1-Sept. 30, and continue to discuss more regulations on feed and tack storage.

County officials say the summer closure is necessary to allow events like Mule Mania and Dayton Days to use the fairgrounds, and that the stalls were never intended to provided a year-round home for peoples’ horses. Other proposed rules about feed storage are designed to stem conflicts between stall renters and keep the area safe. But some regular tenants say these rules, particularly the summer stall closure, will make it difficult for younger and more inexperienced riders like Kayla to keep training.

“It’s really hard for us when they shut us out because we’re just getting into our gaming season,” said Leeann Literal, a tenant who trains riders, including a barrel-racing team.

Literal owns a ranch where she can keep her horses when the fairgrounds close. Still, she uses the fairgrounds during the summer because the facility is better-suited to inexperienced riders, who can get comfortable using the enclosed indoor arena, as well as for barrel racers, who need to practice on a course.

While the grounds will be available for day use while the stalls are closed, Literal said having to bring horses in by trailer every time her students want to ride adds a few extra hours to the process. This means it’s harder keep horses and riders in shape.

Kayla began riding last February after she joined the Dayton Equestrian Team, training after school at the county fairgrounds. When she joined, the team had a competition scheduled in Moses Lake in March, so Kayla had only 30 days to get herself and her horse in shape.

“She was more green than the horse, but the dedication she put into it was amazing,” said Irvine. “The horse did in 30 days what years of counseling could not do.”

Irvine and Kayla recently moved to a trailer, where there isn’t space to keep horses. For them, summer stall closure means they may not be able to hold on to their horses. At best, it would mean boarding them with someone else, or possibly in Dixie, where riding during the summer would be almost impossible because of the time commitment required.

Commissioner Chuck Reeves has been advocating for fairgrounds guidelines because of the county’s unusually high volume of stall renters last year. The number of renters caused conflicts over use of shared spaces and equipment, he said.

With four summer events now using the fairgrounds — Dayton Days, Mule Mania, All-Wheels Weekend and the county fair — moving horses in and out for a few weeks at a time would be too difficult to coordinate.

“That facility was not designed as a horse-boarding facility. It was designed as a fairgrounds,” said Reeves.

He said keeping horse stalls open year-round to allow people like Kayla to train is not the county’s job, nor is finding homes for horses that people can’t keep on their own property.

“I don’t think the legislation gives us that charter or mandate. I don’t think the local citizenry does,” he said. “If you had six dogs and you had to move to a one-bedroom apartment where dogs aren’t allowed, is that the county’s problem?”

Irvine and Literal acknowledge that the number of people who keep horses at the fairgrounds is small. But both say the public is often unaware of the benefits riding provides, especially for people who have disabilities and mental health issues.

“It is really unfortunate that people don’t understand that for a lot of people, horses are therapy,” said Literal. She’s worked with people who have been suicidal or had serious drinking problems, all of which were improved by being around horses.

Kayla said riding taught her how to be responsible and keep her emotions under control.

“If you want something, you have to be on your best behavior, you have to be responsible, because horses can sense everything,” she said. “If I’m in a bad mood, my horse will not listen to me.”

Commissioners will hold a special meeting this month or November to discuss additional proposed rules, including where tenants may store feed and other supplies for their horses. Meanwhile, Kayla said she’s just excited to get back to riding after a summer-long break.

“If I get mad at somebody or something, I’ll go home and go straight to my horse,” she said. “This keeps me sane.”

Rachel Alexander can be reached at rachelalexander@wwub.com or 509-526-8363.

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