If there is a Super Bowl for Morgan horses, it's the Grand National & World Championship Morgan Horse Show held in mid-October in Oklahoma City.
The show featured 1,100 horses of the Morgan breed from all over the United States, Canada and other countries. But it was one group of horses from a suburban community that stood above the rest.
Merriehill Farm in Marengo, owned by the Bodnar family, saw 12 of its 17 horses take first place this year at the 35th edition of the show, and altogether winning 24 of 43 events plus six second-place finishes.
"Everything just fell into place this year," Mark Bodnar said of the farm's best ever showing at the event. "It's no different than a sports team. (The horses) just get into the groove sometimes."
His father, Stan Bodnar, agreed.
"We are known to have what people call 'the Merriehill look,' meaning they all possess an extreme amount of animation as well as head carriage," he said. "This year it really showed."
Merriehill Farm is devoted, primarily, to the breeding, training and riding of Morgan horses, plus some American Saddlebred horses. The family incudes Stan and Paulette Bodnar, sons Mark and Whitney, and Whitney's wife, Jessica, all of whom train horses. The farm was started by Paulette's parents in 1960.
The 15-acre farm has about 70 horses, one-third belonging to the Bodnar family, the rest entrusted into their care by their owners. There are three barns -- one heated, the others insulated -- plus an outdoor arena and a heated indoor arena.
Mark Bodnar said he's especially proud of winning the World Hunter Pleasure title in Oklahoma this year with a horse named LLL Tzar Alexander, ridden by Jessica Cavanaugh Bodnar. The horse is only 4 years old, but prevailed in a competition typically won by horses 5 and older.
The Bodnars worked hard to get their horses ready for this year's competition, said Millie Tabakoff, of Elizabeth, Ill., who owns LLL Tzar Alexander with her husband, Boris.
"Their show season tops off what I see -- they are fantastic trainers and fantastic people," she said.
Tabakoff said she is so trusting of the Bodnars she's even been scolded by Stan Bodnar for picking up newly trained horses and taking them trail riding without riding them at the farm first, she said.
"I figured if they are trained by Merriehill, I don't have to worry," she said.
Training horses is a bit like teaching children, Mark Bodnar said.
"The vast majority of animals, if you start them right and have patience, you will succeed," he said. "The key is to know the animal and its limitations."
Just like children, horses respond to treats -- think apples and carrots, but also bananas and peppermints. In fact, crunch a wrapper in your hand walking through the barn, and you'll see the horses move expectantly toward you.
Building confidence and trust with a horse is crucial, Stan Bodnar said.
"I don't proclaim to be a 'horse whisperer,' but if you watch their response to their training progression, they will tell you what you need to be doing."
The trainers at Merriehill Farms give about 40 to 50 lessons a week to riders whose ages range from 5 to 75, Mark Bodnar said. If you add breeding horses -- Merriehill even ships "material" for breeding in special containers -- and the general care and management of the farm, the job amounts to 15- to 18-hour days, he said.
Among the best parts of the work is introducing children to the world of horses, he added.
Katie Haberkorn, 14, of Lake in the Hills, has been taking lessons at Merriehill for about four years. She loves it so much that she even spends her free time there, she said.
"I get them ready for lessons, I take off all their tack, brush them off. I help take care of the barn. It's something I love," she said.
Katie went to the Grand National in October with her mother and a rider who took part in the competition. The experience inspired her to want to do the same some day. "I would have never expected how awesome being there was," she said.
Mark Bodnar said working with horses is a real passion for his family.
"It's a lot of work and there is no down time, but it's really rewarding. Take a horse that knows nothing and grows into a 1,000-pound animal you can control with your finger. It's really special."