It was 6 a.m. Thursday and the sun was just barely peeking over the horizon into a 4-H horse barn at the south end of the Kane County Fairgrounds. An unusually chilly breeze kicked up the dirt that had settled on the barn floor and shook the sign hanging above the barn's entrance that reads: "A Bit More 4-H Club."
In a middle stall, 15-year-old Madde Klinkey shoveled the droppings off the stall floor and emptied them into a bucket. Directly beside her, nibbling at a pile of hay, stood her 15-year-old spotted saddle pony, Shimmy Shimmy Coco Pop, whose barn name is "Coco."
Kane County Fair Friday highlights 8:30 a.m.: Beef judging 10 a.m.: Horse and pony fun day Noon: Gate admission and Midway opens 6 p.m.: Chicago Tribute Anthology at the Miller Lite Soundstage 7:30 p.m.: Professional Championship Bull Riding at the
The pair only had a few hours to go before their first competition would begin, and Madde was starting to get a little nervous.
Her first events were the Hunter Over Fences and Equitation Over Fences competitions, which began at 8:30 a.m. She and Coco would complete a course that consists of jumping over fences. It would be their first time competing at this level -- the first time they would have to jump fences set at 2.5 feet.
At Wednesday night's practice, Coco had been a little wild, she said.
Madde set down her rake and rubbed a spot of dirt off Coco's nose. She leaned closer, inspecting the pony's mane, which she had spent nearly two hours braiding and knotting the night before.
It's a lot of work taking care of a horse, Madde said, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of money. At their Wasco home, Madde's family has four horses, each of which costs about $10,000 per year for equipment, food, bedding and vet fees. Riding lessons and hauling fees add to that price, so Coco is even more expensive -- about $15,000.
Madde said she and her sister are each responsible for feeding the horses and cleaning the stalls at least once a day.
"The responsibility is good for me," she said.
Preparing for horse competitions is even more work, especially at the Kane County Fair, Madde said. Coco has to stay on the fairgrounds from Tuesday night, when Madde's family drops the pony off in a trailer, until the fair closes Sunday night.
She has been showing Coco at the fair for three of the five years she has been involved in 4-H. At the fair, she spends nearly 12 hours a day taking care of Coco.
"You've got to make sure the pony's OK while she's here all week," said Sandy Klinkey, Madde's mother and a member of the 4-H Horse Committee that organizes events.
Madde put her saddle on Coco before tightening the straps. Clutching the reins in her hand, she led Coco to the arena next to the barn. It was 6:45 a.m., still two hours until competitions would begin, but now was their chance to practice.
This year, the footing in the arena is unusually deep, said Patricia Bunge, a 4-H leader and superintendent. So they don't injure their horses, the competitors need to "very sensitively" warm their horses up before they start practicing jumps, she said.
Madde and Coco entered the arena with four other horses and their riders. They circled the rink, slowly at first before picking up speed.
To the side of the arena, Madde's trainer, Sarah Yakle, called out critiques.
"Good job. That was beautiful, Madde," she said. "Don't forget to breathe."
Breathe. That's one thing Madde struggles with as she's going through a course, she said. She often concentrates so hard on what she's doing, she needs to be reminded to breathe.
"There's a lot to think about," she said. "You have to focus on your head, heels, shoulders, back. And then when you're showing, you have to listen to the judges and your trainer."
During hunter competitions, the judges critique the horses. During equitation, the judges critique the riders.
Later in the afternoon, Madde would also be competing in two flat competitions, where she and Coco would complete courses without jumps, and one bareback competition. In every show, the judges watch closely for consistency, Madde said.
"Sometimes I sing songs in my head," she said. "It helps to keep the rhythm."
As she exited the arena after practice, she glanced back at her mom, who was running to catch up with her.
"She was much better today," Madde said, rubbing Coco's side.
Sandy Klinkey nodded with approval. "Much, much better."
It was nearly 7:30 a.m. by the time Madde and Coco finished their practice run. They returned to the barn, where Madde wiped down Coco with an old, faded towel before cleaning her saddle.
With her hair pinned up, and her helmet and riding gloves on, all she had left to do was mentally prepare for the competition.
The judges' official pattern of the course was handed out to 4-H'ers at around 8 a.m. Madde's next challenge was to memorize the course before show time.
With the heel of her boot, Madde drew lines in the dirt, mapping her own version of the course. Then, she started walking as if she were performing the pattern.
"Right before I go out on the rink, I start worrying about my patterns," Madde said. "My heart starts racing."
At 8:50 a.m., she and Coco made their way toward the arena for the start to a long day of competing.
Immediately after a competition, judges award riders with ribbons of three possible colors. Blue is for outstanding work, red means you can improve, and white means you need a bit more improvement, Yakle said.
Madde and Coco received red ribbons in the first two events. They improved since their last practice, Madde said, and she was proud.
In her later competitions, she walked away with two blue ribbons, both in the flat competitions, and a red ribbon for her bareback show.
"We've definitely improved," she said. "We did well relative to what we've been doing."
But for Madde, riding isn't only about the competition. When she's having a bad day at school, she comes home and rides her horses. When she's stressed, she focuses on her training. It's a good distraction, she said. It helps her clear her head.
"When I'm riding, my worries disappear," she said. "It's fun, it's relaxing. I wouldn't give it up for anything."