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A heritage of horsemanship

Fri, Mar 12th, 2010
Posted in Agriculture

Horse people. In this area, it's likely that you know at least one of them. In essence, they live and breath horses and the lifestyle that accompanies it. The countless hours of grooming, feeding, veterinary care, pasture management, and of course, barn cleaning are all worth those exhilarating moments on the back of an animal whose sweat is "sweet." For the combined Ukkestad and LaFleur families of Rushford, horses are a passion and tradition that have led to what Beth LaFleur lovingly dubs, "The Other Season."

Maynard and Rachel Ukkestad began their family's journey into the equestrian lifestyle when daughter Beth was just three. Although Maynard had grown up in town, he had always wanted horses. Rachel grew up in Looney Valley, near Houston, MN, on a farm where her father used Belgian draft horses, which she rode from time to time. Little did they know that little Welsh pony given to Beth would spark a lifetime pursuit in showmanship.

The family joined Root River Saddle Club in 1970, during its inaugural year. At the time, the group was largely restricted to trail riding due to participation and locations available. In the earlier days, the group took to riding where they could. They even had an arena of sorts in now laughable locations such as within a snow fence behind the municipal liquor store in Rushford and tucked into an area behind a restaurant near the golf course.

In 1985, the family, which now included son-in-law Allen LaFleur, contemplated the idea of a structured arena on their property in south Rushford. The saddle club was still very much in need of space so the decision to develop and construct Ukkestad Arena was made. Although privately-owned, it became a hub for 4-H, Western Saddle Club Association (WSCA), Southeastern Minnesota Saddle Club Association (SEMSCA), National Barrel Horse Association, and Class A Arabian events throughout the region.

Since, the family has boarded horses in pasture and breed some of their mares, foaling out at least four times. However, the family decided that showmanship was their passion. So each year, beginning on Mother's Day and continuing through the end of September, equestrian events rapture their lives.

As the family grew to include grandchildren, Julia and Phillip, the horsemanship tradition continued. Starting out working on lead lines when they were toddlers, the children learned first-hand from their elders the work ethic and joy that is horse keeping. Both of the children became active in Fillmore County 4H as they grew, which led to 16 years in the organization. In that time, both Julia and Phillip earned trips to the State Fair for eight consecutive years, which is all years eligible from ages 12-19. As Beth humbly puts it, "They've done well."

That may be an understatement. The accomplishments are nearly uncountable and include such notables as 2003 SEMSCA Ms. Horsemanship, 2005 Minnesota Arabian Horse Association Queen, four SEMSCA High Point Horse and Rider, one championship and 18 Top Ten Western Saddle Club Association awards, and five Championship and 19 Top Ten Minnesota State 4-H Horse Show awards. And that's just eldest child, Julia.

Phillip's accomplishments include five Fillmore County Fair 4-H Horse Show High Point Horse and Rider, one Championship and 20 Top Ten Minnesota State 4-H Horse Show awards.

Beth told of a recent remodeling of Julia's room in which ribbons are suspended from wires crossing the ceiling. Basically "running out of ceiling," the family came to a compromise to sort and package all awards from 2nd place on down, thinking it would clear a great deal of room. They were all quite surprised, after packing and counting just under 800 ribbons, to find the ceiling still three-quarters covered. The trophies were moved downstairs.

Both of the children are now grown. Julia, 25, is attending graduate school at the University of Minnesota at Mankato, working towards a masters in teaching. She has a undergraduate degree in biology. Phillip, 20, is a sophmore at UM-Mankato, studying to be an athletic trainer. However, this doesn't mean an end to showmanship. Beth, who holds a degree in Light Horse Management and daughter, Julia, are both certified State 4-H judges. They are also SEMSCA delegates. Family matriarch, Rachel, is the treasurer of the Root River Saddle Club.

The club they all love has grown and matured as well. Root River Saddle Club is now one of the largest recognized clubs in the state. Its tristate membership has grown considerably and is likely to continue that trend having been named High Point Performance Champion.

None of the family envisions their involvement in the sport to cease. Instead, they are continuing to be active in showing and give back to the 4-H program through volunteering, offering and assisting at educational clinics, and helping out at the Fillmore County Fair.

In 2009, Maynard and Rachel Ukkestad were named SEMSCA's Horse People of the Year, another high honor. Horsemanship has now come full circle.

For those interested in events at Ukkestad Arena, please contact Beth at 507-864-7186. The first show of the year, sponsored by Root River Saddle Club, will be Memorial Day weekend. The biggest event of the year is slated for June 12th & 13 with the WSCA Open Youth horse show and SEMSCA show. All events are open to the public.

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