Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Junior League Horse Show in its 75th year

An undated photo from the Lexington Junior League Horse Show.
An undated photo from the Lexington Junior League Horse Show.

How do you create the world's largest outdoor American Saddlebred horse show? Tell a group of young women they can't do it.

That's how the Lexington Junior League Horse Show began in 1937. The show celebrates its 75th anniversary July 11 to 16 at The Red Mile.

The horse show was the brainchild of Marie Kittrell, who had become president of the young women's volunteer organization in 1936. She was frustrated by how hard it was to raise money for charity during the Great Depression. Ladies' teas and follies shows just weren't cutting it.

Kittrell thought that Lexington, of all places, should be able to support a first-class horse show. The American Saddlebred was developed in Central Kentucky, but there hadn't been a regular show since the old Blue Grass Fair closed a few years earlier.

The Junior Leaguers decided they could do it. Their husbands were skeptical. Lexington businessmen rolled their eyes. Money was borrowed for expenses, and businesses were persuaded to put up prize money. The Red Mile's executives figured the show would be a one-time failure, so they charged the young ladies only $1 to use the trotting track.

"It was thought that this group of women didn't know what they were doing," said Joyce Ockerman, who, at age 11, rode in that first show. "But that Mrs. Kittrell, she had her mind set on it.

"When the show opened, they were amazed by the crowds of people who came out," said Ockerman, who joined the Junior League in 1948, was horse show chairwoman in 1952 and still attends the event every year.

That first four-day show attracted 216 horses from 16 states, and 24,000 spectators. When the bills were paid and the books balanced, the profit was $5,500 — a lot of money in 1937 and five times more than any Junior League of Lexington fund-raiser had ever raised.

Over the past 74 years, the show has raised about $4 million to support the Junior League's work, which focuses on improving the lives of women and children in the Bluegrass. The overall economic impact on Lexington has amounted to millions of dollars more.

Last year, the horse show raised $80,000. That's an ambitious goal in another tough economy for this year's show chairwoman, Alice Vance Dearborn, and her board.

Dearborn also has some personal history to live up to. Her grandmother and namesake, Alice Vance, was a member of the first horse show board. She became show chairwoman in 1939 and was Junior League president from 1940 to 1942, when the show went on despite World War II.

The horse show has changed over the years to stay fresh. This year's edition kicks off Saturday night with a party at the Red Mile's historic Round Barn, featuring a silent auction, the Jimmy Church Band and celebrity host Elizabeth Shatner. Competition begins Monday and continues through Saturday's Championship Night.

Special events include American Heroes Night on Tuesday, when veterans and their families get in free and The Bravehearts, a veterans riding group from Illinois, performs. Three canned goods for the God's Pantry Food Drive get you in free Wednesday night. That also is the night of the stick-horse race for children 8 and younger. ($5 to enter; bring your own stick horse.) There also will be free kids' activities that night in the Round Barn.

Thursday night's show salutes breast cancer awareness, and Friday's show promotes the American Heart Association and St. Joseph Healthcare. After Friday's show, at 9:30 p.m., there will be tailgating on The Red Mile apron.

For more information about the horse show, go to

With more than 30,000 participants and attendees each year, the Lexington Junior League Horse Show has always been a big undertaking for the young women who organize it — and for their husbands and children, who always seem to get roped into helping.

"I remember sitting in the trophy tent when I was a little girl and thinking, 'I want to be in charge of this someday,'" said Dearborn, 32, a third-generation Junior Leaguer. "Now it's like, what was I thinking!"