Kel-Mac Saddle Club, the oldest saddle club in Georgia, is a welcoming environment for people of all ages to share their love of horses and to give back to the community. Show Chair, Susie Cottongim, sums up their work in three words – horsemanship, sportsmanship, and fellowship. For the past 45 years, Kel-Mac has exhibited each of these qualities through their family-friendly horse shows, philanthropic efforts in the community, and dedication to all local equestrian activities.
Regardless of experience level, Kel-Mac welcomes and encourages participants and members to get involved. Nina Kloss began showing horses at Kel-Mac shows after spending many years working full-time. Despite being out of practice and unfamiliar with her horse, she participated in her first Kel-Mac show, which soon became her favorite memory of the club. As she mounted the horse, nervous and unsure, she was reassured by relentless cheering and support from club members and other participants.
“It was so encouraging,” Kloss explains. “The fellowship is just amazing and these ladies are pretty wonderful.”
Now, Elizabeth Reed, Kloss’ granddaughter, participates in Kel-Mac shows as well. Since she was two years old, Reed has been showing horses and taking lessons to improve her horsemanship. For such young participants, Kel-Mac shows offer a Leadline class, in which an adult leads the horse in-hand, while the young rider sits on the horse. Other classes, such as Small Fry, Junior Western Pleasure, and Horsemanship are other great events for young riders to gain experience.
Kel-Mac shows, held at the Morgan County Agricultural Center, are considered non-rated, meaning they are more casual, less expensive, and do not offer running events. Many rated horse shows charge additional fees for parking, training, and other add-ons. In contrast, Kel-Mac shows have little to no fees and are more reasonably priced. Participation in a regular class is typically $10, while championship classes are $12.
“If you have a couple of kids, or are on a budget, this is a great way to show in a supporting environment that won’t break the bank,” says Marian Finco, a volunteer who also shows horses. This affordable option allows families with multiple children to get involved and learn about horsemanship without a financial burden.
Lexie Reeves, a 16-year-old rider from Madison, has been participating in Kel-Mac shows for ten years. She initially got involved because her trainer, Paige Vaden of Stella Nuova Equestrian, participated in the shows herself as a young rider. After Reeves’ first show in 2011, she says she fell in love with the people and atmosphere at Kel-Mac shows.
“The people who run it are phenomenal,” Reeves says. “It has given me a sense of community. You feel like you are a part of something when you are here.”
The sense of community and support extends way beyond just the participants; members, sponsors, family, and friends all contribute to the success of Kel-Mac shows. The teamwork required to put on such a large-scale event is impressive, as each show typically has around 58 classes and roughly 56 individual participants.
Each of their annual shows are “all breed shows,” meaning there is a wide variety of events and any breed of horse can participate. Rather than focusing on one breed horse, one type of class, or a specific skill level, Kel-Mac aims to include everyone and make people more comfortable in showing.
Lori Williams, an active volunteer and member, describes their shows as casual, fun learning experiences that allow riders of all ages and experience levels to have a good time in a safe environment. One of the most popular classes, offered at the October show, is the Costume Class, in which participants, and their horse, dress up in Halloween costumes
“The biggest thrill is seeing how much fun the kids are having,” Williams says. Creating a casual, supportive atmosphere allows participants to truly have fun and learn from mistakes in a safe, low-stakes environment.
All workers, aside from paid judges, volunteer their time and effort to run shows efficiently, while local businesses offer donations by sponsoring certain events. Each year, Morgan County inmates help set up the jumps for the shows, which can be too heavy for many of the older volunteers. Even parents and supporters get involved by helping move poles and clean up after the shows. Valerie Puryear, volunteer, trail rider, and past president, describes a horse show as a “family affair.”
The generosity of sponsors and volunteers allows Kel-Mac Saddle Club to generate funds for the local communities and organizations. In 2019, the club raised $5,500, of which they divided amongst numerous equestrian organizations voted on by club members at the end of the year.
Their philanthropic efforts do not stop at donations; club members also engage in community betterment projects outside of Madison. Every March, Kel-Mac Saddle Club lends a hand in the Annual Georgia State Park Workday, in which they help clean up and maintain trails. This year, they worked to clean up trails in Oconee County and, in 2015, they constructed a mounting block at Heritage Park for all horses and their riders.
Kel-Mac also works to positively impact the community through numerous recreational and educational activities. In addition to hosting four annual shows, Kel-Mac offers a robust trail riding schedule for both day and overnight trips. On these trips, participants learn riding tips and etiquette guidelines, which prepares them for future horse activities and shows. These trips take place in Georgia and surrounding states.
Rosemary Vogel, the secretary of Kel-Mac, participates in many of these events, and says she loves trail riding and camping. In addition to the beautiful scenery on the trails, Vogel sees immense value in the sport of horseback riding because it teaches discipline and responsibility. Kel-Mac successfully instills these values by combining education and recreation at each show, trip, and meeting.
Monthly meetings are open to the public and typically include some sort of educational aspect, such as a guest speaker or farm tour. These speakers, ranging from veterinarians to saddle fitting experts, provide helpful information for riders and horse enthusiasts. While these meetings started small, they have grown in size; some meetings attracting as many as 30 members. Prior to the pandemic, members and guests gathered at the Oconee County Library to discuss upcoming events, goals, and local needs. Currently the library is closed, so members are getting creative, finding new places to meet that are more suitable to COVID precautions.
Between the horse shows and trail riding activities, there are many ways for people to get involved without becoming a participant or member. However, many of those who show up as guests decide to join the tight-knit community after being welcomed by other members.
“There is a lot of encouragement, fellowship, and being there for each other,” Kloss says.
This fellowship is a common motivation for people to join and stay involved, creating a dense network of committed, passionate people. Trail riding alone is dangerous, so having this community creates opportunities that solo riders may not have. Finco and Puryear both joined the Kel-Mac Saddle Club because they wanted people to trail ride with and they were not disappointed. Rather than simply having someone to ride with, these members gained friends that share their passion.
“We learn about each other, but we also learn about each other’s horse,” says Finco. When a member, participant, or horse is injured or going through a tough situation, Kel-Mac rallies to show support both emotionally and financially. They are more than a club; the Kel-Mac Saddle Club is a family that welcomes everyone into their community, regardless of age or experience.
For more information, visit Kel-Mac Saddle Club on Facebook or attend a show at the Morgan County Agricultural Center, 2268 Athens Hwy, Madison, Ga., on April 10, May 8, Sept. 18, and Oct. 9.