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A Barrel of Fun in Grafton: Volunteers Bring Long-Dormant Riding Arena Back to Life

  • Karla Champney of Canaan, N.H., guides her horse Impy, ridden by Champney's daughter Aubrey Meyveagaci, 5, through a turn during the barrel racing event at the Grafton Family Riding Club arena in Grafton, N.H., on June 1, 2014. Meyveagaci was the youngest rider and the only entrant in the Lead/Peewee division at the show. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Karla Champney of Canaan, N.H., guides her horse Impy, ridden by Champney's daughter Aubrey Meyveagaci, 5, through a turn during the barrel racing event at the Grafton Family Riding Club arena in Grafton, N.H., on June 1, 2014. Meyveagaci was the youngest rider and the only entrant in the Lead/Peewee division at the show. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Erin Simard, 14, of Warner, N.H., braided the mane of her Arabian paint horse Isaih, waiting between events at the Grafton Family Riding Club arena in Grafton, N.H., on June 1, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Erin Simard, 14, of Warner, N.H., braided the mane of her Arabian paint horse Isaih, waiting between events at the Grafton Family Riding Club arena in Grafton, N.H., on June 1, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Cassie Clark, 6, of Cornish, N.H., puts a hat on her family's Morgan horse Star, held by Clark's cousin Brianna Loveless, 13, at the Grafton Family Riding Club arena in Grafton, N.H., on June 1, 2014. The cousins both rode Star during the day's competition. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Cassie Clark, 6, of Cornish, N.H., puts a hat on her family's Morgan horse Star, held by Clark's cousin Brianna Loveless, 13, at the Grafton Family Riding Club arena in Grafton, N.H., on June 1, 2014. The cousins both rode Star during the day's competition. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Shauntee Currier of Salisbury, N.H., finishes her ride during the arrow race event at a show at the Grafton Family Riding Club arena in Grafton, N.H., on June 1, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Shauntee Currier of Salisbury, N.H., finishes her ride during the arrow race event at a show at the Grafton Family Riding Club arena in Grafton, N.H., on June 1, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Karla Champney of Canaan, N.H., guides her horse Impy, ridden by Champney's daughter Aubrey Meyveagaci, 5, through a turn during the barrel racing event at the Grafton Family Riding Club arena in Grafton, N.H., on June 1, 2014. Meyveagaci was the youngest rider and the only entrant in the Lead/Peewee division at the show. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Erin Simard, 14, of Warner, N.H., braided the mane of her Arabian paint horse Isaih, waiting between events at the Grafton Family Riding Club arena in Grafton, N.H., on June 1, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Cassie Clark, 6, of Cornish, N.H., puts a hat on her family's Morgan horse Star, held by Clark's cousin Brianna Loveless, 13, at the Grafton Family Riding Club arena in Grafton, N.H., on June 1, 2014. The cousins both rode Star during the day's competition. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Shauntee Currier of Salisbury, N.H., finishes her ride during the arrow race event at a show at the Grafton Family Riding Club arena in Grafton, N.H., on June 1, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

Grafton — The riding arena in Grafton’s Williams Recreation Field sat empty for 15 years, with grass and trees growing up through the dirt in the center of the ring.

But on Sunday, the arena bustled with two dozen riders and their horses speeding around barrels and racing against the clock, one pair at a time.

The arena’s revitalization is the result of the efforts of the nonprofit Grafton Family Riding Club.

Canaan resident Karla Champney, one of the club’s founders, said she grew up riding in Grafton.

With tears in her eyes, she spoke fondly of her first horse, Bandit, a “blue ribbon horse” who “won me so many things” and lived to the age of 30.

Champney said she was motivated to restore the Grafton ring when her daughter, Aubrey Meyveagaci, turned 5 last year.

Champney pointed out that most of the schools in the area do not have equestrian clubs, and while many people in the region own horses, they may not have the means to travel around New England to show them.

Munching on french fries between games, Aubrey said her favorite part of riding is that “I get to run really fast.”

Aubrey’s great-aunt Becky Moffatt, 40, a Grafton resident, agreed that it’s “something about the speed” that draws her to the sport.

To prepare for the 2014 season, the Grafton Family Riding Club spent every Sunday last August sprucing things up, said Champney.

They cleared the arena of trees and grass, groomed the dirt surface, repaired rotten boards in the wooden fence surrounding the ring, built an entrance chute and painted the fence and the announcer’s booth. To raise the $800 necessary to purchase a timer, the group hosted a fundraiser at the arena last fall.

The club also received approval from the National Barrel Horse Association to host events in which participants will have a chance to earn money and points toward possible participation in a world championship qualifier in Georgia.

Sunday’s show included six games, known as gymkhana: speed barrel, arrow race, barrel race, big ‘M’, keyhole and pole bending.

Each involved a different pattern of barrels for horses and riders to negotiate by making quick, tight turns without knocking down the barrels.

Darlene Remacle of Canaan brought her granddaughter to participate.

She said the games help young riders learn balance, steering and control.

Liz Clark, a Cornish resident, said she likes gymkhana shows because they are “more relaxed” than dressage and also “more fun,” with an emphasis on family.

Sunday’s show was the second gymkhana event in which Clark’s daughter, Cassie, 6, has participated.

Jennifer Elliott and Tom Pappalardo cheered and shouted pointers from the sidelines when they weren’t riding on Sunday.

The two train horses and riders at their co-owned Steeldust Farm in Campton, N.H. Many of Sunday’s riders had taken lessons at Steeldust and many of the horses had been trained there.

Champney described Pappalardo as a “barrel racing guru.”

The respect appeared to be mutual as Pappalardo said those gathered were a “bunch of good people.”

He said he enjoys watching his students beat him.

There were four youth and two adult categories on Sunday, allowing beginner and advanced riders of all ages to compete against others of their skill level.

“Beginners can be winners,” said Elliott.

Winners on Sunday included Aubrey riding Impy in the Lead/Pee Wee Division; Chloe Crate riding Scai in the Walk/Trot Division; Briana Loveless riding Star in the Youth Beginner Division; Brooke MacDuffie riding Gus in the Youth Advanced Division; Ahmet Meyveagaci riding Peppy in the Adult Beginner Division and Shauntee Currier riding Gus in the Adult Advanced Division.

The Grafton Family Riding Club still has a few kinks to work out before its next show on June 29.

The power company installed the power meter on the wrong pole and couldn’t make it back to move it before Sunday’s show, said Champney.

The noise of a generator near the ring all but drowned out the sound of Kate Widman announcing the show on Sunday, but Champney said the power situation should be resolved by the 29th.

The group also awaits the arrival of a set of bleachers.

On Sunday, members of the audience brought their own chairs or leaned against the wooden fence for support.

Most onlookers, however, simply seemed happy to watch the show on the sunny June day.

Stephanie Voight Senter and her grandson, Gage, stood at the fence line.

“I love horses,” said Senter. “It’s nice to see it (the arena) being used again.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.