Riding with history, saddle club makes a comeback


As you step through the door into the old classroom you are immediately transported back in time. These walls once told a different story.

Dated glass fixtures hang from a peeling tin ceiling. Simple wooden chairs accompany long tongue-in-groove wood tables in the center of the room while a hodgepodge of display cases filled with lifetimes of trophies and ribbons line the perimeter of the room. Tall nearly windowless walls recall the age of the golden rule when study without distraction was expected. An old slate chalkboard runs the length of one wall head high. A dirty wide planked floor shows signs of the grind by generations of shoes and boots. Two white refrigerators look oddly out of place alongside turn-of-the-century wooden hutches filled with stacks of plain white plates and coffee cups piled high.

Tarnished trophies and dusty ribbons echo back to a time when the St. Croix Riders Saddle Club was a prominent competitor at the Minnesota State Fair. Black and white photos boasting beautifully groomed horses and equally dapper riders testify to the stature of the club in the local horse community. A fixture in local parades and cherished center for social gatherings, the club has existed as a not for profit organization since 1954 after purchasing the Riverside School House for a dollar in 1952

Passersby heading south out of Baldwin on State Highway 63 are likely to have noticed the old schoolhouse in disrepair on the northeast corner at County Road N. Last month, the old building received a loving facelift care of the 25 or so members of the St. Croix Riders Saddle Club. A bright yellow coat of paint with brown trim pays tribute to the building's original colors and to the commitment and camaraderie of the current membership.

"The building and grounds needed some TLC. It took an army of volunteers and some late nights to power wash, scrape, prime and paint the building," said club member Amy Monicken.

In addition to the facelift, the grounds have also undergone an upgrade. A new drainage system has been installed beneath the riding arena and the surface has been regraded to eliminate pooling of water.

Monicken is quick to point out, none of the work could have been accomplished without generous donations from local businesses including Striker's Lanes, Phoenix Grill, Klinkers Korner Bar, Ras' on Main, Dalton Realty and Tri-State Bobcat.

The club initially experienced substantial growth and competitive success in the 1950's and 60's with a membership just south of 100. It also earned a reputation as a formidable competitor at the Minnesota State Fair according to lifetime member Lennie Zillmer.

"We had 86 members at the height of the club in 1956. We had a big square dance and drill team. It used to be a big deal for us to go to the Minnesota State Fair to compete for three to four days against other saddle clubs We competed at the fair every year for 30 years in a row," said Zillmer.

A square dance requires four couples on eight horses plus flags while a drill team requires 21 horses including four flag horses, all numbers the club would have a hard time filling today.

Since its heyday several decades ago, the riding club had experienced a steady decline in membership due to a number of factors including the rising cost to own and maintain a horse and increased competition for a family's time from other sports, activities and technology. Today, the club's 25 or so members would have a hard time mounting a competitive team. However a resurgence in interest in riding particularly by women has the club anticipating brighter days ahead.

"It's a lot of work to show horses. I remember when my sister showed horses here. I didn't appreciate the work my parents put it in behind the scenes until I became a part of this. It makes my heart happy when our show bill has peewee (10 years) to senior (55 years +) classes showing. When you have a little 6-year-old on her pony running barrels and trotting, that's the future of horses and saddle clubs. We're trying to keep that alive and I think horse people get that," said Monicken.

The club prides itself on being a family friendly organization. A club membership for an individual runs $10 per year and for a family $20. Membership entitles you to use of the arena, access to classes and participation in at least four events a season. The club is a member of the Western Saddle Club Association (WSCA) which began in Minnesota and now has members throughout the Midwest. The mission of the WSCA is to promote affordable, local, all breed show opportunities for all ages of horse enthusiasts. By finishing in first or second place in WSCA sanctioned events, competitors can earn their way into the four-day WSCA championship show the last weekend in September.

The St. Croix Club offers a variety of instruction opportunities taught by members often in conjunction with local 4-H clubs in various disciplines including jumping, dressage, gaming, pleasure and trail.

"Our programs go hand-in-hand with 4-H for a lot of families. Our shows are good warm-ups for those kids who show their horses at the county fair. Same events, roughly the same price, same atmosphere and some of the same judges depending on if they cross carry cards for different breeds and 4-H as well," said Club President Jamie Deiss.

The Club's 2018 calendar includes: the Fuzzy Wuzzy Show (with a possible open house for club alumni), May 6; the first WSCA Sanctioned Gaming Show of the season (Speed Event), Mother's Day, Sunday, May 13; a fundraiser for Gillette's Children's Hospital, May 20; The Pleasure and Performance Show July 1; and the 66th Annual Game Show July 4, 2018. To find out about additional shows and learn more about the club visit their Facebook page.

"A great thing about this organization and this club is, people will step up and offer tips and pointers and help. If you forgot your saddle, someone will lend you one. If you don't have the right bit, someone will lend you one," said Deiss.

Surrounded by reminders of a rich history, Monicken and friends are committed to recapturing a bit of that magic. Confident that the future holds better things, they also don't want people to miss the opportunities the club has to offer today.

"We look back at these pictures of 30-plus riders in a parade and as members looking forward, we're hoping to increase our numbers to be able to do the same some day. But right now, we still host shows here every summer and I don't think people are aware of that. Those shows are open to anybody, open to the public and they're free to attend. You don't have to be a member. Horses are a love that not everybody understands, but if you had horses and you grew up with horses, it's a great love."