Growing up, the county fair was like a second home to me. I have seen myself grow up on the wood shavings that filled the livestock barn and often tickled my nose. To first-grade Hailey, there was nothing more magical than a big kid with a dairy cow strutting in that well-known ring, and even better, receiving the brightest blue ribbon and the coveted gold trophy.
The county fair dairy show has a clear-cut rhythm to it. Saturday is the animal classes, going from spring calf all the way up to aged cow. That is the day that I sat on the frigid, stiff bleachers and surveyed the sights around me as the parade took place in the ring with awe. Sunday was my big day. That was when the Little Britches show happened. Little Britches is for kids in their first year of the dairy project to get a taste of the ring. I was bouncing off the walls-or the barn, so to speak-about my shot to win a trophy.
That bright, blue Sunday morning, the sun hit the horizon by six. My mom came into my room to wake me up, although she didn’t need to; I had been up for hours rehearsing my thank you speech to all of my adoring fans. I was determined to win the ribbon. My mother sat me down on her bed and tied my hair away from my face in two pigtails on the back of my head right above the ears. My attire was that of a true dairy princess. I was clothed in Hello Kitty cowgirl boots, white jeans that were two inches too long, a white ruffled shirt, and a harness with my number: 108.
I got to the fair that day and pranced my way straight to the calf that I got to call my own: Ellie. Ellie and I had a distinct bond like no other. She was one of the only red-and-white calves born on the Holstein farm and boy, was she striking! Recognizing her rambunctious spirit, she fit right into the jolting rhythm of a 6-year-old’s steps. Anywhere I walked, she walked.
I soon got to the customary chores of brushing and washing her, I delicately plucked pieces of hay out of her glossy red coat and gave her a kiss on the head. All of the hours I spent leading her in circles in the sizzling summer sun were finally coming to their conclusion as the show was minutes away. I seized Ellie’s halter and my dad took my hand. We walked to the ring, and suddenly, it seemed ten times grander than it had appeared from the outside. When my name was called, I lifted my head and Ellie’s head high and paraded my bovine companion onto the fresh shavings. We walked like the perfect pair, our hearts seemingly beat in sync to every step we took. I walked up to the judge with confidence in my heart and a sparkle in my eye, ready to answer any question he had for me.
“What is the birthday of your calf, Miss Hailey?”
Suddenly, I forgot what I had spent all summer trying to memorize. I turned and peeked at her ear tag. Right. Two days after mine.
“December 28,” I said with pint-sized hesitation.
He smiled, handed me a kaleidoscopic-colored ribbon, and sent me on my way. I got out of the ring and beamed so hard my face hurt. I won! Little did I know it was just a participation award, but that didn’t matter at all. I had sauntered through the ring solo, answered my question right, and got a ribbon almost as big as my excitement.
This simple day filled with simple pleasures started a domino effect. The next year, I came back and was signed up to be in the big kid show. This one experience led to over ten more years of walking those shavings.
Nine years, 36 seasons, and 3,285 days had passed since the first day I led a calf. Once again, I was all dressed up in my rugged cowgirl boots, crisp white jeans, a pressed white polo, and my number on my back: 247. I was about to walk in the ring with a 1,400-pound cow by my side and I couldn’t feel more at home. The cow I was showing that day has a special place in my heart. I have brought her to the fair every year since she was old enough to walk. I grew up with her and she grew up with me. Number 3451, or Aiden, as I had so fittingly named her, was an animal friend that only came around once in a lifetime.
“Fourteen-year-old showmanship class is entering the ring now,” the announcer blared across the fairgrounds.
I took a step into the ring with my chin up. I had never won first place before, but I was confident that this cow, this year would be the one to win it with me.
I was always told to take slow, thoughtful steps while facing my animal. Turning my body 90 degrees clockwise, I was now looking into the big brown eyes of Aiden.
“We can do this,” I whispered into her freshly clipped ear, which perked up when the words hit her eardrum.
She responded with a typical slobbery kiss that I have grown to appreciate. Shortly after the pep talk, we began walking. I followed the cow in front of me and was mindful of each of my actions, I knew the judge was looking at everything I was doing.
After a suspenseful ten minutes of circling the judge and answering questions such as “How old is she?” and “How many calves has she had,” the time had finally come for the lineup to be made. I knew the first person she called to line up would be the winner. My heart fluttered as she looked at me and then to another girl and then back at me. Back to her. Back to me. Finally, she stopped at me and motioned for Aiden and me to move. Without even having time to think, I took in her order and relocated into the first place spot as fast my feet could take me. Aiden swiftly followed along without question. The judge slowly lined everyone up after me and then promptly grabbed the microphone.
“I placed this cow in first because of how she holds herself and how balanced she is,” the judge recited over the loudspeaker.
Before I knew it, a trophy was placed into my hand. It fit perfectly. As my grand march out of the ring began, I kissed Aiden on the forehead, took a deep breath in, and made my way out into the fresh air.
The stroll to the barn was one of the best walks I have ever taken. I made sure that I held that trophy in a position so that every person passing by could admire it from. I had achieved my greatest goal and I was not going to let it slip by before I relished each step.
To this day, that shiny gold and red trophy sits upon a shelf in my room. That was the day when all of my hard work for the past nine years paid off. All of the hours that I had put in at the Dado Family Farm every summer was not wasted. I had finally won a trophy.
I just completed my ninth year of showing dairy. The feeling of winning is nothing compared to the feeling of knowing that I have become a greater person through this journey. Lessons learned in that ring will stay with me for a lifetime. I have felt love for these cows that I have never felt before. The friends I have met through the dairy project will stay with me for a lifetime. I would have never met my best friend, Rachel, if I hadn’t decided to take that leap of faith and stumble into the ring ten years ago. There is no greater place to learn patience than on the end of a frayed rope halter, looking into the eyes of an animal, and in those eyes, I have found a piece of myself that I never knew I was missing.