It was around 3 a.m. and our van was crawling down a section of Interstate 210 at about five miles an hour…on purpose. Usually flooded with typical California traffic, the interstate was quiet now, shut down and transformed into a parking lot for the grand spectacle that was about to take place.
From my spot in the back row of the passenger van, where I sat gripping my large camera, I gazed out the window into the relative darkness as a seemingly endless procession of horse trailers passed through my vision. Our destination was a bit further up the highway – the brightest part, where two semi-trailers and eleven horses were parked between a pair of floodlights. This was the Scripps Miramar Ranch staging area for the 129th Rose Parade. And I was here to cover it.
My invitation to the Rose Parade had come at Louisville, when Melissa Moore invited me to tag along with her and her sister Melinda as they participated in the Rose Parade for the second time. While I don’t really follow football, even I knew that the Rose Parade, held in Pasadena the morning of the Rose Bowl, was a very big deal, and most importantly, that Saddlebred legend Michele Macfarlane’s Scripps Miramar Ranch participated annually. So I said yes immediately, contacted Michele, and began making the proper arrangements.
Melissa had made the process relatively easy for me with an invitation to stay with her and Joe O’Brien at Joe’s beautiful house in La Quinta, even picking me up at the airport in Palm Springs. When I got off the plane I was charmed by the adorable airport and – coming from single digit temperatures in Missouri – thrilled with the sunny and mid-70s weather. I enjoyed a lovely first evening there with Melissa and Joe, Melinda, Melinda’s husband Rusty and his daughter Courtney before the parade excitement began the following day.
Our preparations began early on Sunday. After picking up my Rose Parade press pass in Pasadena, we drove on to Burbank, where we would be spending the night. Though I have been working as a journalist in the show horse industry officially for seven years, and unofficially since I was 8 years old, there is still a little horse loving kid that lives inside of me, and she couldn’t believe she was taking a road trip and sharing gummy bears with the Moore sisters. I did my best to not pepper them with questions. But yes, they knew CH Yorktown. And yes, they thought my beloved Yorktown baby, Super Town, sounded sweet.
Unable to check into our hotel so early, we spent the afternoon dining and shopping in Burbank before meeting High Spirits trainers Jim and Fay Lowry, who happened to be in town for the game, for an early dinner at a nearby steakhouse – early because we had to get up at 2 a.m. the following morning.
I’m not a morning person, but I know how to be one if I have to; years of horse shows will do that to you. Either they were all morning people or that must have been the case with most of the riders, because the crew that met in the hotel lobby that morning was remarkably awake.
Kevin Michael, a close friend of Michele’s, who has been participating in the parade for many years, arrived to pick us up in the van at 2:45 and drove us to the equine staging area along the interstate. When I stepped out of the van into the chilly early morning air, I was immediately in awe of the scale of it all. Out of this little slice of interstate, just under an overpass, Michele and her crew had built an entire world. As its foundation were the two trailers, parked “head to tail,” floodlights at each end illuminating the eleven horses that stood saddled between them, only the silver breast collars visible from beneath the coolers slung over their backs.
Though the weather had been in the 70s the day before, and would be again later that day, I was wearing a borrowed fleece of Melissa’s under my ski jacket and visibly aware of every breath I took. As dawn crept closer and the temperature continued to drop I became increasingly grateful for the fleece. Apparently it’s not just darkest before the dawn; it’s coldest then, too.
Though the hotel crew had arrived at the staging area around 3 a.m., those who came with the horses arrived the night before and celebrated New Year’s Eve on the highway. Luckily there was coffee and all sorts of food to warm us up. Michele had thought of everything, including a dining area with table, chairs, grill and more. Jim Vantrease had cooked dinner for the crew the night before, and Craig Clapp took over the grill that morning to prepare a delicious breakfast of eggs, hash browns and English muffins. I enjoyed mine while walking among the horses and handlers and observing the preparations.
There were the normal things, things show exhibitors are used to: hoof black, baby oil, Show Sheen, show touch up spray. But then there were the things unique to the parade culture: the antique silver saddles, the bridles that weigh ten pounds each, the handmade carnation flower blankets, the Driltec or Borium applied to each horse’s shoes to prevent slipping – an official requirement of the parade for all equine entries.
But the preparations I was seeing were just the last minute ones. It takes about two weeks to get everything ready, however Michele has had a lot of practice. The Rose Parade has been a longstanding tradition in her family, and she rode in her first Rose Parade in 1962. She hasn’t participated every single year, because when she was at the height of her show career she simply didn’t have time. But there is something about it that keeps drawing her back.
“I love pintos and I love riding in parades,” she told me. “It’s kind of a New Year’s celebration for me. I used to do it with my family. Now that I don’t have so much family it’s actually even more fun because I’m doing it with my Saddlebred family.”
Each year Michele comes up with a different theme. While last year’s equine entries dressed as racehorses and riders as jockeys, this year Michele returned to more classic parade attire. However, she wanted to retain the bright colors.
“I tried this year to have lots of different colors,” she said.
This became apparent as the riders climbed into the trailer dressing rooms and emerged in their parade attire – though the colorful shirts were quickly covered up by warm outer layers, which would be worn until right before the start of the parade.
The hours ticked by, and as 6:30 drew closer the grooms and helpers began bridling the horses and then adorning each of them with a flower blanket. Though my press pass gave me access to Press Stand 2 along the parade route, upon arrival I had been told that I could probably walk along with the horses if I wanted to – and I definitely wanted to. So when the riders mounted and headed down the road to get into position, I walked with them. I was wearing a very flat-soled pair of lace up boots, which were definitely not the shoes I would’ve chosen to walk in for eight miles, but I wasn’t about to pass up this opportunity.
The eleven horses and riders who participated in the parade this year were: Michele on How The West Was Won, Melissa on Connie, Melinda on Winsdown Bridlewood, Carson Kressley on Flurry, Dena Lopez on CH Doctor Zhivago, Don Trunk on Prince, Kayce Reiner on Tobasco, Savanna Miller on Blue, Susie Robinson on Buttercup, Eric Antman on Sea Of Cortez and Austin Eversman on Smoke’s Zoom Zoom.
Three “outwalkers” also walked along to ensure the safety of both the horses and riders – Craig Clapp, Kent Moeller and Wilber Amaya. Despite the parade employees along the route directing traffic, I would’ve had no idea where to go, but Craig did. I stuck close to him as he directed our group down the still-dark streets of Pasadena – streets full of traffic. As I watched all eleven horses stop and stand behind an idling bus, in the glow of the headlights from a half-dozen cars behind them, my heart swelled with pride at their bravery.
We crossed a bridge, took a left turn and began a long climb up a hill through a beautiful residential neighborhood lined with palm trees. Then we waited. Mounted police units, horses pulling carts, groups of humans on foot jingled and jangled their way by, and still our horses stood there.
We inched closer to Orange Grove Boulevard, where the parade would start, and that is when I met Debbie Uecker-Keough. She had also come to photograph the event, and assured me that as long as we dodged out of the street just before the block with all the television cameras, no one would bother us or prevent us from walking. That settled it: I was definitely walking along. Except, unlike Debbie who would stop mid-route, since the Scripps Miramar group was my ride home, I would be walking the whole way.
As we waited just off Orange Grove Boulevard, parade-goers occasionally passed by and admired the beauty of our horses. When one little girl and her mother stopped to look at CH Doctor Zhivago, from whom Dena had recently dismounted, Craig took the opportunity to do a little Saddlebred PR, calling out: “Dena, put this girl up on your horse and get a picture!” To the girl’s delight, Dena lifted her aboard, giving her not just an experience aboard a beautiful Saddlebred horse, but a World’s Champion one at that!
The Scripps Miramar group was to be the 22nd group in line, and when it was their turn the riders shed their outer layers and stepped out onto the official parade route to find that they were positioned directly behind the car carrying Tournament of Roses President Lance Tibbet, and just in front of a large float. As we waited in position, I found that parades are not unlike horse shows when it comes to the classic adage, “hurry up and wait.” It seemed like another hour went by before the traditional stealth bomber streaked across the sky signaling the official start of the parade, and the horses finally stepped off.
The first thing that struck me as the parade began was the jovial, friendly atmosphere of the crowd. People weren’t just cheering, they were constantly calling out “Happy New Year!” And it sounded as if they really meant it. Many yelled out to Carson particularly, who rode the ever-prancing Flurry at the head of the column. At one point the crowd even began chanting Michele’s name.
I’ve watched many a parade class at a horse show, and I understand now why the requirements include a “parade gait” and a lot of stopping, because our group did both. The most impressive part was that they did it all with horns blowing, people yelling, music coming from all directions and a large float behind them. At one point people even began shooting silly string at the horses, but they remained unfazed.
Rather than walking, Debbie and I ran much of the parade route, scurrying ahead of the horses so we had time to stop, turn and position our cameras for their approach, then run ahead again. Our biggest sprint of the day took place when the parade made a right-hand turn onto Colorado Boulevard and we had to run out and around the block to avoid all the television cameras. I’m told I still managed to make it on camera somehow, but I haven’t seen proof of that! The horses, however, made it onto numerous television stations, including NBC, KTLA, RFD-TV, HGTV and Hallmark, and were on display to the 1 million live spectators as well.
But all that promotion is hard work. Though everyone was having a great time, the parade is long – much longer than I expected. The route is five and a half miles, but the constant stopping doubled the time it took to walk. By midway through, the riders’ arms were getting tired of waving and their bodies hurt from the beautiful, antique but not entirely comfortable silver parade saddles. My feet were getting tired, and with all of the running I was doing I was starting to regret my ski jacket as the temperature neared 70.
Everyone knew that the next turn would be a left one, onto Sierra Madre Boulevard, and that this turn would signal the impending end of the parade route. By mid-parade, “Do you see the left turn?” was a common question among riders and among those of us on the ground. So you can imagine how everyone felt when, as we thought we were approaching the turn, some spectators along the side of the road held up a sign that read, “You’re 1/2 way there!”
But the sign was a joke, the left turn arrived, and the horses, riders and outwalkers finished the parade in style. The trailers had been moved to the end of the parade route, and once the horses finished the route they were funneled through a chain link fence and cut across a large, open parking lot to make their way back to them.
The riders, sore but exhilarated, dismounted, and everyone began pitching in to take care of the horses – untacking them, braiding up tails, offering them water –while enjoying the traditional post-parade meal of In-N-Out Burger.
As the horses were finally loaded into the trailers and the humans sank, exhausted, back into their vehicles and prepared to head home, I was still in awe of the magnitude of what Michele and the group she had put together had just accomplished. I knew that it was an image that would be forever fixed into my mind. Marching down Colorado Boulevard with ears and tails up, the Saddlebreds had looked and behaved beautifully. And it wasn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that the whole world had seen it.