We Survived the Milk Run!

(pictures will be added soon)

At a glance, the Atlas reveals the province of Manitoba stretching far north, a vast territory splashed with hundreds of lakes. Because of dense bush and rocky terrain, the bulk of the population is concentrated in the south, within 200 miles of the 49th parallel. Southern Manitoba is primarily made up of farmland for both livestock and cereal &/or specialty crops, dotted with small communities and a handful of towns and cities. With recent advances in technology agricultural practices have changed, resulting in larger farms but also the demise of many small communities and with them, the loss of their small country fairs. This is not true, however, of a rather peculiar phenomenon known as "The Milk Run", which continues to occur after well over 60 years of existence, now involving 2nd, 3rd and 4th generations of participants.

What is the Milk Run? you ask. That's easy. It's a series of 6 small fairs that takes place in Southwestern Manitoba from Monday to Saturday during the 3rd week of July, with a few other fairs tacked on either end of the week. The entire core route, from start to finish, is less than 100 miles long. Approximately 200 head of horses and cattle, along with their owners, handlers, riders, drivers and families complete part of, if not the whole circuit each summer.

Why the title "The Milk Run"? Not such an easy question! No one seems to know for sure; even those who traveled it as youngsters 65 years ago speculate on the origin of the name. Perhaps in the early days there were many dairy cattle that needed to be milked on route. Or perhaps, like the extra income provided by milking a few extra cows on the small farms, this was a source of extra income for families when they gathered a little prize money for their award winning stock. Regardless of the origin of the name, it is still as popular as ever and in recent years, Miniature Horses have become an increasingly prevalent fixture on the Milk Run.

During the previous weekend, fairs at Carman, Cypress River, and Minnedosa to name a few, each provide a warm up for the Milk Run. Then on Sunday, those who are determined once again to tackle the Milk Run converge on the village of Oak River, population of *, to begin the adventure. Accommodations range from lavish motor homes to smaller campers, tent trailers, horse trailers with living quarters, utility trailers, air mattresses in the noses of the stock trailers or tents. Economics doesn't dictate entitlement to participate. Methods of travel include both striking Featherlites with their "home away from home" as well as trailers manufactured/adapted with the farm welder. Near the end of the week some choose to go home early for a much-needed rest, while others break off from the route and head north to Gilbert Plains and then on to Swan River for the following week. Regardless of the start or finish, there is a rhythm to the week that remains constant.

Some years when it seemed to rain every day, we bravely drained water out of rubber boots, used a hair dryer plugged into the outlet on the side of a building to dry hats, and dressed in slightly damp clothing in order to be ready in time to show, all the while dodging rain showers, and even on one occasion, halting the show long enough to let the passing thunder and hail storm pass over. That year we even threatened to have T-shirts made proudly claiming "We survived the Rain Run!"

Close to 30 miniature horses along with their owner families covered the route this past July. The experience was unmatched and the camaraderie and friendships experienced have been described as akin to an extended family coming together once again, or like a much anticipated school reunion. Others depict it like going to the cottage for the summer, where you meet up with your summer community, or like going to camp again. Regardless of how it is portrayed, the experience was once again remarkable.

On Monday, with a background of blue sky reaching down to a mustard yellow canola field, we woke up to a field of mud left by the previous night's rain. Everyone scurried to rid their entries and themselves of the local soil samples in time for their classes in the newly mowed grass ring. Before we knew it, the day was over and we were moving in a self-formed caravan across the countryside to the next destination 15 miles away at Strathclair, where we hit the showers, and settled in for the night.

In the morning midway through the halter classes, we stopped the horse show for a few minutes to take a group picture of all the Miniature Horses on the grounds. Later we moved over to the performance ring where exhibitors received honks of encouragement from travelers on the adjacent highway. While many exhibitors chose to remain at Strathclair on Tuesday night and travel on in the morning, most of the Miniature Horse exhibitors moved 10 miles up the road to Shoal Lake to set up camp for the night.

Wednesday's show proved to be a test of nerves and grit, when we shared the large performance ring with the draft horse exhibitors, separated by a few traffic cones. Imagine the thoughts going through our little guys' minds when motoring along a few yards from those thundering giants. The Miniatures proved their stability and tolerance, although some of their saddle counterparts skittishly side-passed away from the action. In the evening, once again the procession moved, this time to Hamiota, 30 miles south. Once the horse were bedded and settled into the one-time swine barn, with pens-turned-mini box stalls, (the most luxurious horse accommodation of the week, I might add), the kids all headed to the community swimming pool, just a block from the barns. The rest of us huddled around in a circle, wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags on this unusually cool evening, eating Sunflower Seeds, swapping tales of Rod Hart's horse breaking escapades, and drinking Bernice's Gerrard's hot coffee. It seems that the kids were able somehow to keep warm with their keep-away and tag games at the pool!

Thursday's show was strictly a Miniature Horse Show, apart from the open horse show. We had our own show ring, judge, fun events and even a curtained backdrop with planters for picture taking, thanks to the hard work of Lottie Fenty. Lots of good-natured challenges were tossed about, and many people who don't own miniatures had a chance to borrow a horse and take part in Cart and Halter Obstacle, Cart and Halter Pole Bending, and Barrel Racing. When the classes were done, Jolie, Brody, Rhiley, Darryl, and a few other teenagers created entertainment for us all with their water fights. That evening, most stayed at Hamiota, and moved on to the hamlet of Harding, 12 miles down the road in the morning. Harding is indeed the smallest community of all, yet it sports a livestock show equivocal to the rest, due to it's cherished location on the map.

Others moved northward to Gilbert Plains for their weekend show where they met up with other miniature breeders from that area. On Saturday, the shows at Oak Lake, 30 miles south of Harding and at Gilbert Plains, brought the excursion to an end for those who had made it for the long haul.

Once again the Milk Run is but a memory, a topic for reminiscent conversation, a unique happening. Once experienced, never forgotten!!

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