SALEM, Ohio — The Canfield Fair is full of history, and the chapter devoted to harness racing would definitely include the story of Betty Vernon.
But Betty Vernon doesn’t just attend the fair. The 80-year-old has worked as an outrider for the harness racing for 59 years and hasn’t missed a Canfield Fair yet — even after four strokes and a round of chemotherapy.
Vernon was honored at the 2014 Canfield Fair with a bench dedicated to her service to the horsemen and harness racing. And she is proud to say it is the only bench on the fairgrounds that does not say “courtesy of” or is dedicated in someone’s memory.
Vernon worked for George Berlin, who served as the superintendent of harness racing at the Canfield Fair for 30 years.
“Whenever she (Vernon) had something to do, you just forget it. It meant it would be done and it would be done early,” said Berlin.
Berlin said the harness racers and everyone involved appreciated her hard work, kindness and dedication to the fair year after year.
Love affair begins
Vernon said she started riding horses in the 1940s and she was immediately devoted to her horse and the thrill of riding. Then 59 years ago, she learned the outrider for the harness racing at the Columbiana County Fair was quitting. Someone made the call and asked her if she would be interested.
Vernon admits that when she started, she has no idea what the position entailed.
“I was just told I had to be a quick learner,” said Vernon, and off she went to the fairs.
After she did it at the Columbiana County Fair, she was asked to perform the same duties at the Canfield Fair that same year.
The outrider is the person who leads horses to the post on the race track, helps to turn them around when they decide they would rather go the opposite direction, and catches the occasional runaway horse.
“It’s been too long in years, but too short in time,” said Vernon as she thinks back on the years and memories made at the Canfield Fair.
Vernon said it’s not a once-a-year thing for her, and she’s involved with harness racing throughout the year.
In addition to being the outrider for the horses, she is also responsible for restoring the number pads worn on the race horses.
The job is something Vernon takes seriously. She is very proud when the harness racers tell her how nice the number pads are when compared to other fairs.
Vernon goes through the piles of number pads every year and makes sure the straps are not frayed and that the snaps work on the pads, which makes it easier for them to suit up for race time and ensures the horse doesn’t get any sores or marks from the race pads.
Besides, Canfield, she also works as an outrider for the Coshocton County Fair and cares for their number pads as well.
Vernon said she wonders sometimes who will take it over when she is unable to sew the pads any longer. But for now, she is happy to make sure the pads are ready for race day at the fairs.
Vernon’s love of riding hasn’t faded over the years either.
Today, Vernon is still riding her horse at age 80. Her current steed is Dusty, a 5-year-old bay trick horse she has trained. Dusty can sit down, lay down, walk like a drunk person and blow kisses.
Vernon rescued Dusty from a bad beginning, as she did with her three Chinese Crested dogs. She said rescues are the only way to go for her.
Vernon said she hasn’t had just one good horse, she’s had a lifetime of good horses. She added when people say that they have a bad horse, it’s usually not the horse that is bad, but the training the horse has received that is bad.
“Like dogs — there is no bad dogs. It’s about the training you give the animals,” said Vernon.
Friends for life
Vernon is quick to tell people how much her friends, especially her horse friends, mean to her and how they help her to keep going.
“I always wanted to be around horses. I love to keep going. I don’t think they expected me to be around this long,” said Vernon.
Vernon said she wouldn’t still be going to the fairs and rodeos if it wasn’t for her horse friends and for that she is grateful.
And it’s is the people across several generations who lure her back to the fairs every year.
“I’ve made so many friends over the past 60 years,” said Vernon. “I can’t begin to acknowledge all of them.”
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