Young girl overcomes grief to win at Routt County Fair |

Young girl overcomes grief to win at Routt County Fair

John F. Russell
Caroline McLaughlin kisses her horse Toso after winning the blue ribbon in junior showmanship at the Routt County Fair Monday.
John F. Russell

— Winning the Junior Showmanship Class at this year’s Routt County Fair is something that 11-year-old Caroline McLaughlin has been thinking about since last year’s 4-H horse show.

So on Monday when it was announced that she had won her class in showmanship at the 4-H Western Horse Show for the third time in as many years, her brightly colored braces were exposed by one of the biggest grins ever seen in Hayden as she left the arena.

This hadn’t been the day she had expected at the start of the summer, but it is one she will remember forever.

Her smile and the pride that powered her steps as she left the arena had nothing to do with the ribbons she earned for winning but were more about what she was able to overcome in the two weeks leading up to the competition.

“He knew that he had done his job … he knew that he had done what he needed to do for me,” Caroline said of the horse she had won the last two fair competitions with. Sadly this year, her 18-year-old horse Zip was not at her side.

The horse that Caroline describes as her best friend and a member of the family died just two weeks ago after the trailer he was riding in with three other horses flipped onto its side in an accident. The other horses survived, but Zip did not.

When her mom called with the news, Caroline was devastated. It was the first horse that she had called her own, and Zip had been one of her closest companions from the moment her parents gave him to her three years ago as a birthday present.

“I didn’t really want to do it,” Caroline said of competing in this year’s fair. “But my mom told me I had to because that was the best way to honor Zip. Getting ready and competing at the fair helped me realize that even though he’s not here, it felt like he was. I was able to win for him and for my whole family. I needed to prove to myself, and to everyone else, that I could do it even though it just happened.”

It wasn’t easy, but Caroline decided to compete using her jumping horse Toso. She said the two horses have very different personalities and different strengths in the arena. Toso brings a youthful energy, while Zip’s calm nature and presence made him perfect in the showmanship event.

Caroline said at first the grief of losing Zip was overwhelming, but as she continued to work with Toso, she felt her late horse’s spirit guiding her, which she said gave her the strength to push through the pain to a new goal.

“I wanted to win this year for Zip,” Caroline said. “Winning was special because it felt like he was with me every step of the way. He knew that I won for him, and I knew that I won for him. It’s not the ribbon so much but just winning for him.”

Caroline’s mom Lauren said her daughter’s connection with Zip was enduring.

“She had a special connection with Zip — this was a big, big loss for her,” Lauren said. “She was unsure about the fair this year, but she needed to do it and see that she could work though the grief. I couldn’t be prouder. She is one very resilient girl.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966

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