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Beltrami County Fair: Animals for show, animals to heal

Third-grader Kayley Thomas works with her heifer "Gabby" on Thursday afternoon in preparation of judging this morning at the Beltrami County Fair. This will be the first time she has shown a animal at the county fair. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 2
Kristine Kobernic of SOSER poses Thursday with her miniature horse, Mocha, at the Beltrami County Fair. Currently in training, Mocha will soon become a therapy horse. SOSER aims to promote equine welfare, as well as coaching horses to aid the community as service and therapy animals. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer2 / 2

BEMIDJI - There's something a little delightful about the steady din and erratic activity that a county fair encompasses.

This year's annual Beltrami County Fair seemed no different Thursday: shrieking children chased each other through dusty paths, as that oddly familiar smell of manure mixed with fried food wafted in the air for presenters and spectators alike.

Goats bleated, hens cooed, and horses snorted and whinnied at their owners while they were groomed for their showings the following day.

In the beef barn, Kayley Thomas could be seen holding her show cow tentatively, slowly leading the junior yearling in circles as practice for her 4H presentation.

"See how she moves its feet with that stick?" asked Kayley's mother, Jody Thomas.

Jody and her family have been a part of 4H since she was a young girl.

"I started in third grade, and that's how old Kayley is now," Jody said,

The oldest of three, this is Kayley's first year showing her cow, Gabby. Jody Thomas remarked that the bond between the two is quite strong.

"Kayley saw the little spot of white on the cow's nose when she was still a baby and said, 'I want to show that calf,'" Jody said.

Not all animals are brought to the fair for competition, however.

Tucked in the corner of the fair's kiddie barn stood Kristine Kobernic and her two miniature horses, Chino and Mocha.

As charming as miniature horses are, it soon became apparent that their job exceeded that of merely looking cute. They act as service horses.

Kobernic, founder and executive director of Save Our Souls Equine Rescue (SOSER), has spent years rescuing miniature horses and training them for adoptive homes or to help at facilities, events, and personal homes through Animal Assisted Therapy.

As far as training programs for miniature horses goes, "We're it," Kobernic said.

Training her horses like seeing-eye-dogs, Kobernic has been able to teach them a wide variety of tasks, ranging from the basics of potty-training to supporting and leading the blind.

"It began as a part-time thing," she laughed. "And has now become my main post."

Because of the needed security of highly trained service horses, Kobernic's life is immersed with one-on-one instruction to ensure quality training.

"We don't let anything leave untrained," Kobernic stated, "It's a long process."

Over the past three years, SOSER has successfully prepared 30 miniature horses that were previously in need of rescue for service, and in some cases, therapy.

A nonprofit organization, SOSER is looking to expand.

"We're hoping to start training apprentices," Kobernic said. "We need more space."

For now, though, the glee of young children reaching over the bars to brush their hands through a mini-mane was enough for Kobernic.