Photo by Chris Mortenson

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Erin Naas was born obsessed with horses.

From the time she could walk or talk, Naas and her mom attended Mommy and Me riding lessons in her home state of California.

“I would ride sassy, little bad ponies and she would trot along next to us, leading me,” says Naas with a laugh. “That’s how I started, and I’ve ridden ever since.”

A supermodel and actress, Naas has shown horses and competed throughout her years in Los Angeles and North Scottsdale, where she currently resides. Her love is Arabian horses.

Horse owners like Naas will show their Arabians at the 65th annual Arabian Horse Show from Thursday, February 13, to Sunday, February 23, at WestWorld of Scottsdale.

The show brings to WestWorld more than 2,400 Arabian horses, all of whom will vie for the title of Scottsdale Champion, with more than $3 million in prize money handed out.

The horse show is a rite of passage for Taryl O’Shea, who is in her 22nd year as the executive director of the Arabian Horse Association of Arizona, which hosts the event. Last year’s edition drew 302,600 patrons, generating $98 million in economic impact, according to O’Shea.

“I think it’s shocking to a lot of people the impact that the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show has on the community,” O’Shea says.

“When they look at events like the Waste Management Open and Barrett-Jackson, they don’t realize that the horse show, it’s 11 days. But the horses come in a week prior to the start of the horse show to acclimate, because they come from all over the world.

“Which means that people are renting homes or staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, shopping in our stores.”

O’Shea believes the 2020 version of the event, which features more than 350 booths full of unique items, ranging from saddles to gifts, artwork and trinkets, is a can’t-miss attraction for horse enthusiasts of all ages.

“It’s just a really big, versatile horse show that people love to come and just see all the things these horses can do,” O’Shea says. “Arabian horses are the oldest known breed of domesticated horse in the world and a lot of other breeds are derived from them. So, you’ve got collectors that appreciate the history, the beauty and the versatility of the breed.

“So, this horse has a magnetic appeal to many cultures and many people because of the story that it tells throughout the ages.”

The tie between Arabian horses and Scottsdale runs deep, according to O’Shea, with families like the Wrigleys and the Chaunceys bringing the breed to the desert almost a century ago.

O’Shea delved into a brief history of the breed and its path to the Wild West, tracing back to a surplus of horses owned by the Polish government that were sold to several families in the area.

“It’s a long story, but basically Arabians are a breed that hail from the desert,” she says. “And so, when the horses were brought here, they acclimated to Scottsdale and the desert very well. It was kind of a no-brainer for these other families to start buying and importing these horses.”

Fast forward a century, and that relationship is still going strong, with the annual horse show being the main outlet to showcase the breed.

O’Shea says she expects high rollers from as far away as Australia and the Middle East to jet-set to Scottsdale Airport, where their various private jets will be parked during their stay in the desert.

The event is for everyone. General admission tickets are $10, with $7 admission for seniors and military, and no cost for children younger than 12.

There will be a host of free activities to entertain younger patrons, such as ice cream socials, ceramic horse painting, art contests, barn tours and, of course, opportunities to meet Arabian horses.

There’s something for everybody at the February festival, according to O’Shea, speaking to the tenets that have kept her with the organization for more than two decades.

“What I love most about my role is that I get to sit on committees and work with the Tourism Advisory Commission in attracting people to Scottsdale,” O’Shea says. “I think our show is only one factor that helps drive tourism here in Scottsdale. So, I’m proud of that. But these horses, they’re just amazing.”

Arabian beauties

Naas acquired her first Arabian when she was 10. It was a riding horse. At 17, she bought a mare with the money she made from modeling around the world. Naas has modeled for Victoria’s Secret, Maxim and Sports Illustrated, and starred in commercials for Pepsi. She appeared on Howie Mandel’s “Deal or No Deal.”

Naas loves the beauty of Arabian horses, whom she keeps on a sprawling ranch in North Scottsdale with her husband, Jay Grdina.

“I love the history of the breed,” Naas says. “I love the relationship they develop with their owner or caretaker. They are very personal horses. When you develop a bond with an Arabian, it’s different than any other horse. I just fell in love with the mystery and the mystique around them.”

Naas studied the pedigrees, the history and how the breed has evolved. Her reading material of choice as a child was Arabian Horse World Magazine. A breeder bequeathed Naas her entire magazine collection from the ’50s onward.

“They were like giant manuals just filled with all of the breeds,” Naas says. “I learned what to look for and what made a great Arabian. I started reading those when I was probably 7.”

Naas says the Scottsdale show is special because there are multiple arenas with different disciplines simultaneously vying for titles. The vendors are just as striking.

“They have anything you can think of like amazing clothing and beautiful coats,” Naas says. “Then there’s beautiful tack horse equipment and supplies.

“It’s really a horse-lover’s dream. The horses are set free in the arena to music and the audience goes crazy for their favorite horse. In the Liberty class, the horses are electrifying, and their tails are flagging and their nostrils are flaring. It’s definitely an exciting breed.

“Arabians really draw in people who have maybe never been around horses or aren’t familiar with horses. They don’t just stand there with their heads down. They are alert and excitable, yet also kind and manageable. It’s really a unique breed with a fire in them.”

Arabian Horse Show, WestWorld, 16601 N. Pima Road, Scottsdale, scottsdaleshow.com, various times Thursday, February 13, to Sunday, February 23, tickets start at $10.

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