Monday, July 23, 2018

The people of BreyerFest

Erin Corbett wrote a paper about the people of BreyerFest for her Cultural Anthropology class. She told everyone she would let me post it on my blog if she got an A... Well, she got an A+ so here it is. Thank you, Erin and thanks also to Heather Malone, Kristian Beverly, Beth Grant, Jeni Lambert, Sara Bowman, Meredith Conrad, Allison Pareis, Laurel Seus, Gina Witters and  Diana Dubbeld for their help with the pictures.

Ponies In The Mist: A Week At BreyerFest

by Erin Corbett


What could motivate a family to pack a bunch of toy horses into the family car and drive 2,300 miles to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky in the middle of July? 
It’s humid, it’s expensive, it’s dusty, and it’s my favorite week of the year. BreyerFest is a model horse convention put on by Breyer Model Horses, the manufacturer of the large majority of model horse figurines available in today’s market. There is an incredibly vibrant collector’s community around these models, and we all gather for a week to celebrate our collections, connect with friends from across the country, and most of all, to buy and sell model horses. 
The pursuit and acquisition of new horses for our collections is a common theme for BreyerFest attendees. We buy model horses only available that year at the Kentucky Horse Park, we enter raffles, we enter contests, we show off our collections to each other, and we sell items from our own collections. We also buy them from each other at the official host hotel, where we all prop our room doors open and wander from room to room, looking over the sales offerings spread out over the beds and TV stands of our peers. The hotel has come to expect this behavior from us, and no longer tries to stop it.  
Cultural Demographics

The collector community is interesting in its makeup. We are overwhelmingly female, middle class Americans of Caucasian descent. 
photo by Gina Witters
While these are not exclusive characteristics, bearing in mind the demographic makeup of the attendees is important in considering our culture. Our material culture is easy to distill down to one thread that carries through to all aspects of this event and its attendees – model horses. We all own, show, paint, sculpt, or otherwise interact with collectible model horse figurines. Some collectors have real horses as well as models, but most do not. Some collectors see their model horses as a cheaper replacement for the real horses they wish they had, but more of us see them as their own art pieces, existing by their own merits rather than as a stand-in for something better. 

We are relatively uniform in our dress, in that the average model horse hobby person values comfort and function over style or aesthetics. So much so that to ‘dress up’ at BreyerFest is seen as odd and unusual, and doing so will generate comments from fellow attendees. Athletic wear and sandals or running shoes is the unofficial BreyerFest uniform, as are large screen-printed t-shirts, often with Breyer branding.

The language unique to BreyerFest would require a several page appendix to fully outline, but for the purposes of this brief paper it’s sufficient to say that there’s a whole subset of American English we use that wouldn’t make sense to anybody not ‘in the know’. This ranges from acronyms like “LSQ” (Live Show Quality) and “ISH” (Ideal Stock Horse) to phrases like “Live Model Horse Show”. How can a model horse be alive, and how would you show one? That’s a topic for another paper! We enculturate newcomers to learn these phrases and terms by pushing them off the metaphorical deep end. Comprehensive indexes and definitions of these terms are rare and hard to find, so most often a newcomer will ask a friend, or simply do their best to infer meaning based on context. To keep up with a model horse conversation at BreyerFest means knowing these terms, so many attendees will do research ahead of time to make sure they’re fully prepared.
Cultural Folkways and Norms

A cultural norm for this community is an overwhelming acceptance of newcomers. By and large, questions are encouraged, both in person at BreyerFest and on our various discussion forums and social media groups. We all can remember being a newcomer once, so we go out of our way to help guide the next generation of collectors. 
This ties back to the Cultural Universal need for belonging, to feel like part of a group. BreyerFest is often self-described as a gathering of “crazy nerds”, which speaks to the background of most collectors. We were not the “cool kids” growing up, generally speaking. Some hobby members were bullied as kids for being the weird ones, and they carry those scars forward. A hobby that contains many women that did not have the opportunity to refine their social skills in their formative years can have some unintended fallout, as conflicts are sometimes navigated with less grace. A common source of conflict in the hobby is the perception of “in groups” or “cliques” that are exclusionary by nature. To a population already sensitized around acceptance by their peers, this can cause perceived slights to be magnified beyond their intent. Navigating the social landscape of the model horse hobby can be a minefield, due to the varied backgrounds and experiences everybody brings to the table. Adding to that the fact that most of our interactions happen via social media, you have a recipe for misunderstandings and overreactions.  

On the other side of the coin, our strong attachment to the model horses themselves allows us to overcome some gaps in understanding we might not otherwise bridge. For example, through the model horse hobby and BreyerFest, I am friends with many women whose political and social views are drastically different from my own. I am able to set that aside, and focus on them as fellow horse enthusiasts, and keep conversation topics centered around ‘safe’ topics, like what we just purchased or what ‘famous’ horse we just met. We celebrate universally when somebody makes an amazing find at an antique store and finds a very old or very rare model horse for a low price. At BreyerFest, extremely rare models are given out as prizes and raffle items, and all winners are celebrated with enthusiasm by the community at large! 
Being a “nerd” at BreyerFest is celebrated, and not just a “model horse nerd”. We have a high amount of cross-over from other niche “nerd” hobbies, like anime, video games, other collectible figurines, and sci-fi/fantasy arenas. It’s almost a complete reversal from the average microcosm of people in an American high school, where the nerdy things are looked down upon. 
Overall, this community values kindness, acceptance, helping each other, and the hunt for a good deal. Newcomers are largely enculturated to these values through interactions online, usually through trial and error. The community is not shy about letting somebody know when they are violating a social norm, via real time feedback on social media and discussion forums. As a lifetime member of this community, I’ve found acceptance and lifelong friends. The learning curve may be steep, but it’s worth it.
Thanks again, Erin. That was awesome. I also give it an A+!


  1. Excellent article!! I can see why Erin got an "A++" on her paper! The one thing I .noticed in the article is Erik's lack of mention of the lack of ethnic diversity. among the group of collectors (alto at the top of the article thanks was given to Kristen. Beverly!)
    I've been coming to Breyerfest for over 20 years and I've recently been bringing a friend along who's not of the same color hue as the rest of us even the she's been a collector/ shower for over 30 years herself!
    She did notice the lack of diversity @ first and it did make her nervous --but fortunately we did run into several "home town" folk .which put her @ease--especially as she began speaking to the Artist Gallery people and others and recognized what a bunch of *sweet, friendly, kind hearted group of women we are!
    She *loved* the trip and began to noticed as the days went on, that there were a few others just like her! ☺
    I think what surprised her the most was in the midst of what is considered a female oriented. hobby, how many MEN & BOYS were there as well!! Might they be (along with the young girls) the next generation. of collectors? ?

    1. Erin does mention the lack of diversity right under the Cultural Demographics heading. She writes: We are overwhelmingly female, middle class Americans of Caucasian descent.

      And since you mentioned Kristian, I feel compelled to point out that she's pictured in one of the collages!


  2. So delighted to see more writing of papers on this hobby. I did one in college (1980) on specialized language in the hobby, for folklore class. "Horsefully," S

  3. Ooh this is a really excellent profile! Regarding ethnic diversity, I've also noticed this in the showring: apart from native costume classes, most dolls are white. I'd love to see more diverse dolls from artists in the future!

    1. I think it’s because of the production company. I think the base model everyone uses (yavonne) looks Native American. It depends what the manufacturer company molds the color in. But the mold did just get sold so maybe they will come out with an ethnic line!