You know it's a rainy Dallas spring when guests to a fancy outdoor event are greeted with a big bucket of bug repellant. That was just one of the many above-and-beyond details that organizers of Equest's 40th Anniversary Gala dreamed up to make 575 guests at the sold-out extravaganza feel comfortable and celebrated.
Comfort was of the utmost importance, of course, as the June 5 gala — canceled last year due to COVID-19 — was one of the first major Dallas fundraising events held in person, post-pandemic. Co-chairs Lisa and Kendall Laughlin and Katherine and Austin Wyker reimagined the usually swanky affair as a more casual "equestrian chic Southern soiree" resembling the organization's annual Boots & Salutes summer party; boots replaced stilettos, and jeans and sundresses replaced tuxes and ballgowns.
The entire event took place outdoors at the new Al Hill, Jr. Arena at Texas Horse Park south of downtown, beneath a spectacular pink-sunset sky on an evening spared of thunderstorms. (Those did come later in the night.)
The evening began in the barn, where guests — including Luke Branyan, Rachel Branyan, Lauren Davis, Brandi Chalmers, Annie Griffeth, Teal Griffeth, Laci Bowman, and Ira Bowman — scooted down the red carpet and took selfies with the Equest Therapy Horses groomed in stylish summer cuts and braids for the occasion.
A wall of pick-your-own champagne flutes was not only Instagrammy but a smart way to reduce interaction between servers and guests. Past the bucket of insect repellant and into the main party tent, auction chair Lauren McHenry had corralled more than 150 silent auction items for a shopping and bidding experience that made it seem like the organization hadn't missed a beat during the COVID off-year.
Respectful of distancing, guests snaked through the auction room filled with items like signed guitars by George Strait and Taylor Swift; a $1,400 Methuselah of 2010 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon; Antique John Deere Farm Wagon; and an 18k gold and diamond bangle bracelet, among many others items.
When they were called to dinner, patrons sat down to a menu prepared by revered chef Dean Fearing — who was on site overseeing operations. The scrumptious meal included Summer Tomato Pie, Fearing’s famous Texas Wagyu Brisket with Dr Pepper BBQ Sauce, Granny Fearing’s “Paper Bag Shook” Fried Chicken, Jalapeño Grits, and a dessert duo of Strawberry Shortcake and Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie.
Emcee Stan Gardner led the program that included a moving memorial video honoring Equest "family members" lost in the past year, including TV personality Jocelyn White, who was a former chairman of the board. Equest CEO Lili Kellogg presented awards for both 2020 and 2021, including:
- 2020 Founder’s Award: Dottie Neustadt
- 2021 Founder’s Award: Equest’s Women’s Auxiliary
- 2020 Citation Award: Andy Steingasser
- 2021 Citation Award: Junior League of Dallas
- 2021 Awards: Gail Pace, Cindy Thomas, and Jeff Hensley
A live auction and "raise the paddle"-type effort resulted in generous donations that brought the evening's total fundraising to more than $600,000.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was a recorded video appearance by Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal. Britain's Princess Anne (daughter of Queen Elizabeth), an Olympian equestrian and longtime advocate of equine therapies, who had visited Equest in 2000, sent warm wishes from Buckingham Palace.
"I'm sorry I cannot be there to help you celebrate this work," she said. "Many congratulations to everyone who has made Equest's 40 years possible and best wishes for the future."
Guests danced the night away to The Walton Stout Band from the Jordan Kahn Orchestra before grabbing a generous gift bag that included gift cards, sweet treats, and even a potted herb plant from Mars Hill Farm.
Also seen enjoying the evening and contributing to Equest's mission to provide equine-assisted learning, therapies, and counseling (much of it free of charge) to children, adults, and veterans were guests, board members, and patrons Caitlyn Laughlin, Thomas Laughlin, Lucy Billingsley, Taylor Boyd, Dell Putman, Pat McLaughlin, Nikki Chu, Heather Wiese, Tom Heffington, Erica Kennemer, Sabrina Williams, James Taylor, Rebecca Rochelle, Caroline Uihlein, and Mattson Uihlein.