October 30, 2016 -- The Washington International Horse Show is more than, well, a horse show. It's an urban equestrian experience like no other. Streets are blocked off for tent stabling, always a cause of curiosity for those coming up from the Metro station or who pass heading to nearby restaurants and offices.
“It's a horse convention,” one woman confided to her date, who seemed to believe her as they walked by.
But a lot of people do know what to make of the week that the horses take over the Verizon Center, as its basketball and hockey teams go on the road.
The hottest ticket was Saturday night for the $130,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Washington, won in fine style by Lauren Hough on a mare who lives up to her name, Ohlala. And you could say “ohlala” about Lauren's haul of prizes, as she also took the Leading Lady, International and Open Jumper titles, as well as winning the iconic President's Cup. For details, click on this link.
Lauren and I had a chat about her victory and hopes to compete in the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Finals next March in Omaha, Neb. Click on the right-pointing arrow to see the video.
Barn Night is an annual must for stables from the D.C., Virginia and Maryland area. Each barn puts great effort into outdoing the others, whether it's in matching T-shirts, signs or screaming at the top of their lungs to show their enthusiasm and maybe win a prize. There was always a chance of a small prize; Traveler's Insurance every night would drop little red parachutes carrying tiny toy horses, drifting down to land in eager young hands.
There's a special spirit at the Washington show. It's hard to believe there was a point a few years back when it nearly didn't survive. But through the efforts of former chairperson Juliet Reid and president Vicki Lowell, it is now thriving as an important part of both the horse industry and the lives of those who return year after year, awaiting it with great expectation.
“I can't thank the riders enough,” said Vicki.
“They've put it all out there, they've put on a great show, they stay late, they sign autographs. This is top sport. To bring this top sport to the nation's capital is a really special opportunity we all have. I thank them for coming and putting in the long hours and being there for us and for the fans.”
It's not easy, of course. Stabling on the street has its drawbacks, and the warm-up area is tiny. There's no grass in sight, so grazing is out, not to mention a quiet hack.
But these riders and their horses, who go around the world the way we go to the local mall, know how to handle it.
“It's definitely fun and different. You have to have a certain type of horse for here,” grand prix rider Shane Sweetnam said of the Washington show.
“The ring is small. If your horse needs to get out of the stable a lot, it's not really a great place for them. But if you have the right kind of horse, it's a great venue. If you have the wrong horse, you don't bring him.”
Asked about dealing with the cramped warm-up area, Shane laughed and said, “I grew up in Ireland and I've seen worse.”
That spirit of spectators and riders made Friday night feel like a giant party for the Puissance, when the wall in the center of the ring went up, up, up until it reached 7 feet.
During the interval, while blocks were being added to raise the height, the lights went down and showgoers were asked to turn on the lights in their cellphones, which looked like thousands of candles. The place rocked. Music played, Journey's “Can't Stop Believing” being a particular favorite, as people danced in their seats or on the stairs until the wall was reset and everyone focused on the task at hand.
There were only six starters, which is usual for the puissance, always more popular with fans than with the horsemen and women. Six is really enough when the horses are going well, however. It was a shame that Andrew Kocher, who tied for the win in the class at the Central Park show last month when the wall reached 6-9, didn't get a chance to try for victory when his horse toppled a rail at the triple bar preceding the wall in the third round.
The class ended in a dead heat at that 7-foot mark between McLain Ward on ZZ Top (the same horse on which he tied with Andy in Central Park) and Aaron Vale with Finou. Four rounds was it, and both had had enough anyway.
The puissance is always a crowd-pleaser. It was the big Thursday night attraction at the National Horse Show when it was in Madison Square Garden, where the atmosphere was quieter than it is at Washington, but then, that was a different era. No cellphones with lights.
I talked with McLain and Aaron (who was using it as a schooling session for the Saturday night grand prix) about the puissance. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what they had to say.
Pre-Halloween the costume class is always a hoot, and Andy won the prize there for best costume as a rather evil looking clown. (Check out www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman to see his photo.)
Winner Laura Kraut won wearing the same Red Ridinghood outfit she donned for the Great Charity Challenge at the Winter Equestrian Festival last winter. The format was changed from a gambler's choice (too many numbers, too hard for fans to add up) to an accumulator where points are added as riders clear each jump, with time deciding ties.
Amanda Derbyshire wound up as Leading Foreign Rider (she's a U.S.-based Brit) after taking the $50,000 Speed Final on Luibanta BH, formerly ridden by Ellen Whitaker. (Yes, she's one of those Whitakers, the famous British riding family.) Amanda also had the distinction of being among the trainers, along with Scott Stewart and Ken Berkley, of WIHS Pony Grand Champion Mimi Gochman, who rode the German pony Storyteller to the title today in the rider's last appearance in the division. She has graduated to horses now.
The queen of equitation at the show was Hunter Holloway of Topeka, Kansas, coached by Don Stewart to the victory in the three-phase final. There's a hunter segment, a jumper segment and then the top 10 ride each other's horses once more in a work-off. Hunter took the lead and held it on Any Given Sunday, an amazing animal. Talk about a family horse. He used to be ridden by Hunter's mother, Brandie, in the jumpers, and now he does both equitation and hunters. It should be noted that for the work-off Hunter was switched to Class Action, who I remember from the days when Jessica Springsteen used to ride him. He's a special one too.
Hunter's total was 289.750 to 283 for reserve champion Madison Goetzmann and 279.250 for Lucy Deslauriers in third.
One of the favorites for the title, T.J. O'Mara, dropped out after his horse bucked in the hunter phase and he figured it would be pointless to continue the next day. Instead, he decided to save Kaskade for the ASPCA Maclay next weekend at the CP National Horse Show as the U.S. part of the North American Fall Indoor Circuit comes to a close. (But I'll be going on to Toronto for the Royal Winter Fair, which really is the last stop.)
T.J. won the Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search finals earlier this month, then the next weekend, took the Pessoa/USEF Medal finals, so he has hopes he can pick up again on his streak in Kentucky, his last shot before aging out of the division.
One of my favorite parts of the Washington show is Kids' Day. The show provides a great opportunity to bring the magic of horses to youngsters, many of whom have never been close to them before.
Watch this video to see what goes on at Kids' Day, and meet some special people. (click on the right pointing arrow to see the video)
Making an appearance at Kids' Day were Spanky and Dally. This is a new act from Washington State featuring a mini horse and the Jack Russell who rides him. (Why walk when you can ride?) I had a long talk with the animals' owner, Francesca Carsen. It's on Facebook, but you can see it if you click here.
So that's a wrap on Washington. I'll just have time to get home, do some laundry, maybe clean the house (not!) and then head to Kentucky for the National. Watch for my postcards from there.