March 3, 2006 -- Are you hooked on Animal Planet's "Horse Power: Road to the Maclay?" A veteran viewer of "Dallas" and "Desperate Housewives," I am into this horse soap opera too, despite being well-aware how the show about the hunt seat equitation finals comes out. Hey, I covered the Maclay and was 20 feet away when the winner was pinned.
But the story told in the six-part series really makes you care about the riders, trainers and horses involved, building the suspense so artfully that you can't wait for the next chapter--even if you know the way it ends!
In case you don't, I won't tell you. However, if you missed a few episodes or want to watch from the beginning, the show starts presenting repeats with its first episode tonight (Friday, March 3) at 7 p.m. EST. The final episode from the original line-up airs on Wednesday, March 8 at 8 p.m. EST (followed by the Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup at 9 p.m.), so you might want to tune in only on Fridays if you're just starting out on this eventful trip with the country's top teen competitors.
The show zeroes in on two groups of students and their trainers--the effervescent Frank Madden of Beacon Hill in New Jersey and the more introspective Andre Dignelli of Heritage in New York. Key "characters" in the Beacon Hill camp are Brianne Goutal; her best friend, Sloane Coles, and Maria Schaub, whose equitation horse is sold before the Maclay. At Heritage, the focus is on Maggie McAlary, whose mother becomes sick during the taping and is followed into the hospital, and Natalie Johnson, who has a blog on EquiSearch.
Of course, there are many more players in the Big Eq game, but it had to be narrowed down for viewing purposes. Frank told me a test audience viewed clips of himself, Andre and other trainers before shooting on the series began, and their comments helped determine the show's focus.
The contrast between the trainers' styles works. And there are an amazing number of unguarded moments, from Frank bawling out a hapless rider at the Talent Search finals in New Jersey, to Andre's glum demeanor when his kids fail to make the cut at the Medal finals in Harrisburg, Pa., as well as plenty of tears of disappointment. The riders are seen up close and very personal, as the crew became part of the families involved to capture their lives in a way that rings true.
"They were with us so much of the time that you quickly forgot they were around," said Frank about the cameras. Although most of the show was candid, he admitted offering some observations to move things along and once made faces behind Andre while he was being videotaped, which he swears he wouldn't have done that if the cameras weren't rolling.
The show has a youth-oriented soundtrack including such appropriately named tunes as "Joyride" and "Fall Apart" (which several of the riders do under the pressure of trying to qualify for the Maclay.) It offers individual video camera diary close-ups of the kids reflecting on themselves. The personalities of the horses are captured by presenting information on breed, age and favorite equine snack or pastime. A great "Horse Power" area on the Animal Planet website gives more info on the key players.
"I think it's been great for business and been great for our sport," said Andre. Like Frank and the kids who became "characters" on "Horse Power," he has become a celebrity.
"A few families who visited the horse show (Winter Equestrian Festival) last weekend came to find me and introduce themselves, saying they watch the show and 'It was fun for us to see the people on the show,'" Andre said.
"It had a little bigger impact than I guess I was expecting. I've been pleased with the way it turned out," he said of the show.
Andre said having cameras and microphones at every single horse show for six months "wasn't that easy." He noted, "the camera person became a friend, so it got less intrusive as it kept going. But you had to be very open to it."
The show was as big a surprise to Frank and Andre as it was to the rest of us.
"I think we were all nervous. We had no creative input and were never able to see any of the footage," Andre explained, noting he couldn't figure out exactly where it was going during the shooting.
As things turned out, it was going right to the bullseye.
"Horse Power" scored a direct hit on its target audience. Animal Planet's senior vice president for marketing, adult jumper rider Vicki Lowell, said viewership among teens was up 25 percent from the average Wednesday night, and up 170 percent in the category of women aged 18-24. The first night the show aired, it had a million people watching. Can you believe that for hunt seat equitation?
It's obviously all in the way it's presented. And it deftly avoided the clich? that these were rich kids at play. While it's obvious some of the riders have more money than others, and much is made of Lindsay Smith's farm girl background in contrast, the personality and effort that the kids put in becomes much more important than the question of their bank accounts.
Fans from across the country can't wait for the next episode.
Rebecca Miller, a 26-year-old medical biller from Ellijay, Ga., is a regular "Horse Power" viewer who says, "I'm glad something like it is finally on TV."
Sara Zimmerman, a Los Altos, Calif., high school student says of the series, "I love it! I think it's great that there's finally a show on TV that follows junior riders, let alone doing the eq, not just the Kentucky Derby. I think that the show might give non-horsey people the impression that this is what it's like to ride, as it doesn't really allude to the idea that most riders don't have as much as the girls (and guy!) on the show do. However, that's not really that big of a deal, as it's way more 'fun' to watch the best of the best."
Sara enjoyed the segue when Frank talked about life in his RV. "I thought it was hilarious how proud he was of all of its amenities!"
Will there be a sequel?
Andre said the Animal Planet people have talked to him about doing something else, maybe a show on shopping for horses in Europe. But that's only one of several opportunities on the horizon for the trainers who starred in "Horse Power."
Though we're waiting to see how it all develops, Frank and Stacia Madden's white-fenced farm has been shown on air, and the couple now plans to offer tours. Frank also has thoughts about future programming.
"The possibilities are endless," he said, though he's not thinking of branching out after his star turn, insisting the only show business that interests him is horse shows.
"I'm just a horse trainer," Frank says with a smile.
View the complete "Horse Power: Road to the Maclay" series schedule to catch all of the episodes.