October 25, 2015--Evelyn Hernandez was thrilled to see Air Force One on the sidewalk of her hometown, Washington D.C. No, we're not talking about the airplane that carries the commander in chief. This was a big gray horse by that name which prompted her to whip out her phone and take a photo of him and his rider/trainer, Kama Godek.
She obviously was both entranced and fascinated, like many of the people who cross paths with horses during the weeklong show at the Verizon Center, in the midst of restaurants, shops and hotels, a short hack from the White House.
Although Evelyn came out in 2014 to see the horses, the last time she encountered them before that, she was a child who liked pony rides.
"When they come here every year, I'm a kid again," she enthused.
"Where else in D.C. can you see these Olympian beauties? You can touch them and talk to the beautiful people that work with them."
As Kama pointed out, "It's so important that everyone gets a chance to get close to them, because that will help our sport grow, the more accessible it is to them."
At the show, which ended today, horses used to luxury accommodations sleep on the street, in stalls under white tents with chain link fence between them and the public.
It's interesting to see people's reactions when they aren't expecting to spot horses in the city. A woman walking out of the Monaco Hotel exclaimed "Oh, wow," as she went down the steps to see several ponies taking part in the show's Kids' Day on the street (naturally, the road had been closed off). Others were fearful, walking quickly past the horses while keeping as far from them as possible. But mostly, when the horses are enjoying a constitutional stroll on the sidewalk, people ask to take a selfie or deliver a pat to a soft nose.
Kama gets it. She was living in nearby Fairfax, Va., when her parents first took her to the show, which used to be at the National Guard Armory before a sojourn in Landover, Md., and then a return to the city. She was fascinated and it set a course for her life.
Kama's friend, amateur jumper rider Susannah Willis, is an Australian who has been competing in Europe at the Global Champion Tour shows, including Paris, but she finds Washington "'very impressive. There's nothing like this. It's pretty incredible to ride in the city."
The show makes an effort to reach out to people. Kids' Day attracts a horde of youngsters, some of whom may go on to ride and might even appear in the show themselves some day, or at least just become horse lovers.
The show's offerings also are geared to appeal to a wide audience, many of whom may never have attended an equestrian competition.
Dressage returned to Washington with a freestyle exhibition by Allison Brock on the up-and-coming Rosevelt (yes, that's how it's spelled) to music from Argentine-based neo-tango group Tanghetto. She was accompanied by trainer Michael Barisone, who offered helpful observations and moral support.
The atmosphere at the show is a far cry from most dressage competitions, so I asked Ali why she came. While other dressage riders might have been courting danger to take a chance on riding at the show, it worked out for her and the charming stallion. Take a look at her video to understand her thoughts on the subject.
Equitation also was in the picture with the show's finals, which involve a hunter-style test and a jumper-style test for 40 riders, then a 10-rider work-off with a gimmick. Each rider rode the horse of another over a new course. The winner, not surprisingly, was Tori Colvin in the last equitation class of her career (she won the ASPCA Maclay last year, so she won't be involved in that next weekend at the National Horse Show.)
Her score of 276.250 was an emphatic win. Madison Goetzman finished second with 267.250, while Hunter Holloway was quite close in third place with 266.125.
Speaking of gimmicks, the show got involved with a new smartphone or tablet app, which audience members could use to judge the class themselves, then compare their scores with those of the people who are paid to judge.
Rodney Jenkins, the "Red Rider" whose flame-colored hair appeared in countless winner's photos, was inducted into the show's hall of fame in a moving ceremony attended by a flock of U.S. equestrian team riders in their red coats. At 71, Rodney isn't involved much with show horses anymore, though he does judge occasionally, but he is very successful as a racehorse trainer.
I remembered seeing Rodney ride at Washington when the show was at the Armory, an era when it was attended by diplomats and a galaxy of socialites and political figures, including Jack and Jackie Kennedy. Rodney won the show's featured jumping class, the President's Cup, three times--twice on his most famous horse, Idle Dice, and once on "Ike's" stablemate, Number One Spy.
I used to write about Rodney quite regularly--he was the biggest star of U.S.show jumping for years, but I hadn't seen him for awhile. So it was fun to catch up with him and do an interview to find out what he's been up to.
Listen for yourself by clicking on the right-hand arrow.
Rodney had a blast after the induction, officiating for the Shetland pony race. That's another attraction that has taken off at Washington. While it's fun to watch, the kids are quite serious about it and I expect some of them will go on to be jockeys or involved in the racing industry. Who knows? Maybe one of them will work for Rodney someday.
Jumpers are a big attraction for the evening shows at Washington, of course. The $20,000 Gambler's Choice costume class is always a hoot, though never more so than this year, for several reasons. One was a horse painted to look like a zebra by Ben Phillips, who went to art school for six years and works for trainer Rachel Kennedy. Artani 2 was sensational as the striped "African Pharoah," a variation on American Pharoah. Rider Kaitlyn Campbell bought racing tack and jockey silks to ride him in character. Needless to say, the crowd went wild.
Aaron Vale, dressed as a baseball player, won the class. Then he didn't. Before the victory gallop, McLain Ward was announced as the winner on HH Ashley. But McLain manned up and told show manager David Distler he thought he'd been given credit for one fence too many.
Officials went to the videotape (really!) the next morning and rescored the class. Aaron, who rode Quidam's Good Luck, was declared the winner once again. For some, it might have been a bit of a roller coaster, but he took it in stride.
"Historically, it's a little hard for them to keep track of that class," he pointed out.
"Obviously, they made a mistake. I was pretty sure I'd won the class and I knew we'd go to video overnight and it would sort itself out."
Then he gave a good-natured grin, saying "It was nice to win the class twice."
The biggest competitions went to overseas entries, who come here in search of Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League qualifying points. The Belgian/Dutch contingent couldn't be stopped. Nicola Philippaerts of Belgium, who came to the show with his twin brother, Olivier, won the $50,000 speed class on H&M Harley van de Bisschop.
Little more than an hour later, the 6-foot, 11-inch simulated brick wall of the puissance was scaled successfully by another Belgian, 19-year-old Jos Verlooy on Sunshine. Both were making their debut in this type of competition. Experience usually pays off, but McLain Ward, a six-time winner of the class, did not have the best luck with Bueno, leaving the field to Jos.
The Washington puissance is the only one in the Western Hemisphere, and people love it. More shows should give it a try. I know, I know, some people think it's not good for the horses, while many riders don't have a horse that can handle the height, or they worry it will somehow affect their horse's future performance.
Years ago in Europe, a liquor company sponsored a puissance circuit and it was a great success. I'd love to see a group of shows give it a try again.
Jos's trainer, Dutch rider Harrie Smolders, won the President's Cup for the second time in 10 years, riding a chestnut stallion named Emerald who was anything but green. When Harrie asked, he complied.
The class is part of the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League, which began this year. With the advent of the league, there are less World Cup qualifiers than there used to be, so it's very important for shows to be able to host one of these classes.
Washington International President Vicki Lowell and I talked about that. Watch this video to see what she said.
Hardin Towell leads the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League standings as of today with 38 points, followed by Quentin Judge (36), Ljubov Kochetova of Russia (26) and Daniel Bluman of Colombia (25).
The most decorated rider at the show turned out to be Jos, literally. He was decked out in giant ribbons for everything from being tops in the Under 25 category to leading foreign rider. They kept slipping the ribbons over his head to the point where it was almost funny.
Washington has quite a very charitable side. There's the big "Buck Breast Cancer" fundraiser that Vicki mentioned. In addition, a total of $34,000 was raised for TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which helps those who have lost a loved one who served the country in the military.
For more photos from the show, go to www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman.
Now I'm off to the National Horse Show in Lexington, Ky. Lots will be happening there, so check in with Prac's facebook site starting Friday, and look for my postcard next Sunday night.