The grounds of the Fairfield County Hunt Club are idyllic. Located off Long Lots Road, this bucolic landscape evokes images of an earlier, more genteel age. Beyond two stone pillars, the white clubhouse, pool and tennis courts are part of a thirty-nine acre complex that includes a vast polo field, three outdoor rings, six barns, two indoor rings and, during the elaborate, weeklong June Benefit Horse Show, temporary stabling for 500 horses. In a growing industry, where serious riders have their pick of well-run summer competitions, the June show, which benefits the EQUUS Foundation, attracts an impressive roster of equestrians, from world-class professionals and skilled amateurs to rising junior stars and beginning youngsters.
“We had a wait-list for stalls last year,” says Westporter Tracy Harris, cochair of last year’s event and an avid horsewoman who returned to show jumping two years ago. “Fortunately, a lot of the local stables just ship in for the day.”
Throughout the week, the club’s usual serenity is transformed. From sunrise to sunset, the grounds are a flurry of activity: Grooms muck the stalls and feed, water, and get the horses ready for the day’s competitions. They braid manes and tails; shampoo legs so that white socks glisten, and make sure tack and boots are spit-polish clean. Before the 8 a.m. start time, some riders exercise their mounts in the practice areas to loosen them up; others walk the courses and discuss tactics with their trainers. Later, young girls in garters and paddock boots, their pigtails anchored by satin ribbons, wait to enter the rings, many for the first time, while nervous moms and dads pace nearby. Stout corgis and wiry Jack Russells pull on leashes, as their owners browse the shopping boutiques. With more than 250 classes for all ability levels, the action runs virtually nonstop throughout the week.
“A typical day is magical and intense,” says Jane Henderson, one of the three cochairs for this year’s event. “There are multiple levels of competition going on in four rings at once.”
Brenda Tannenbaum, a longtime club member who grew up riding in Greenwich, says, “When the show is on the horizon, everyone at the barn gets very excited. As a kid I remember begging my trainer to let me go to the June show.” Since joining the Hunt Club in 1987, the Norwalk resident has missed competing in the annual event only a handful of times.
“Riders love to come here,” agrees head trainer Jenny Martin-Rudaz, who remembers her first June show more than twenty-five years ago when she was working for a stable in New Jersey. Her daughter Isabel made her debut last year, and won the short stirrup hunter under saddle on her pony Who’s Blue. “It’s partly the prestige, partly the level of competition and partly the beauty of the setting,” Martin-Rudaz says.
Jumps to Make
The five-day show, which carries the highest AA rating from the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), the sport’s governing body, has evolved over the years to keep with the times. In days past, it was best known in horsey circles for its hunter classes—where horses are judged on their grace and style as they navigate a series of jumps meant to replicate the kind of obstacles and conditions a rider might encounter while foxhunting. In 1999 the horse show committee jumped on a growing trend, so to speak, and brought in more of the crowd-pleasing jumper divisions. That was the first year it offered a grand prix—the Formula One of the equestrian world—that features a highly technical and challenging course of fences that top five feet. The class took off and today the $25,000 Grand Prix is a highlight for both spectators and competitors.
“It attracts the top riders from all over the East Coast,” says Jennifer Ross, who cochaired last year’s event with Harris. Among the marquee names are Olympians and Nation’s Cup members such as McLain Ward, Leslie Howard, Peter Leone, Peter Lutz, Candice King, Callan Solem and Georgina Bloomberg.
It also features homegrown talent, such as twenty-six-year-old Cassandra Herman, who grew up riding at the Hunt Club, then went on to attend Mount Holyoke, where she competed on the school’s intercollegiate team. She recently returned to FCHC as an assistant trainer. “I rode in my first grand prix there when I was seventeen,” she says. “That wasn’t too much pressure with everybody I’d known my entire life watching me.”
Beyond the Show
Even as the show has become more sophisticated over the years, it has always stayed close to its roots. While an outside management team handles the day-to-day operations, the details—the landscaping and flowers, the vendors and social events, the ever-popular pet parade, and, new last year, Family Fun Day—are still very much a Club affair. Members volunteer on a variety of committees, sponsor specific classes and division championships, and even help present trophies and ribbons. “I talked my husband into weeding with me one night,” recalls Ross. “I was still doing the landscaping until three in the morning with my car lights on so I could see.”
Ross, who returns as cochair along with Henderson and Michele Ippolito, managed to don several hats last year—including competitor (she rode the twelve-year-old warmblood Diego to a fifth place finish in the Adult Jumper Classic) and horse-show mom (daughter Donovan competed in the children’s hunter’s division on Settemezzo). “It was thrilling for me to take that gallop around the grand prix ring with the other winners,” she says. “My daughter and her friends were all grouped at one end, and they were cheering so loud, my horse spooked. But it was so much fun.”
For Ross the sight of so many local residents coming out to enjoy the week’s events was equally gratifying. “Because this is a private club, there is a perception that the public isn’t welcome to the show,” she says. “Not true! Our goal is to make it fun for the whole family.” To that end, this year’s show will feature even more diversions for nonriders, including specially designated areas for parents, and a braiding bar where girls can get their hair done like the kids who compete in the short-stirrup classes. “We’ll also be handing out information on our family riding programs,” says Ross.
Harris, too, was delighted by the community’s enthusiastic response. “For me the day of the grand prix was everything I had pictured in my mind,” she says. “There were people picnicking on the grass, the grandstand was packed, the tents were buzzing, and the line for pony rides stretched down the driveway. Of course, my daughter winning that day capped it off.”
Last year, the show received a coveted Heritage Competition designation from the USEF, an honor reserved for those with a long history and charity element. “We’ve always been a benefit horse show,” says Lynn Coakley, a Westport resident, who rode at FCHC for many years along with her two daughters under the legendary Emerson Burr. In 2002, Coakley founded the EQUUS Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering horse charities around the U.S. Since then, thanks to the June show and another major fundraiser in Wellington, EQUUS has awarded more than $2 million in grants to more than 500 equine charities throughout the country. “The jumpers are a discipline that even non-horse people can appreciate,” she says. “It’s very exciting.”
Henderson agrees. “I got involved with the show after I started attending the Grand Prix Benefit Luncheon ten years ago,” she says. “It’s amazing to watch these riders soar over five-foot jumps and be one with their horse.” Although she hopes to someday compete on her horse Pepper, for now she’s content to assist from the sidelines and playing groom to her daughter’s pony, Tristan’s Cameo. “He’s so well trained,” she says, “He knows I’ve always got a pocketful of mints.”