There’s Nothing Like the Washington International Horse Show

From the costume class to the thrill of the puissance, the equitation championship, Shetland pony races, barn night and international jumping, this lively competition in the nation’s capital turns spectators into fans.

“I can smell the horses,” a little girl squealed in delight, as she and her mother walked out of the Metro station to find themselves in front of a chain link fence running the length of the Washington International Horse Show stabling on F Street.

How often does an area in the heart of a major city play host to one of the country’s best horse shows? And how often do horse show folks get to enjoy comfortable hotels, as well as wonderful restaurants and museums within steps of the arena?

You can guess the answer, and that’s what makes Washington so special—despite the stabling situation, a cramped schooling area and limited access for exercising horses—mostly in the middle of the night, moving toward dawn.

A look at some vignettes from the Washington International Horse Show: The evening starts with ringmaster Ed Nowack, a horn virtuoso; a look at the President’s Cup; the VIP area has a great view of the ring; the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife & Drum Corps performs before the competition; Third U.S. Army Regiment caisson horse Klinger is ready for an appearance; the Washington schooling area poses a unique challenge; Shetland pony racing is a feature at Washington, where the U.S. Park Police have been part of the show since its inception.

The husband and wife training team of Missy Clark and John Brennan estimated that at Washington, they got eight hours of sleep—total—all week.

Is it worth it, I asked.

“A show that tries this hard?” responded Missy. “This is the closest thing, in my opinion, to the Garden,” she said, referring to the era of the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, where it took its last bow in 2001.

“This horse show is special, they try, and they advertise it,” pointed out Missy, noting that when riders had concerns last year about the footing, management replaced it and won raves.

“When you love a horse show, you make sacrifices and if sleep is the only sacrifice you make for these five days, it’s well worth it,” John said.

“For the equitation, that’s the biggest crowd we’ve seen all year,” he said, referring to the Saturday evening conclusion of the three-phase Lindsay Maxwell Charitable Fund WIHS Equitation Finals.

The final test had those in the top 10 riding other competitor’s horses. Scores were not posted after each round, heightening the suspense. And when ribbons were presented, the top three were kept in the dark, so to speak (lights were dimmed as they entered the arena) and their placings were announced one by one.

Sam Walker of Canada, second before the final round, wound up third. At age 14, he has several years to reach for the top prize, under the coaching of Missy and John, along with his parents, Scott and Dee Walker. As a teen, Dee was trained by Missy. Sam, whose score was 261.200, is the first son of a former student that Missy has taught.

The moments before the final announcement came down to a familiar situation. Would it be 2015 ASPCA Maclay winner McKayla Langmeier, who moved up from fourth going into the last round, or 2017 Dover/USEF Medal Finals winner Taylor St. Jacques, coming from sixth place? Less than a month ago, I stood in the ring at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation in Gladstone, N.J., where the results of the Platinum Performance/USEF Medal Finals were about to be announced. As that drama unfolded, the result was in favor of McKayla, who trains with her parents, Linda and Ken, as well as Missy and John.

Taylor St. Jacques won the Lindsay Maxwell Charitable Fund WIHS Equitation Finals. Photo copyright 2017 by Nancy Jaffer

This time, Taylor took the title with a score of 264.125, generating major hugs from her trainers, Andre Dignelli, Patricia Griffith and Dottie Areson. She became teary-eyed knowing that she had ridden the first two rounds on her very own horse, Di Samorano, rather than Charisma, her mount for the previous two autumn finals, who does not belong to her.

It was a sweet moment for Taylor St. Jacques when she enjoyed a victory gallop on her own Di Samorano after her win. Photo copyright 2017 by Nancy Jaffer

Washington was the last equitation competition for McKayla, marked at 261.625, who has aged out. She and Taylor have spent a lot of time in the same arenas as competitors, but weren’t exactly buddies.

McKayla Langmeier was runner-up in the WIHS equitation finals Photo copyright 2017 by Lawrence J. Nagy

“We’ve always been friendly to each other but never really had conversations. We root for each other—she’s an amazing rider,” said Taylor. But it will be a different scene next year, when McKayla joins her on the intercollegiate riding squad at Auburn University.

“I think that’s really special. I’m really excited for us to be a team and not be going head-to-head. At Auburn, the team is very close. We are like sisters. I think this is a good moment,” said Taylor.

So much went on at the show that I can just sum up the moving parts briefly:

  • Fans were loving the costume class, a one-round speed competition highlighted by some interesting get-ups, but it was Kama Godek who won the prize for best costume with her very creative scarecrow outfit. Hear what Kama had to say in this video.
  • Part of what makes Washington a different show is passing the horses walking on the sidewalk while they get some fresh air, giving two-legged pedestrians something to look at.
  • The puissance, or high jump, is always a crowd-pleaser. Sadly, only four horses competed this year. Few riders have a grand prix horse that they want to test over the simulated brick wall, but Aaron Vale is a regular in the class (he’s hoping it’s not an endangered species) and he prepped Finou for the grand prix with a victory over the towering obstacle. Though his opposition had dropped by the wayside when the wall was set at 6 feet, 3 inches, Aaron came back alone and pleased the crowd by clearing the wall when it went up to 6-7.
  • Interesting to note that Finou has extremely limited vision in his left eye, so much so that Aaron calls him blind in that eye. “It has some hindrances occasionally; it makes him quite a nervous horse to train. That’s more the difficult (thing) than maybe a left turn,” Aaron said. “Keeping him relaxed and confident without being worried about what’s behind him is the real trick for him.”
  • McLain Ward startled everyone when he announced after winning the $50,000 Speed Final with the stalwart HH Carlos Z that he was retiring the horse on the spot. Carlos filled so many roles for him; now he’ll have leisure time. Hear what McLain had to say on this video
  • Vicki Lowell, the hard-working president of the Washington show, is hoping to raise its rating (and the money necessary to do so) from 4 to 5 stars on the FEI (international equestrian federation) calendar.

“Our goal is every year to do something really special and different. This year, it was all about the new footing. Certainly we want to bring the best riders in the world to compete here. We have gotten rave reviews; I could not be more happy,” she told me.

“One of the things we do is try to make it as fun as possible. All the riders get cupcakes when they win, and they really love those pink boxes. Even Beezie (Madden) was excited to get her cupcakes.”

At Kids’ Day, down the street from the show in front of the National Portrait Gallery museum, she saw Sen. John McCain out for a walk and introduced herself.

“This only happens in Washington D.C. at the Washington International Horse Show,” said Vicki proudly.

“I had tears in my eyes.”

The senator took in the sights, kids taking pony rides and petting a mini-horse, greeting everyone and even meeting Klinger, a Third U.S. Infantry Regiment caisson horse who is a Kids’ Day regular.

He is the unofficial mascot of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and is a regular participant at Kids’ Day. Many who have never met a horse are thrilled just to see and touch him.

The Washington show has a long history of remarkable moments.

Next year will be the 60 anniversary of the show, which started in the old National Guard Armory.

I’ll never forget my first time watching Rodney Jenkins (now a member of the WIHS Hall of Fame) ride there and win the President’s Cup in 1970 with Idle Dice. The golden-hued Cup, donated by horsewoman Jacqueline Kennedy when her husband, Jack, was president (that’s why it’s called the President’s Cup), is among a select few very special horse show trophies offered in this country.

Now it is presented to the winner of the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Washington, and Beat Mändli of Switzerland, who topped the 26-horse field this weekend, was far from the first foreign rider to be victorious in the class. (Among the most prominent names engraved on the trophy is that of the late Alwin Schockemohle, brother of Paul, who won individual Olympic gold in 1976 and took the Cup three years earlier on Rex the Robber.) 

Read more about this year’s competition here and here.

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