The West Coast Hunter/Jumper Horse Show Circuits

Zone 10’s hunter/jumper horse show circuits in California and Nevada are thriving.
Canada’s Ben Asselin and Makavoy compete in the Battle of the Nations Class at the inaugural Longines Los Angeles Masters event last fall. | © Getty Images/Longines Los Angeles Masters

Tourism boards bill California as the Golden State, but for hunter/jumper competitors it’s also the land of opportunity. As a hub of the West Coast show circuit, California, along with Nevada, comprises the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s third largest zone, Zone 10, which is evolving and thriving. 

The debut of the Longines Los Angeles Masters last fall along with the third staging of the HITS AIG $1 Million Grand Prix in March in Thermal, California, and the return of the World Cup Finals for jumping and dressage to Las Vegas in April renewed appetites for international sport. This hunger should be sated come fall with three West Coast World Cup qualifiers and the return of the LA Masters.

“There is definitely a lot of growth and competitiveness and upward pressure on standards all across the board,” says Zone 10 Jumper Committee Chairman Fred Bauer of the West Coast scene in particular and especially of the impact of the evolving fall circuit. “We see it in better footing, better equipment and better general standards, which is great for our sport.” 

But it’s not just international-level competitors who are benefiting from the growth. Multi-week U.S. Equestrian Federation-rated shows abound, and the local and regional competition scene is crowded with well-managed unrated events that often include enticing incentives and prizes, such as show series that offer their own high-point year-end awards.

The Growing Fall Circuit
The new 2015 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping North American League was announced last March in Miami, Florida. The result benefited the West Coast’s fall show circuit, which has long played second fiddle to the East Coast’s long-running Indoor circuit.

California’s Del Mar International Horse Show will host a World Cup qualifier in October. | © Amy McCool

Northern California’s Sacramento International Horse Show, a joint effort of trainer Rudy Leone and organizer Dale Harvey, will keep its World Cup qualifier September 22–27. The show itself debuted in 2008 to great acclaim over footing and for putting the “show” back into horse show.

The LA Masters, which includes a CSI*****, will be October 1–4 at the Los Angeles Convention Center with prize money reaching $1 million. The four-day event combines world-class competition and “a prestigious social event celebrating the essence of Los Angeles lifestyle and glamour,” according to its website. 

Farther south, the Del Mar International, 20 miles north of downtown San Diego, will host a World Cup qualifier October 7–18. Like Sacramento, the Las Vegas National, managed by Blenheim EquiSports, also will keep its qualifier November 10–15. 

The improved standards of such prestigious events are “going to attract more people from other areas, which we’ve already seen a trend toward,” observes Dale, a former grand-prix rider and trainer. He has become a pivotal player with West Palm Events, which manages 15 shows, including Sacramento and Del Mar, and helps stage the LA Masters. “Having a show of the Masters’ caliber in the middle of the World Cup qualifiers is another reason a lot of people are going to come out.” 

Longines’ sponsorship of both the qualifiers and the Masters is another key component in what Dale describes as a “win-win for competitors at every level. The World Cups are feature events of shows that offer a lot of other things, so there’s a great trickle-down effect, plus the benefit of Junior and amateur riders being able to watch and ride alongside riders of that caliber,” he says.

Hunter, equitation and lower-level jumper divisions are held in conjunction with the high-performance classes at these shows and they serve the majority of the exhibitor base. For example, two of the region’s prestigious medal finals, the Onondarka and the WCE, are relocating this year to the Del Mar International and the Las Vegas National, respectively. 

Thermal and Sonoma
Earlier this year, the eight-week HITS Thermal Desert Circuit, about two hours east of Los Angeles and running from mid-January through mid-March, was back to a pre-recession peak of 3,500 stalls booked during Week VI. Though the series lost one of its World Cup qualifiers in the FEI league restructure, it still will host one in February 2016. The circuit has something else up its sleeve as well: FEI CSI***** status for its March finale, the 2016 AIG $1 Million Grand Prix. Among other things, five-star status provides more opportunities for riders to earn points toward U.S. and world rankings, another draw for international riders near and far.

Karl Cook and Jonkheer Z won the $100,000 Sunshine Series Grand Prix at the National Sunshine Series in Thermal, California. | © ESI Photography

In addition to the Desert Circuit, the National Sunshine Series debuted at the Thermal facility last fall. The brainchild of grand-prix rider Ali Nilforushan, it featured oyster bars, free concerts and a boutique atmosphere reminiscent of an era when horse shows were equal parts social and sporting events. With a focus, in part, on footing and prize money, he is managing the series in partnership with HITS. This year, the series has bid to add FEI CSI***** status and may add a third week. 

Also new is HITS’ plan to market custom barns to exhibitors who want to stay or maintain some presence at Thermal between the Sunshine Series and the HITS Desert Circuit. It’s a lifestyle pitch that HITS President and CEO Tom Struzzieri acknowledges will appeal to only a small percentage of clients. Yet it also could be a baby step toward approximating the multi-month commitments common on the Florida winter circuits. 

In northern California, the Sonoma Horse Park Series debuted in 2009 and is now a seven-week circuit, running from May to September, that many consider a must. First-time organizer Ashley Herman-Griffin, who apprenticed at the Gucci Paris Masters, exported many of that competition’s practices for attracting and maintaining sponsors and meeting exhibitors’ needs. In 2013, Gucci began sponsoring the series’ marquee event, the Giant Steps Charity Horse Show and Gala, bringing a new level of luxe to an already elegant affair. 

For top hunter rider and trainer Hope Glynn, of Sonoma Valley Stables in Petaluma, the series has become a lock-in show for the barn. Reasons include good footing and on-time schedules that suit her clients and its nearly backyard proximity. “If you want the big players and the big barns, you have to offer big prize money and good prizes. Ashley does that, along with fun things,” says Hope, who was consulted, along with other trainers, during the planning phases of the series and has been regularly since. A favorite of the show is free nightly wine tastings. “Instead of charging exhibitors for every single thing, she gives them a free glass of wine,” Hope says. 

Central California has not been left out of the mix either. This past Memorial Day, a two-week-long show debuted at a new venue, the Paso Robles Horse Park. A second two-week show will be in the fall. The park is the realization of a longtime dream for California horsewoman Linda Starkman. Located on 67 acres midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the site features a large turf field specifically engineered for jumping competition and five sand rings. There are 220 permanent stalls with the ability to accommodate up to 600, and all walkways and roadways are made of decomposed granite, making it safer for horses than concrete.

An Expanding Middle
Everybody loves watching high performance, but only a sliver of the hunter/jumper population competes on that hallowed turf. According to USHJA statistics, the number of USEF-rated shows in Zone 10 has hovered in the low 90s since 2000. The relatively static numbers, however, don’t reflect the proliferation of unrated shows catering to various levels.

Mexico’s Jaime Azcarraga is presented with a $350,000 check after he and his Anton Radio Formula won the 2015 AIG $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS Thermal in California. | © ESI Photography

In horse-dense San Diego County, for example, the Greater San Diego Hunter Jumper Association has 64 shows on its 2015 calendar. None have USEF ratings and most are doing well and feeding exhibitors to a championship that has for the last few years drawn close to 400 horses, a number most A-rated show managers would consider a success. The area’s unrated Signature Series promises “the same venue, quality jumps and judging as rated shows, at a third of the price.” 

“Over the past five years we’ve definitely seen growth in the number of shows,” says Shayne Berridge Wireman, a trainer and GSDHJA president. In her view, that’s good because it creates more options for a range of abilities and budgets. 

Students at her Chestnut Hills Equestrian Center in Bonsall mostly compete on the Greater San Diego circuit. Several attend USEF-rated shows for specific classes, typically jumpers and equitation if they need to step up from the county level, but that gap is closing. The GSDHJA added a 3-foot-3 equitation medal that is to be judged from a jumper perspective, paralleling the new USHJA Jumper Seat Medal and the California Professional Horsemen’s Association’s Style of Riding Class. 

The Greater San Diego scene exemplifies another trend supporting county shows’ growth: show series offering their own high-point, year-end awards or incentives. In planning annual show itineraries, Shayne’s objective is “getting each student to reach a goal they can feel good about.”

Two hours north, Los Angeles Hunter Jumper Association President Marnye Langer sees similar layers of competition in her area. An accomplished amateur jumper rider and longtime industry advocate, Marnye is also partner with her husband and show manager, Larry Langer, in the Langer Equestrian Group. LAHJA membership, in the 700 range, has been soft for the last few years, and Marnye worries that the expanding show circuit is outstripping its exhibitor base. 

The Langers acknowledge “the middle level” as a market that needs more recognition. It consists of riders who can compete at the A-rated level but prefer a smaller stage, typically B- sometimes C-rated competitions, because of costs, a desire for staying close to home and other factors. LEG is dabbling with the USHJA’s Outreach concept, designating one ring on one day of its rated Gold Coast shows for this category of lower-cost competition that does not require exhibitors to be association members. Along with helping woo newbies, the Outreach addition “allows trainers to throw another horse or two in the trailer and go to the same show,” Marnye notes. Economies of scale are better for clients, too, because the trainer’s expenses are spread among more riders. 

With local, national and international competition opportunities growing, West Coast riders are making their mark. The best reflection of shows in this region and the trainers who support them is success, says trainer Hope Glynn: “Our shows may not have the history of those back East, but if you look at the last five years at the Hunter Derby Finals, Devon or Indoors, Californians give East Coast exhibitors a run for their money.”

East vs. West
The seeds for international equestrian competition in California were planted when the Del Mar Fairgrounds hosted the World Cup Jumping Finals in 1992, but the year 2000 marked a new era for the West Coast.

That’s when former Olympic rider Robert Ridland, now U.S. chef d’équipe, paired with businessman R.J. Brandes to bring a portion of the Olympic selection trials out West for the first time. Also in 2000, their company, Blenheim EquiSports, along with Las Vegas Events and the late John Quirk helped stage the debut of the World Cup Finals in Las Vegas. In 2001, the company staged the first outdoor CSI-A in the United States, bringing a bevy of international stars to San Juan Capistrano. After so many years of Californians—Anne Kursinski, Candice King and Robert among them—going East to make their mark on the sport, international jumping arrived in the Golden State to full grandstands. 

Since then, a few riders have gone all the way from a primarily West Coast base. Will Simpson and Carlsson vom Dach helped the 2008 U.S. team to Olympic gold, and in 2012, Rich Fellers and Flexible became the first American pair to win the World Cup Finals in 25 years. Lucy Davis, Saer Coulter, Karl Cook and Hannah Selleck are among the North American Junior/Young Riders Championship stars from Zone 10’s 2008–2010 heyday to carry a California flag on the international stage today. 

Yet earning an international opportunity from a West Coast base remains difficult. Sydney Callaway, 18, is a proud product of the Greater San Diego Hunter Jumper Association and the recipient of the California Professional Horsemen’s Association‘s 2014 Special Achievement award. Her immediate priority is making the Zone 10 Young Rider team and scoring a top finish at this summer’s championships. College is also on the itinerary, but she’s planning to attend an East Coast school. “I’m not going to make those teams unless I compete on the East Coast and network there,” she says. “We do have top riders on the West Coast, but most of our grand prix are made up of amateurs. In Wellington, [Florida], most are made up of professionals. Course designers can set bigger and harder courses there and a young rider is just bombarded with chances” to watch and learn.

“There’s still a long way to go,” before the West Coast can launch international careers on its own, says show organizer Dale Harvey. “But we’re making progress.”

Vintage Shows
Though there’s a bevy of new shows and circuits, many of Zone 10’s vintage equestrian competitions are going strong. The 94th Flintridge Horse Show, evolved from the Flintridge Children’s Show, is still held in April at the famous Flintridge Riding Club and still benefits a Los Angeles area hospital. The Del Mar National celebrated its 70th year in April, having grown from a one-week, multi-discipline county fair competition into three separate weeks of Western, dressage and hunter/jumper action for frequently packed houses in the Del Mar Arena. The Portuguese National Horse Show will mark its 58th year this September and the Memorial Day Classic at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center just logged its 35th round. In the Bay Area, the 40-year old Menlo Charity Horse Show carries on proud traditions. 

Riders in an under-saddle class at the 2014 Flintridge Autumn Classic | © Amy McCool

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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