My Norwegian Elkhound puppy Adele took some time this week to join me in New York City at the American Kennel Club to talk about our experiences in the 4-6 Month Beginner Puppy Competition. Now that she is 6 months old, she is practicing for the “big dog” shows.
The Pennsylvania National Horse Show just finished 10 days showcasing premier hunters and jumpers ridden by juniors and adults, all culminating in the $85,000 Grand Prix de Penn National. I watched nearly ever round of every class thanks to live streaming on the USEF Network (www.usefnetwork.com) the online channel of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). Thanks to technology horse-crazy girls like myself can experience equine sports to the extreme from the bending lines, in and outs, and long approaches of those exquisitely executed hunter courses to those thrilling triple combinations, rollbacks, and jumper jump-offs. To my delight I also watched Hunt Night, complete with a pack of hounds and the Ladies Side Saddle division, including jumping! Think about that for a moment.
Horse Show of the Gilded Age
Premier horse shows, like dog shows, grew up in Manhattan’s gilded age in the 1870s and 1880s. The famous Westminster Kennel Club dog show, founded in 1877, which promotes itself as the second longest sporting event in America after the Kentucky Derby, was founded by a group of sportsmen. So too was the National Horse Show founded in 1883 by a group of sportsmen. And while horse sports, in the form of racing was established much earlier, with such venues as the Saratoga Race Course in 1863 during the Civil War, it was the post-war economic boom which fueled incredible wealth and the need to spend it on leisurely pursuits.
At this point those gilded gentlemen and their ladies, needed some entertainment and bragging rights to amuse themselves during the rest of the year when they weren’t up at the “Saratoga Spa” but stuck in New York City for the fall and winter social seasons. Both Westminster and the National Horse Show chose the original Madison Square Garden at 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue as the venue for the premier events in their respective sports.
“The National” became “the place” to be seen. In fact, according to the event’s website, “By 1887, the National Horse Show Directory, listing directors and 920 members, formed the basis for Louis Keller’s first New York Social Register.” Even The New York Times journalist Joe Drape gave a nod to the social status of the National when recounting the racehorse Cigar, “to his final destination of Madison Square Garden, where on Nov. 2, 1996, he was thrown a retirement party before the white-gloved set at the National Horse Show.”
As the popularity of equine sports soared after World War II the National had company. The Pennsylvania National Horse Show was founded in Harrisburg in 1945 followed by the Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) in 1958 in DC. These three top-rated urban horse shows held in large indoor arenas a few weeks apart in October were dubbed “the indoor circuit” or “fall indoors” for the last half century.
I recall my first trip to the National as a young child mesmerized by something called the Puissance. This class basically asks a horse to gallop at a 7-foot brick wall made of wooden boxes and jump it. I also remember watching the Maclay Equitation Finals because a fellow rider at my barn was showing her sister’s beautiful black Thoroughbred mare Fleet Nancy, a relative of 1943 Triple Crown winner Count Fleet. I also remember another young girl who won that class, Leslie Burr, who hailed from Connecticut. It was at that show I fell in love with horse shows, jumping and Thoroughbreds!
Last week I watched that same Leslie Burr, now Howard, pilot many jumpers around the Farm Complex at the Penn National via live stream. It was a different kind of thrilling than some 40 years earlier at the Garden, but still, today I could watch it where ever I was! And, Olympic veteran Howard keeps those beautiful horses right here in Newtown.
This week I’ll be tuning in to watch the WIHS, which now bills its self as ‘the country’s leading metropolitan indoor horse show,” since the venerable National left Madison Square Garden in 1990s. Indeed, the WIHS has other bragging rights as well, including “The standing North American indoor Puissance (high jump) record of 7 feet 7 1/2 inches was set at Washington in 1983 by Anthony D’Ambrosio and Sweet N’ Low.
And to finish up the indoor circuit October 28-November 2, the Alltech National Horse Show can be viewed online from USEF’s headquarters at the Kentucky Horse Park, the show’s home since 2011. It pleases me to know that the National, at one point near extinction once it left New York City, was a tradition founded and saved by a “group of sportsmen” and sportswomen too!
“There are some who compare the dog Cerberus, the monster that guarded the entrance to Hades, with the original conception of the bulldog. This, of course, is fanciful. Time has so molded his disposition that, today, he is as different from his past as that bloodthirsty bygone age is different from our own kindly humanity. The bulldog is the sweetest dog on earth, and to gain that epithet he has come a long way.” —Josephine Rine, AKC Gazette, April 1928
Many schools and universities use the Bulldog as their mascot, but Yale’s Handsome Dan was the original. The first in a long line of Handsome Dans came to Yale in 1889. He was immortalized in the “Bulldog” fight song, written in 1911 by undergraduate Cole Porter.
The first Saturday of October when leaves turn gold and scarlet red and the air crisp, my thoughts always turn to riding to hounds and the start of the formal season. My first formal meet gathered at Greenfield Hill Church green, where some of the Fairfield County Hounds had assembled for a Thanksgiving Day hunt. Donning formal attire, black hunt coat, white stock tie fastened with a gold pin neatly tucked under my chin and white knit gloves, I was aboard my chestnut pony Gingersnap. We took off to the sounds of the huntsman’s horn to his hounds. Soon we were galloping down country lanes, jumping stone walls and having a fine day on this “drag” hunt. The pack had come down to Westport to reenact the hey day when they hunted the area from 1923 to 1968 when they left their home base of the Fairfield County Hunt Club to points north in Newtown, where the land was still open and wild.
Leaving the kennels on Huntingtown Road, Newtown, Connecticut ~ 1978
Two years later I went on my first authentic fox hunt in Newtown leaving from the kennels on Huntingtown Road, once again aboard Gingersnap. This thrill ride lasted hours, followed by a robust hunt breakfast and solidified my love of riding to hounds forever. As part of my continuing education about this sport, I was asked to read “Riding to Hounds in America: An Introduction For Foxhunters.” This slim curious pamphlet was originally published in 1962 by the Chronicle of the Horse magazine. The chapters first appeared as magazine columns written by William P. Wadsworth, MFH (that’s Master of Foxhounds). Chapters include Preliminary Matters, Hounds, Organization in the Field, The Fox, The Hunting Day, Hunting Etiquette, and Glossary of Foxhunting Terms.
I poured over every single one of the 47 pages until I was sure I could behave properly in the hunt field. It is beautifully illustrated with those amusing drawings by Custer Cassidy, depicting everything from ‘Most beginners who hunt are ‘over-mounted’’ to the ‘working hound’ and his friend the ‘loafing hound.’ It pages are filled with advice from, greet the Master with good morning, never point your horse’s hind end at the hounds, and keep away from the hounds, at least 10 yards. I was so enchanted by the sport, I wrote a high school paper about it, the book and earning my colors with Fairfield as a junior member aboard my by TB gelding Speculation.
Donning my Fairfield County Hounds hunt colors with Speculation at Golden’s Bridge Hounds Hunter Pace ~ 1993
Beyond the endless etiquette, it contains a bit of hound history. Wadsworth writes, “Hounds are hounds, not dogs.” He continues, “We know hounds were bred for sport in the time of the Assyrians. We know that hounds were bred for stag hunting in the eighth century by the French nobility. We are fairly sure that these hounds were imported into England by the French after the conquest of 1066, and we believe that these stag hounds were the foundation stock of the hounds used to hunt stag and later fox. By the 17th century foxhunting had eclipsed stag hunting in England, and foxhounds have been bred as foxhounds ever since.”
Waiting for the hounds at a check during cubbing season
Babble, Riot and Feathers
All sports have jargon, and riding to hounds is no exception. We all know that the fox carries his “brush” when he leaves his “covert” and has “gone away.” Listening to hounds “speak” while following the “line” of the fox as runs towards his “earth” is fun but sometimes the fox may “double back” to confuse the hounds whose “nose” has deceived them. But if a hound or a “couple” starts to “heel” they are making a backwards embarrassing mistake.
Hounds must not “dwell” or “babble” or “riot” since they have shown they are hunting nothing or something they shouldn’t be. And the worst insult to a hound’s sensibility is to draw a “blank” or to “check” because the hounds have lost the “line” hopefully only temporarily. A hound “marks” the “line” and will “open” the first time he “gives tongue” but once hounds reach a full “cry” you know that they are on the “line” until they start “feathering” for attention that the quarry has been found. And, did you know, a hound will actually “honor” when he “gives tongue” on a “line” that another hound has been hunting? See how easy it is to speak fox hunt? And one final piece of advice from Wadsworth, don’t ever jump a “panel” on a “lark” as it will annoy the landowners.
Jumping a panel coop on Hundred Acres Farm, Newtown, Connecticut aboard Speculation