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!