- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Chloe Reid is listing the foods her pony, Blue on Blue, likes best.

“He likes to eat crushed-up hay,” the bagged, dustless variety known as denghi, says 10-year-old Chloe. “He also likes apples and carrots and peppermints. I had another pony who liked to eat M&Ms.;”

It’s not just her animals’ quirky snack preferences that Chloe, who lives with her family in Georgetown, knows well. She also knows how to wield a curry comb (a tool for grooming horses’ coats), when to urge a pony to pick up its pace, and why a horse might need to be draped with a blanket.

Such is the life of a young rider with a consuming passion for horses and a serious yen to compete.

And compete she will — in the “small pony hunter” class — when she and Blue on Blue join some 600 horses and almost 500 riders for the 48th annual Washington International Horse Show (WIHS), opening Tuesday at the Verizon Center.

The last of a kind

It’s a five-day showcase for some of the world’s best-known horses and riders, who vie for honors in the performance arts of jumping, side-saddle riding and dressage (the highly disciplined display of precise movement sometimes called “ballet on horseback.”)

Interspersed among the intense demonstrations of horsemanship are a few changes of pace that also serve to broaden the audience for what has always been considered a blue-blooded sport: Jack Russell terrier races, guaranteed to elicit smiles; barrel racing, a rodeo-style Western-saddle event; a “barn night” that encourages people associated with area barns and stables to dress up to show their barn spirit; and a “celebrity challenge” that pairs a show jumper on horseback with a local media personality in a golf cart and puts them on an obstacle course.

Rounding out the bill are an indoor polo exhibition and a pony pavilion on the afternoon of Oct. 28 that gives children the chance to meet and handle the small horses.

The WIHS is the last major invitational indoor horse show in the United States to include both hunter events — judged primarily on the smoothness, flow and carriage of horse and rider — and jumper events, which put a premium on the athletic prowess of the horse and its rider’s ability to guide the animal over technically demanding courses. The Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament, also an indoor event, excludes hunters — and the tony National Horse Show, which left Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden in 2001 after more than a century there, continues this year in Wellington, Fla., as an outdoor show.

Glamour with conditions

It’s a trial on several levels, certainly for the competitors.

“Washington is the most glamorous horse show, but it is also probably the hardest to prepare for,” says Betty Oare of Warrenton, Va., who with her husband, Ernest, owns EMO Stables and shows at least a dozen champion thoroughbreds.

Mrs. Oare, 65, will ride her Dutch Warmblood, Madison, and likely her bay mare Estrella in the amateur owner-hunter division for riders 35 and up.

“A big horse show is not a natural environment for horses,” she says. Compared to the countryside, “there’s very little space to work your horses.”

WIHS does what it can. Starting at midnight the day before the first horses arrive, horse show crews will transform the streets surrounding the Verizon Center into a warm-up area for the animals and their riders, hauling in more than a thousand tons of dirt and sand that will protect the animals’ hooves from the asphalt.

Inside the giant arena, they will build hundreds of stables and erect jumps, entwining them with thousands of flowers.

And according to Susan Webb, executive director of the WIHS, at the close of each day’s events, the ring will be opened from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. so people can exercise their horses.

Organizers want to minimize the strain on these high-strung animals, some of which are being shipped in by plane.

“Horses tend to be a bit nervous during landing and takeoff, but some airlines will let people travel with them,” says Evan Coluccio, 18, a Florida resident raised in Virginia who will be coaching a student, 16-year-old Channing Thomas, in the children?s jumper finals on Wednesday. Mr. Coluccio hopes to compete himself in the open — or advanced — jumper division.

Ms. Webb says flexibility — plus a cool head and a knack for problem-solving — are mandatory in planning and executing such an elaborate presentation.

“I look at it as like planning a wedding,” she says. “We all know what we want to have happen, but only we know what went wrong or right. We’re pretty quick to come up with a Plan B if necessary.”

Tough competition

Even to garner an invitation, prospective riders go through an elaborate qualification process. Participants in the WIHS are drawn from across the country and the world based on points they accrue year-round in other competitive events.

“We are the invitational end-of-the-year qualifying horse show,” Ms. Webb says. “You don’t just send a piece of paper and a check” to get onto the roster of competitors, she says.

Working with the U.S. Equestrian Federation, the national governing body of equestrian sports, Ms. Webb and her Gaithersburg-based staff develop a list of participants who qualify based on the number of points they’ve accumulated. By early autumn, letters have been mailed to those riders who meet the WIHS requirements. Of those, 80 to 90 percent will accept the invitation.

A horse that’s lame or ill might be the only thing preventing a rider from accepting the invitation from Washington — and even then, many riders have other animals available to them that they may choose to show.

Discipline, discipline

Adhering to an extraordinary set of logistics starts with the riders, who know they must arrive at the time set. In order to arrive in ample time Saturday and Sunday morning to prepare for Chloe Reid’s small pony hunter events at the WIHS, she and her mother, Juliet Reid — who accompanies Chloe to hundreds of hours of lessons and competitions every year — will likely leave home at 4 a.m.

Mrs. Reid, 36, says the depth of commitment on the part of the rider’s family cannot be underestimated.

“It is really time-consuming, and it will take over a lot of your life,” she says. “But I think the lessons it is teaching Chloe are the most valuable in the world.” She ticks off organization, discipline and dedication.

“And the reward for me is that I have such a close relationship with my daughter. I really know her.”

Mrs. Reid is not the only adult behind Chloe, who rides at least two days a week after school with her trainer, Kim Stewart. Ms. Stewart — who with her mother, Daryl Stewart, owns Glenwillow Farm in Jefferson, Md., where Blue on Blue is boarded — has a realistic view of what the skill demands of youngsters.

“Young riders must dedicate time and energy to practice,” says Ms. Stewart, 42. “It takes concentration to learn the jumping courses and perseverance to work through problems. Above all, a love of ponies and a desire to learn the skills it takes to communicate with them through riding is required.”

Competing in next week’s show is clearly another reward.

“The WIHS is the highest level of horse-showing that [children Chloe’s age] see,” Ms. Stewart says.

Admiration and awe

It’s equally clear that a love and admiration for the noble horse is what motivates the people who work with them.

When Mrs. Oare talks about her mare Estrella, for example, what comes through is something approaching awe.

Sixteen hands high (a “hand” is equivalent to 4 inches) at the withers, between the shoulder blades, Estrella won several events at WIHS before sustaining an injury that kept her from taking part for almost three years. Mrs. Oare is cautiously optimistic that Estrella will be in top form to compete by the time WIHS gets under way.

“She is one of the greatest horses I’ve ever ridden,” Mrs. Oare says, astride Estrella in one of EMO Stables’ rings, which are surfaced with an all-weather synthetic material that resembles chopped-up tires mixed with sand.

“I want a horse that’s honest and brave, and she has a great heart and a great desire to win.”

In Brookeville, Allie Listrani, 29, teaches riding to adults and children as young as 2 at Walnut Pond, the family farm. She and her sister and parents also “break” or train young horses and buy and sell animals, and know what makes a good performer.

“The more education horses have, and the more athletic ability and talent they have, the more they are worth,” she says, noting that horses competing at WIHS can easily be valued at $1 million or more.

Winner of the junior hunter division at WIHS at age 13, Ms. Listrani went on to win events as both a child and an adult three more times in subsequent years.

Her focus at the show next week will be coaching two of her students: Danielle Menker, 14, who will compete in the children?s hunter class; and Ericka Schaefer, 24, riding in the adult jumper class. Ms. Schaefer, who works for WIHS, won this event last year.

Rewards after all

Despite the stresses, competitors past and present say the rewards of the horse-show world — from the pleasure of working outdoors to the friendships formed on the show circuit — make it all worth while.

“I love horses and I love riding, so for me, going to the barn every day” is a treat, says Ms. Listrani, who typically exercises and trains as many as half a dozen horses at once. “I don’t have to go to an office.”

Mr. Coluccio, who was home-schooled after fourth grade, says that the friends he’s made in the world of competitive riding more than compensate for anything he might have missed by not attending a conventional school or by postponing college indefinitely.

“I’ve made sacrifices for the horses, but I don’t regret them,” he explains. “If you want to finish your academic life and then get seriously into [competing] at age 23 or 24, it might be a bit more difficult to catch up.”

He may have to make one more sacrifice: competing in this year’s WIHS. Just last week he was told that his mount, Champigny, the 14-year-old Selle Francais he’s ridden for the Carl family of Washington since December, will be taken off the circuit for six to eight months because of a recent surgery.

“I’ll be focused on finding another horse” until the event begins, says Mr. Coluccio, who was circumspect about the possibility of missing competition in the WIHS.

“I may have to let Washington go this year. But there’ll be many more years to show there.”

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