By Susan Friedland-Smith
It was the best of times and … the best of times for fans of equestrian competition in Southern California during the last quarter of 2014 as downtown Los Angeles hosted the inaugural Los Angeles Masters Grand Prix and, 85 miles away in Riverside County, the Galway Downs International Event (CCI***) occurred.
Both competitions showcased elite riders from their respective disciplines (show jumping and three-day eventing) and featured additional goings-on worthy of any social calendar. I attended both shows and live Tweeted, met inspirational individuals and am invigorated for my own riding “career” in 2015.
Gallops and Glamour Downtown
A red carpet event at a horse show? I read the schedule for the Longines Los Angeles Masters and wondered if horses like Jessica Springsteen’s Vindicat W would sashay down the aisle and where the red carpet would lead to … the arena?
The L.A. Masters had scores of celebrities — Bo Derek, Ariana Rockefeller, Bill Gates, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf to name a few — two red carpet evenings, and one international art boutique: Opera Gallery. The red carpet led from the foyer of the Convention Center into Prestige Village, the exquisite “mall” of boutiques that encircled the warm-up arena.
At one of the red carpet events, I chatted with Hannah Selleck and asked the equestrian/model if anyone in her family was a nervous Nellie watching her compete. She said no, that they’re all very supportive, but added that her mother is a ballet dancer and has been known to point and flex her toes in an unconscious effort to “help” Hannah when she’s sailing over jumps.
I saw Olympian Reed Kessler and I asked what advice she’d have for all the young girls out there who aspire to be her. Reed said they should remember that riding is a very humbling sport and to excel, you need grit. I asked Reed how many horses she rode per day and if that was her sole workout. The answer: she rides six horses daily and also hits the gym to run and lift weights.
Kerry Condon, the Irish actress known for her roles on HBO’s “Luck” and HBO/BBC’s “Rome,” sparkled with energy as she explained how therapeutic it was to muck out her two Thoroughbreds’ stalls on Sundays when the barn staff has the day off. She said she loves to ride, but she also enjoys taking care of her horses and thinks it’s fun to bathe them.
Most horse shows I’ve been to have great shopping. Never before have I been to a show with grand works of art that have been shipped from Hong Kong and displayed in an actual gallery. In addition to the 3,000-wire-coat-hanger sculpture of a larger-than-life-size horse simply called Stallion, there was a Formula One racecar engine sculpted into the face of a horse. The gallery had original works of art by Marc Chagall and Joan Miro!
In the entryway to Prestige Village, a life-size horse sculpture was a work of art in progress. The first day, the piece was white and then over the course of the weekend, the colors of the horse changed as the artist brought the work to life.
In the Great Outdoors
About a month following the L.A. Masters, eventing luminaries Buck Davidson Jr., Boyd Martin, Gina Miles and scores of other talented riders from across the country competed at the annual Galway Downs International Event in the heart of Temecula wine country. Boyd Martin shared this on his blog: “Galway Downs is a super event with a real international feel. I would encourage any rider who is looking to gain experience to invest in a trip out there to compete, instead of going overseas first. It’s basically the same experience, for a third of the cost.”
The grounds of the three-day event are located in a valley, with the scenic backdrop of the Temescal and Santa Ana Mountains. Palm trees dot the property intermittently, while many of the cross-country fences were flanked by magenta shrubs of bougainvillea and spiky flax.
I attended cross-country day, which began after a two-hour rain delay and enough of a weather shift to prove that it was indeed autumn in Southern California. I actually saw people wearing all-weather boots and bundled up in thick jackets!
In addition to the natural beauty of the venue, a lovely feature of spectating during the cross-country phase was the chance to move from jump to jump and sit or stand just a few yards away from the action. It was a thrill to see a horse from a football field distance away come galloping in my direction, ears perked at attention, and take flight over a rugged wooden fence or splash into water, usually with the rider bursting out, “Good boy!” or giving other verbal encouragement.
There was something about the close proximity to the horse and rider that made spectating at a cross-country fence more intimate than from sitting up in the stands looking down on a large indoor arena. And in between cross-country divisions, when there was a break in the action, it was fantastic to be able to walk right up to the fences and measure where the giant logs or brush line up on your body! All the horses and riders made the course look easy. Amateur photographers like my husband had a heyday with the abundant light and the freedom to visit almost anywhere on course.
Instead of red carpets and art galleries, Galway Downs offered food trucks, horsey vendors ranging from French saddlers to a local tack re-sale shop. There was even live music, a haunted house, hayride and a scream contest!
In case you were wondering who the victors of the Masters and Galway were, Jos Verlooy, a 19-year-old Belgian rider, claimed the trophy at the L.A. Convention Center aboard 11-year old Domino, while Barbara Crabo of Arizona and her mount, Eveready II, jumped to the top spot at Galway.
Besides the respective champions of the show jumping and three-day event competitions, I believe the winners were all the riders who were able to compete at such world-class venues and fans like myself who love horses and can’t get enough of equestrian sports. Mark your 2015 calendar to join the fun in SoCal, whether from the saddle or the sidelines!
About the writer: Susan Friedland-Smith, a middle school history teacher living in North Tustin, California, has been horse-crazy since girlhood. While encouraging her newbie equestrian husband’s riding pursuits, she has been on a quest to find her next equine best friend. Join the quirky adventures by following her blog Saddle Seeks Horse at www.susanfriedlandsmith.com and on Twitter @susanwordlover.