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August 9, 2014

Behind The Tackroom Curtains

Longwood looked beautiful in navy.

Maybe it’s a remnant of when I used to groom full time, maybe it’s because I’m nosey, maybe it’s just human nature, but when I see a fancy set-up at a horse show, I always want to walk down the barn aisle and see everything else. Sure there’s rarely anything prohibiting you from cutting down someone’s aisle, but you never know if it's a quiet time or a busy one, and I always feel like I'm intruding. So when I heard about the tackroom judging contest at Menlo Charity, I immediately invited myself. Luckily for me, the show committee agreed to let me tag along and take photos.

Menlo’s a U.S. Equestrian Federation Heritage Show and a boutique event if there ever was one. It’s held at the Menlo Circus Club, an exclusive private club tucked in between mansions in the well-to-do town of Menlo Park, about 40 minutes from downtown San Francisco. While there’s top competition in the hunter ring, there’s plenty of trendsetting and champagne drinking in the VIP area, so I’d assumed this tackroom judging business would be a leisurely affair. I’d pictured a few older ladies driving by on golf carts and hobbling out to run a white-gloved hand over a trunk to check for dust. Not so much.

Menlo show committee member Linda Salvador has been organizing the contest for a while—nine years she guesses—and she has it down to a science. She briefed the judges for 20 minutes, informing them that they were to evaluate not just display areas, but the entire barn. Linda made one point clear: This was not a beauty contest. Sure, aesthetics mattered, but so did safety, workflow and, most importantly, comfort for horse and rider. In fact, Linda had designed a score sheet with six categories (appearance, organization and planning, safety, practicality, condition, and innovation) and handed out detailed instruction sheets on ranking each barn. She warned not to mark down for a few bridles waiting to be cleaned; after all, these were functional barns.

She’d estimated that we’d take an hour start to finish to judge the 30 or so barns at the show, but with so many immaculate barns to visit, that wasn't nearly enough time, and several times when we'd get caught up admiring a particular aisle she'd gently find each of us and hint that we had to keep moving. After two Linda finally found me toward the back of an aisle taking photos of yet another very organized grooming stall, and she politely insisted I join the group.

Throughout the time the judges had discussed their thoughts sotto voce at the ends of the aisles, pointing out exceptional features and lamenting that their otherwise favorite stables hadn’t posted emergency contact information. When it came time to pick the winners, Linda pulled the golf cart pulled back behind a pile of unused jumps away from the barns to debate. The judges narrowed it down to a handful, and, despite the spreadsheet, ultimately it came down to personal preference. The debating stayed civil, and finally someone fingered the real point: If you were a horse, where would you want to be? (My answer: at any of these barns.)

In the end Cindy Brooks’ Northern Run came out on top, thanks to hard work by head groom Lolo Godoi. Charlebois Farm, run by John and Denise Charlebois, took second, and John French’s Waldenbrook Farm finished third. Honestly, the judges couldn't have picked a bad barn in the lot, and I saw quite a few 10s on those score sheets.

Sure it was fun—OK, really fun—to see the flashiest displays, but it was even better to get ideas for improving my own much more modest barn. One judge fell in love with the glycerin rope hanging from a string on the tack hook. I’d seen that one before but never stored leg wraps by rolling them up and bungeeing them to the wall of a tackroom.

But the best part was chatting with the grooms. Yesterday a few caretakers told me about a friendly rivalry between neighboring barns for the upcoming contest, and it was clear how much effort had gone into today’s presentation. Everyone was deservedly proud of his or her horses and barn, and I’m only sorry that we stopped too soon to see them all. I suppose that means I have to come back next year and tag along again.

Want more Menlo? We've got the story of last night's USHJA International Hunter Derby. While you're at it, check out these photos from the open hunter divisions and the horse and hound class.

For an in depth report from the show, pick up the Aug. 25 issue of The Chronicle.

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