Free Rein With: Sam Barish

Jun 4, 2010 - 5:52 AM
(photo: Bruce Lawrie)

Sam Barish was an unlikely convert into the dressage world. A fusion energy physicist at the Department of Energy, he was introduced to the sport by a girlfriend about 40 years ago. He started attending shows with her and decided if he was there, he might as well do something useful. Those early forays into volunteering led to bigger positions, and Barish held the U.S. Dressage Federation presidency from 1999-2009 and also served as president of the Potomac Valley Dressage Association for five years.

Despite his lack of riding experience—Barish said he’s been on a horse fewer than a dozen times—he has enormous respect for the sport. “Even though I’m not a rider, I think well-done dressage is beautiful,” Barish said. “I have great appreciation even for a very well done training level test. I can find it inspiring.”

Barish is devoting his newfound free time to his work at the Department of Energy as the stellerator and innovative confinement concepts program manager and his hobbies—playing tennis competitively and cheering on high school, professional and college basketball games. He’s not giving up dressage entirely, though, and he’ll still announce at shows and serve as a non-voting member on the USDF Board of Executives.

Name: Sam Barish
Home base: Rockville, Md.
Age: 66

What three things can be found in your refrigerator at any time?
Apples, grapes and water.

What will you miss most about being USDF president?
The opportunity to improve and have a positive impact on dressage in the United States.

What was the most important lesson you learned the hard way?
To be effective in leadership positions people have to like you, and it took me a long time to learn that. I was probably in my 50s when I learned that one. I always tried to do what I thought was the right thing. I didn’t care if people liked it or didn’t like it. Even if I turned out to be right, if people didn’t like working with me, I couldn’t be effective. To achieve my goals I had to be more likable. I may not be the most likable person now, but I’ve tried to be more friendly and congenial.

What word or phrase do you overuse?
Outstanding.

When was the last time you rode a horse?
I’d say about 15 years ago. I don’t know how to ride, and I’ve never known how to ride, so being on horses isn’t something I know very much about even though I know something about the sport of dressage.

What was the last book you read?
You Cannot Be Serious
by John McEnroe. Many, many years ago when he was in his prime you probably heard he was the worst ever in the history of tennis as far as behavior on the tennis court. One time when an umpire made a call he didn’t like he screamed, “You cannot be serious!” He said a lot of things worse than that.

What is your drink of choice?
A fruit smoothie.

What electronic device could you not live without?
My cell phone. I have a simple one. I don’t do any text messages; I just make and receive calls and listen to voicemail.

What is the most important characteristic in a successful dressage horse?
I’m not a rider, and I don’t come from that much knowledge. But to me, it seems that the mind is absolutely critical. If the horse doesn’t have a good attitude toward his work he’s not going to make it in dressage.

What is the biggest issue facing the world today?
The threat of terrorism.

What trait do you most value in a person?
Integrity.

What was the last foreign country you visited?
Cancun, Mexico, on vacation.

Name one random fact people wouldn’t know about you.
As a child, I was an actor in many plays, and I played the lead in every show I was ever including My Fair Lady, where as a 13-year-old I played Eliza Doolittle, The Music Man, Oklahoma, Peter Pan, Tom Sawyer and Pinocchio. I gave it up at age 15.

Describe yourself in three words.
This is a tough one. Dependable, loyal and tenacious.

What do you find to be the most ridiculous part of the dressage world?
Dressage riders, when they don’t do well in competition, have a tendency to blame the judge or the horse for their lack of success. Some riders frequently don’t realize their own shortcomings.

Whom do you most admire?
USDF founder Lowell Boomer, FEI O-rated Judge Anne Gribbons, USDF Executive Director Stephan Hienzsch, USEF President David O’Connor, Steffen Peters and USEF Executive Director of Sport Programs Jim Wolf.

If you could change one thing about the sport of dressage, what would it be?
The dress code. I think it would help to make the dress code less formal and allow dress to be varied and interesting. I believe the formality of the dressage code turns many people off and gives the perception that dressage is an elite sport.

One piece of advice you’d give to the next USDF president:
To address the difficult issues and make the tough decisions based on what’s in USDF’s best interest as opposed to what might be politically expedient.

Where will you be in 10 years?
I’m 66 years old. I hope I’m going to be alive. In short: enjoying life but making a contribution to something. I’m not quite sure what that something is going to be.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Free Rein With: Sam Barish” ran in the June 4 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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