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January 20, 2006

Gerry "Mr. Horse Show" Briggs Has Earned His Moniker

Gerry Briggs isn't the first one to arrive at the horse show in the morning, but many horse shows don't start without him--it's his friendly voice over the loudspeaker that begins the day.

When Briggs sits in his announcer's booth, he's faced with dubious challenges. In a typical day, he struggles to pronounce hundreds of names and towns, strains his eyes reading the surplus of class sheets, and when he's doing the in-gate as well, answers the many questions that are fired at him from every direction.

Briggs, East Bridgewater, Mass., wears several different hats as an indispensable horse show guru. Aside from announcing and running the in-gate, he's also a jumper judge, a course designer, a manager and a truck driver.

"I love my job. A lot of people hate their jobs, but I'm happy being at the horse shows. What can I say? It's a disease, and I work with a lot of people who have it," said Briggs emphatically.

At age 45, Briggs has spent a lifetime perfecting the art of pronunciation. As a Boston, Mass., native, a city known for its distinct accent, he's worked hard on his diction and voice.

"Because I spent a lot of time in Illinois as a kid, I never acquired a hard Boston accent," said Briggs, who admitted that he does retain a piece of home in his vocabulary. "The word 'idea'--even today, I still pronounce it 'idear.' "

Briggs graduated from Curry College (Mass.) in 1982 with a communications degree and every intention of broadcasting football and baseball games on the radio. For two years, from 1981 to 1983, Briggs was a broadcaster on a Boston radio station, and although he covered the Boston Marathon, he was unhappy with his career in the radio business.

"I couldn't grow in radio making $4.50 an hour with a manager staring over my shoulder all the time waiting for me to mess up. I didn't want to suffer in limbo, so I made a conscious decision to leave the radio business," said Briggs.

A New Start
In a strange, but not at all unusual turn of events, Briggs was bitten by the infamous horse show bug, and his dream of broadcasting sports was quickly replaced by a passion for horse shows.

When he was 18, Briggs announced his first horse show. His sister, Lynne, was competing at the Cerulan Farms Horse Show in Millis, Mass., when the announcer failed to show up. In a simple twist of fate, Briggs was asked to help out--and with teenage zealousness, he rose to the occasion. Even though he recalls drifting through the day confused and lost, he was asked to come back and announce at the next show. "I kept wondering what the Medal and Maclay were all about because of the additional testing they required. I got confused when I'd try to say names and get lost on the class sheets," said Briggs, who is now able to laugh about the incident.

Following his debut at Cerulan Farms, it wasn't long before Briggs started announcing at the A-rated shows. At age 20, Briggs announced the Firesgate Farm Horse Show in Pembroke, Mass., where he oversaw three rings at once--out of a gooseneck trailer.

"I prayed I didn't make a mistake. It was confusing trying to keep track of all the class sheets, but I really enjoyed the challenge," he said.

Soon after, Briggs started managing local horse shows while he continued his pursuit of announcing.

"I realized I really could make a good living working at horse shows--but I knew I had to become a workaholic--and so I started from the bottom," he said.

And he didn't suffer in limbo long in his work at the horse shows. Briggs started at the bigger shows as a paddock master and jump crew, then moved up to managing.

"I knew that if I developed a good reputation and name that people would talk about me to A-rated show managers and I could get more jobs," said Briggs.

After several years of working and watching the brilliant minds of course designers, Briggs was consumed with a desire to learn how to course design.

"I was friendly with a lot of the course designers and amazed at how talented they were to create tests and questions in their courses and still be safe about it," recalled Briggs, who jumpstarted his hand at course designing at some local shows.

His work as a jump crew member and jumper judge also helped Briggs develop a knack for designing. For Briggs, the hardest parts of designing are trying to anticipate how a horse will react to questions he poses and getting riders to trust him.

"I'm not a rider, and a lot of people think that riders should design grand prix courses. People look at me, and it's really a trust factor," he said. "Once they realize I'm not out there to hurt the horse or the rider, and only offer a few tests and questions, they start to trust me more."

"When I have the honor of designing a grand prix course, I try to design one that encourages the horses to jump good and end with their ears up and happy," he added. "When I get to see that, I don't want accolades or criticism, I just want to hear that the exhibitor is coming back the following year."

Not Just Another Day
After years of working at the same job, it's all too easy to get burned out, especially working long days in hot summers and bitter winters.

So, what keeps him coming back every day with a smile on his face?

"I love watching great athletes perform and seeing the junior and pony kids when they have a fantastic round. It's such a natural rush," said Briggs with a smile.

And he's had plenty of opportunities to see great horses perform. Briggs announces or jumper judges for all five weeks of the Vermont Summer Festival; announces at the Washington (D.C.) International Horse Show, the New England Horseman's Council Equitation Championships, and the Capital Challenge (Md.). He jumper judges at the HITS Arizona Winter Circuit and retired this year as manager of the Norfolk Hunt Horse Show (Mass.) after 23 years--and those are just a handful of shows where he officiates.

"I really like and enjoy the people I work with, and I absolutely love seeing a great hunter or jumper," said Briggs.

When Briggs was 14, he rode and showed a Saddlebred named Pokey. But after a few years, he realized he was happier watching horses from the ground.

For Briggs, his career high has been announcing at the Washington International and Capital Challenge.

"When I announced at those shows for the first time, I felt a lot of pride because they're two of the top shows in the country, and it meant a great deal to me to be involved," said Briggs.

"Briggs is one of the guys I always love to have on my team," said Oliver Kennedy, the co-manager of the Capital Challenge. "He's willing to do whatever needs to be done. I've never met anyone like him."

Another memorable moment for Briggs was designing his first grand prix course.

"It was in 1998, at the Fieldstone Farm Horse Show [Mass.]. I was so nervous the night before--I think I only got about 20 minutes of sleep. I just kept pacing back and forth in my hotel room," recalled Briggs, who admitted that his course rode fine the following day.

Going Down The Road
Over the years, Briggs has worked with a colorful variety of horse show officials, including William "Billy" Glass. A few years after his first announcing job, Briggs crossed paths with Glass.

The chance meeting occurred 20 years ago when they were both working at the Ox Ridge Horse Show in Darien, Conn. According to Glass, at 6 a.m., a horse van was parked in the middle of the horse show, blocking traffic. Seeing Glass' distress over the situation, Briggs hopped up in the van, hot-wired it, and moved it so the show could carry on.

"Gerry does whatever needs to get done. If I could do a horse show with 30 employees or 10 Gerry Briggs, I'd pick Gerry," said Glass. "Everyone who works with him loves him."

Scott Snowdon, a fellow jumper judge, has known Briggs for about 25 years and considers him one of his best friends.

"You can contact him for anything," said Snowdon about Briggs. "No matter how bad an exhibitor's experience is getting to the horse show and setting up, I would say that their blood pressure drops as soon as they see Gerry, because they know everything will run smoothly."

In New England, Briggs is referred to as "Mr. Horse Show," and for good reason.

Kennedy calls him "the ultimate team player. If he says he'll be there, he's there--never complaining about anything, and willing to work through anything."

"Gerry remembers everything about everyone and makes you feel special. He always has a smile on his face and seems like he really loves his job," said Chelsea Wilk, who has been friends with Briggs for eight years.

So what does the future hold for Mr. Horse Show, the man who has done it all and fulfilled so many of his dreams?

"I told my Mom 10 years ago that when I don't like working at the horse shows anymore, I'm out of there. I do what I love to do because it piques my interest. It's something different every day, and I cherish that. Not a single thing has lowered my enjoyment for the sport," said Briggs.

When he takes a break from the shows, Briggs, the workaholic, can usually be found behind the wheel of one of M & M Service's tractor-trailers. "They needed insane truck drivers to do anything and everything, and I can do that," he said.

Briggs recalled drives to Texas as a child, when he used to stare longingly at 18-wheelers out of the car window. "I thought they were the best things in life," recalled Briggs. "From that point on, I had an inner dream to be a truck driver."

For now, the childhood dream of being a truck driver having been fulfilled, Briggs has set his sights on a new set of goals.

"I want to judge or announce at Spruce Meadows (Alta.), or the Devon Horse Show and County Fair (Pa.) because those are the pinnacle shows of the business," said Briggs, with a sparkle in his eye.

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