How did I spend my Memorial Day, you ask? Typically how I spend most of my year: at a horse show.
And not just any ol’ horse show; we have several professional and amateur hunters competing at the prestigious Devon Horse Show this week. The best in the country qualify to compete here, and everyone has their games faces on. It’s a multi-breed horse show, so you see several different disciplines, from driving horses to gaited horses to hunters and FEI jumpers. I’ve never shown here before, but I always like coming. It feels different than a normal trip to a normal horse show.
I started early on Sunday morning with our head guy Toro, arriving at the barn by 4:40 a.m. to feed and load the trailer so we could leave by 5. Two of our horses, Lafitte De Muze and Zara, qualified for the 3’6” green hunter division, and that runs on Memorial Day and the Tuesday after. The thunderstorm began as soon as we got on the road, and it was pouring rain most of the drive to Devon.
The reason we woke up so early was because they only allow you to ride in the Dixon Oval from 8-9:30 on Sunday. The rest of the day is devoted to children’s/adult jumpers, pony jumpers and the driving pleasure. The horses arrived around 7:30, and luckily it had stopped raining.
Amanda was on Lafitte by 8:15, and I followed her out to the ring to help. Lafitte continues to amaze me; he didn’t care one ounce about anything happening in or around that ring. He trotted and cantered around on a loose rein, calm as could be. Keep in mind that he has never been to this horse show in his life.
Amanda jumped a few small schooling jumps, and he just cantered right over them like it was no big deal, while other horses were spinning and spooking at the grandstand or the flags waving on top of the roof.
But when Amanda went to get on Zara, the dark sky opened up again, releasing buckets of water. It rained for at least 15 minutes before it lightened up slightly, and she decided to take her chances. When she came back, she and Zara were drenched. Two quick baths and a wipe-down on all the tack meant we were done for the day. Toro and I took them both for one more hand walk before doing afternoon chores, feeding, and then heading to the hotel to call it a day.
We began our Memorial Day by arriving at the barn at 4:30 a.m. Along my drive, I encountered a deer standing nonchalantly in the middle of the road that refused to move for several seconds. A quick swerve to avoid him, and suddenly I was wide awake!
Both horses got their normal show routines: a stretch on the longe line, a good grooming so their coats gleamed, a touch-up on whiskers, and some time with the magnetic blanket. Devon is the real deal, and if you want to compete with the best, you have to treat these horses as the athletes they are. The 3’6” greens were the second and third classes of the day after the green conformation model went at 8 a.m. Lafitte and Zara had time to relax in their stalls and happily munch on hay for a bit before competing.
Lafitte went seventh, and I had him up at the ring a little before the start of the first 3’6” green class. He’s always calm, cool and collected walking to the ring and stands patiently. Lafitte likes to look around and observe what the other horses are doing while he waits. He’s also learned to love all the attention, pats and strokes he gets from fans who think he’s very handsome.
Amanda got a leg up, and we schooled him as we normally do. Because he jumps so well, you have to be careful not to overdo it. Before I knew it, Amanda felt good enough to head toward the in-gate, and barn manager Tim Delovich, her father Mitch, and I hurried across the schooling ring behind her. I ran a quick towel over Lafitte’s whole body, smoothing out his hair and brushing off any last-minute footing that had latched onto him. One more wipe of his mouth, and Amanda headed in.
Tim and I stood off to the side of the in-gate so we could see better. My heart was pounding as Amanda went toward the first jump, a single on the diagonal headed toward the in-gate. I think I get more nervous watching Lafitte compete than I do when I show myself. He is such an unreal horse that I want him to do well every time.
Lafitte jumped the first jump beautifully and then headed up the outside line. Then he turned back to the diagonal bending line heading toward us. “Oh my God,” I murmured under my breath as he jumped each jump effortlessly and smoothly. I’m pretty sure that Tim was tired of hearing me repeatedly say that by the time Amanda cantered over the single oxer on the rail. A diagonal five to the in-and-out was all that was left.
I don’t think Lafitte could have jumped the in of the diagonal line any more beautifully than he did. He flowed down to the in-and-out in five strides, rocking back to clear the vertical and stretching effortlessly over the oxer. I didn’t realize I had been holding my breath until he landed from the jump, and I inhaled deeply before starting my whooping.
But the crowd beat me to it—they were all on their feet and clapping loudly. Lafitte doesn’t like excessive clapping when he finishes a round; it scares him, and he scoots forward. Before I realized what was happening, Lafitte bucked straight up in the air. Hard.
Amanda stayed on and finished her closing circle, giving him a pat and walking out of the ring. The crowd went silent, and I’m pretty sure my face went pale. Bucking or kicking out is majorly frowned upon in a hunter round. It’s a sign of disobedience and freshness. Tim and I paused before heading back to the in-gate, wanting to hear the judges’ score. I’m not a judge by any means, but I have a feeling that without the buck, the round was definitely in the 90s.
The announcer read the score: 60. Heartbreak hotel.
I felt my heart plummet in my chest. That’s horse showing for you. Amanda jumped off, disappointment written all over her face. She patted him and walked over to Zara to warm her up. I hugged Lafitte’s face, told him what a good boy he was, threw his scrim on, and took him back to the barn to wait for the next class. We definitely weren’t jogging with that score.
I watched Amanda warm up Zara from the barn and head into the ring with her. Zara has a beautiful jump and a great flowing canter. She was champion or reserve champion of the 3’6” green division many weeks in Ocala this year, and she also claimed the circuit championship for all 10 weeks of the competition. Zara hasn’t been to many of the other bigger horse shows in the country, but it’s great experience for her to go out and compete at them. She has all the pieces to be very successful!
In the first class Zara had an unfortunate rail at the fourth jump, knocking her out of contention for the jog as well. A rail in a hunter class gets you a 45.
We went back up for the second class as Toro came back to the barn to give Zara a break. Lafitte went first and scored an 87. This time, the crowd held their applause and whooped quietly. Everyone knew what had caused him to kick out like that. Lafitte ended up jogging second in that class and claimed the red ribbon. Zara also had a better second round, scoring a reserve in the jog. She was beginning to relax through her head and neck more over the jumps.
The hack didn’t go until the afternoon, and both horses competed. Amanda had Todd Karn hack Zara, and he got on a few minutes before the class to loosen both himself and Zara up. Zara either won or was top three in many of the hack classes in Florida this winter; she likes to show off and point her toes.
Lafitte just needs to know it’s time to work and then he’s ready to strut his stuff. Both of them were great in the under saddle; Lafitte was third behind Hunt Tosh and Scott Stewart, which is very impressive. Zara unfortunately didn’t get anything, but that’s also horse showing sometimes. The hacks at Devon are tough; there are so many great movers!!
Toro and I finished and wrapped the horses and put them to bed before watching the Shetland pony races that went around 4:30. They were hysterical and very entertaining!! You never see anything like that at regular horse shows. I walked back to the barn, checked the horses one more time, said goodbye, and headed to the hotel to find dinner and watch the livestream from my bed.
On Tuesday, we started at the same time in the morning. The classes went at 8 a.m., and Zara went before Lafitte this time. Zara scored an 83 in the handy, jumping around the course with much more confidence than the day before. Lafitte had a little more difficulty. He was a little slow over jump 1, and then stumbled in the second rollback turn. But he recovered well to earn an 82.5. Zara ended up claiming seventh and Lafitte got eighth.
By the stake class, they both were getting a little tired. Zara unfortunately spooked hard at the second jump (which is very unlike her; she’s not usually spooky), and that took her out of ribbon contention. Lafitte jumped every jump in perfect style, maybe slightly rushing over the oxer in the corner that he had bucked after the day before. But he still got an 86 and was second. That was the last class of the division, and I took him back to clean him up, wrap him, and pack up for him to go home.
Zara and Lafitte are some of the top hunters in the country, and it’s a privilege to care for and help prepare both of these horses to do their jobs. I’ve taken care of Lafitte a lot since we’ve had him, and it’s amazing to watch him. He comes out and wants to do his job well every time. He’s the only horse I’ve ever encountered that jumps every single jump the same exact way.
The coolest thing about Lafitte is that he thinks every horse jumps and does what he does. He’s exceptionally smart! He never thinks anything he does is a big deal, and sometimes I wonder if he thinks we’re all crazy when we get so excited. It also blows his mind when he sees another horse doing another discipline, and he immediately wants to know why they’re doing that. Mitch said that when the driving horses came out, Lafitte was just standing in his stall munching on his hay and watching out the window, and Zara was taking a nap. She’s pretty unflappable too!
We took him and Zara home Tuesday afternoon, and Amanda and Tim stayed at Devon to finish out our group of amateur hunters. Good luck ladies!!
Nicole Mandracchia grew up riding in New Jersey and was a working student while in school. She graduated from Centenary University (N.J.) and has groomed and barn managed for top show barns Top Brass Farm (New Jersey), North Run (Vermont), Findlay’s Ridge (New York) and Ashmeadow (New Jersey). Read more about her in “Groom Spotlight: Nicole Mandricchia Proves The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get.” After more than a decade working back in the barn, she eventually hopes to establish herself as a trainer. Read all of Nicole’s COTH blogs.