I’ve gotten very good at traveling this year. We’ve been all over since I last wrote a blog: the Upperville Horse Show (Virginia), Lake Placid Horse Show (New York), Vermont Summer Festival, a week at Princeton Show Jumping (New Jersey), USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship (Kentucky), and HITS Saugerties (New York) for the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix Finals. And then the culmination of the year: indoors, which I have been to many times for the various equitation finals.
I first went to the Capital Challenge (Maryland) in 2016, and let’s just say I did not enjoy it. Let me start by saying it had absolutely nothing to do with the horse show itself. It is one of the best-run horse shows in the country and employs the best staff available in the industry. But it had everything to do with how my life was going at the time.
That year I shared responsibility for 30 horses at home with two other people. I only had two horses at the show, which was a vacation for me work-wise. We were stabled in Tent 9, which is one of the farthest away from the show rings. I was only grooming, which is what I normally do at indoors.
There were several reasons why I felt quite miserable. First of all, I had found myself in the middle of two employers who were getting divorced after more than 30 years of marriage. This was a position I didn’t want to be in, and I was a bit mentally and emotionally drained. Secondly, when we were driving to the horse show, I accidentally ran a red light trying to keep up with the horse trailer, and I got a ticket for that.
My misfortune continued. On the first afternoon, the 6-year old young hunter had a meltdown on his hand-walk and double-barreled the entire way back to the tent, almost taking out several cars, pedestrians and horses along the way. He had been ridden and longed prior to this, so there was really no reason for his sudden outburst. There was nothing I could do but try to get him back to his stall as quickly and carefully as I could.
I remember young professional Brian Feigus watching me and giving me a sympathetic look. “Smiles!” he called, using my nickname. “You OK over there?”
I gritted my teeth, forced a smile, and assured him I could make it the remaining 300 feet to the horse’s stall. I made it and fed both horses before climbing into my truck to leave.
Alas, my bad fortune didn’t end there. I was so flustered after that incident that I didn’t realize I had clicked on GPS directions for a hotel by the same name in Alexandria, Virginia, instead of National Harbor, Maryland. I drove 45 minutes over the bridge and to the determined location, which was not the same place I had slept the night before. Overtired, alone and frustrated, I managed to find the correct location of my hotel and tearfully drove back there in the dark. I didn’t have many friends there that year, and I felt pretty lonely the entire time. I barely left my hotel room after returning to it every evening, mostly because I couldn’t afford to eat dinner at any of the restaurants around ($3 ramen at the gas station was my only option) or the $16 parking fee that I paid every time I left the parking garage.
Both horses did well that week, but it was the first horse show that I’ve ever wanted to leave. I didn’t want to be there at all, and I swore I would never go back because of the memories from that year.
Well, I lied to myself. This year, I went back with Amanda Steege, nine horses and three other grooms. I kept an open mind going there and tried to tell myself that this year would be different. The situation from two years ago was long over; the drama in the past, and I was determined to enjoy it.
To start, we were stabled in Tent 13, which is one of the closest tents to the rings. I could hear everything that was going on, and both the indoor and outdoor were a quick jog away if I needed more information. I knew more people and made a couple new friends as well. The hotel was close, and I didn’t have to pay for parking. I was able to ride and groom this time. Our horses were all successful; most earned ribbons in their respective divisions or just missed jogs by a point or two.
But the highlight of the week for me was watching Amanda and Lafitte De Muze win the $50,000 WCHR Pro Challenge on Wednesday night. The first round started at 4 p.m. and then the top riders came back for the second round after 6 p.m. I love being a part of bigger classes and prepping horses to do them well. It’s an adrenaline rush, even if it means getting up super early or staying super late at the show.
Amanda’s mom Kathy, barn manager Tim Delovich and I were all excited and nervous as we stood in the schooling ring, helping Amanda warm up for the last round. Surprisingly, we were all relaxed and laughing. I remember that everyone else in the schooling ring was super serious, and we were just chatting and telling funny stories about the week. I guess it helped lighten the mood!
When we headed down to the indoor and got into the chute, we put on our serious faces. Tim gave Amanda last-minute advice before she headed in, and then all of us hurried over to the side to watch. My heart was pounding, and the audience had gone silent, all eyes locked on Lafitte. Sometimes I think I get more nervous watching our horses show than I do showing myself!
Amanda and Lafitte laid down a hunter round that was just foot-perfect from start to finish. Lafitte didn’t disappoint; he jumped every jump better than the last. When Amanda galloped down to the single oxer headed away from the in-gate, I grabbed Tim’s arm and squeezed it hard. Lafitte got so much height over that fence, and he just made it look effortless, continuing along like it was no big deal. When she landed after the last birch oxer, everyone erupted into whoops and claps. I couldn’t whistle loud enough; Tim couldn’t stop smiling. Euphoria took over all of us as we walked over to Amanda and Lafitte to congratulate them and headed up out of the chute. On our way out, the announcer’s voice came over the loudspeaker: a score of 90.
Now to wait. There were still two riders to go after Amanda, and Scott Stewart was one of them. Amanda was convinced he would beat her, but she was so happy with how Lafitte did that it wasn’t bothering her. We could catch glimpses of the last two rounds, but when you’re at the top of the chute, you can’t see the whole ring. When Scott landed from the last fence, I pushed my way through the crowd of exhibitors to see his score on the telescreen. It was not above hers. She had won.
I leaped in the air, adrenaline flowing through my veins, and ran back up to everyone. Amanda looked at me expectantly, like she was bracing herself to be second. “You won!” I ran over to hug her.
Her jaw dropped, and she started crying tears of happiness. Everyone was so excited, coming over and congratulating her. Lafitte got so many pats, and I’m sure he had no idea what was happening except that these crazy people were putting another cooler on him and more neck ribbons. Because she won the class, that moved her up in the WCHR rankings, and she also ended up being WCHR National Pro Champion. They told Amanda to head in for the victory gallop, and she paused. “I don’t know how to do it when you’re the winner!”
We all laughed, and they explained it to her as Jack Towell led Lafitte into the ring. The whole thing was so surreal, and it didn’t matter how tired we all were. We had had a full day of showing too, but we were all so excited that it didn’t matter. It is so rewarding when everything comes together and one of them wins. Amanda would get to compete in the final round on Friday, where she ended up third overall. To wrap up the week, I received a groom’s award for Lafitte’s wins and won Best Turned Out for our younger low amateur-owner horse, Lisa Arena-Davis’ Balou.
Fast forward to the National Horse Show (Kentucky) at the end of October. We only took two horses this time: Lafitte and Zara, the same two we took to the Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania) earlier in the year. The first day was very successful: Zara won and was second in the green conformation classes, a big surprise for all of us. She always wants to please everyone and do her job correctly, and she laid down a great, smooth, relaxed round. Her owner, Frances Moppett, was ecstatic, as was her home trainer, Todd Karn. In addition, Zara claimed a sixth and seventh in the 3’6″ green hunters.
Lafitte didn’t disappoint any of us either, claiming the blue ribbon in the first green 3’6″ hunter class. He was well on his way to winning the handy too, but he spooked at the silver Longines watch near the in-gate and swapped to the left lead before the first jump. Sometimes we all forget that he’s only 7 years old.
Wednesday brought about a 7 a.m. hack for both horses, which meant a 4 a.m. morning for me. When there are two horses competing in the same division, I always like to give myself a little more time so that I’m not rushed or rushing the horses. Lafitte ended up second in that class, and Zara was sixth. In the green conformation hack, Zara claimed fourth.
On to the 3’6″ green stake class. The ring was completely quiet when Lafitte trotted in, and my heart was thudding in my ears again. Tim and Todd were standing next to me as we watched Lafitte flow to each fence, jumping each one better and higher than the last. The last oxer was headed toward the in-gate on the sponsor table side, and I held my breath as Lafitte cantered closer to it. As if he hadn’t jumped well enough already, he set himself back and rocketed over it. It was picture perfect, not a flaw at all. He seemed to be saying, “If you weren’t impressed enough with the rest of the course, take that!”
Goosebumps crawled up my back as Lafitte landed, and we all whooped and clapped as hard as we could. Todd, who is a U.S. Equestrian Federation R-rated judge, seemed to have been holding his breath too, and he turned to me and started laughing. “That round gave me chills,” he said over the applause. “I’ve watched a lot of hunter rounds in my life, but I have never felt those before.”
I took Lafitte and got him cleaned up for the jog while Amanda warmed up Zara and headed to the in-gate. Zara jumped the best course I’ve ever seen her jump before—a round that definitely rivaled Lafitte’s. She was so smooth and relaxed, not hurrying at all and giving a great effort over each fence. The applause echoed off the indoor walls as she and Amanda came out, and I hurried to clean her up before the jog.
Lafitte ended up winning the stake class with Zara hot on his heels in second! That made Lafitte champion, while Zara claimed the reserve championship in the green conformation division later in the day. Both tricolors qualified them for the $50,000 National Horse Show Hunter Classic on Friday night.
In the night class, Zara went out and laid down a trip that led the class for a long time with an 86. She was completely relaxed and on her game, not letting anything faze her. Lafitte’s greenness came out a bit in this class; sometimes we all forget that he is in his first year of showing here in America. He got a little unnerved over jumps 1 and 2, hitting the back rail of the oxer hard, but still garnering a combined score of 81 from the judges once he settled in. They both qualified for the second round, which was a handy-style type course with a long hand gallop down to the last oxer.
The top 12 went in reverse order of preference, which meant Lafitte would go before Zara. This time Lafitte was more relaxed and seemed to have gotten his groove back. But when Amanda pressed him up for the hand gallop, he started flicking his ears back at her uneasily and then swapped the last stride right before he took off over the jump.
I groaned, and I thought I heard the rest of the audience do the same. The judges still gave him an 80, but unfortunately that would not be enough to win it. I turned my attention to Zara, helping them warm her up, so she could go in. Zara came back as strong as ever, defending her spot and jumping even better than she had in the first round. When Amanda landed from the last jump, Todd and I were cheering loudly from the sidelines and quickly hurried back through the crowd to meet her when she came out. Zara earned a combined score of 170.5, which put her in second place by one point. We were all thrilled!
Now we waited yet again. Havens Schatt was ahead of Amanda in first place, but Scott still had his two horses to do. He had a bit of a rough go with the first one, and then he hopped on Lucador to finish. Scott wanted to be at the top of the leaderboard, and he accomplished just that, taking over first place. Amanda and Zara ended up third, which was a great ribbon in such a hard class with 33 entries! Lafitte claimed seventh, and we’re still proud of him. The more special classes he gets to do, the more he will get used to it.
Indoors are officially over, and now it’s time for a bit of a break before Florida. Hopefully the grass stays green in New Jersey for a little while longer!
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.