Stephanie Danhakl had a banner day Wednesday at the Washington International Horse Show, winning the grand amateur-owner 3’6” hunter championship with Bright Side and the grand amateur-owner 3’3” hunter championship with Austen, and being named leading amateur-owner rider.
It was a triumphant return to the show ring for Danhakl, who has not competed or seen her horses since the Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania) in May due to welcoming her second child just seven weeks ago. In the meantime, her horses have been under the guidance of her longtime trainer Scott Stewart and the Rivers Edge team in Flemington, New Jersey, while Danhakl has been able to spend valuable time with her family at home in Dover, Massachusetts.
“I don’t think there are a lot of barns that run as smoothly as Rivers Edge,” she said. “I had confidence coming into today that even though I hadn’t seen my horse since Devon, I knew that they were going to be perfectly prepared and that they have been in a program in order to excel at this show.”
While she wasn’t able to ride her show hunters in Massachusetts, Danhakl did have a way to get some riding in with the foxhunter she keeps at home. With “Happy,” Danhakl gets to enjoy time in the saddle in a different way from the competition environment.
“Happy is the best horse,” Danhakl said of her at-home partner. “I have so much fun with him. We just bomb around the hills. I actually feel like he’s improved my riding so much, because it’s really different than ring riding. It keeps me brave. It keeps me going forward, and my balance is better than when I started doing it, so I give him so much credit.”
Danhakl’s first grand title of the day came from Bright Side, a horse she has had for six years. Danhakl tried the now 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Ultimo—Tiara) for the first time without Stewart, who was in Europe, but felt an instant connection.
“Rio” has had some physical setbacks since his purchase, so this year marked his WIHS debut. He jumped to scores of 90 and 89 in the handy, and 92 in the stake, for first, third and first place, respectively. He also floated to a fourth-placed finish in the hack on his way to the amateur-owner hunter 3’6”, 18-35, division championship over Grand Remo and Stella Propp, who were reserve.
In the 3’6”, 36 and over, division, Augustine was champion with Lee Kellogg Sadrian and C’est Jolie was reserve with Ashley Kaplan.
“He’s a really consistent horse,” Dahakl said. “He’s really brave. He always gives it his all, so I knew he was going to be good.
“The thing about Rio is his jump,” she continued. “It’s such a beautiful feeling, because he has so much power and scope. He really gives me so much confidence. He never spooks at anything, so I can really go for it and not have to worry about him. It’s just a matter of if I can produce the round he deserves; he will always deliver. It’s such a gift to be able to ride him.”
As if the day could not get better, Danhakl later entered The Show Place Arena for her second grand title. With Austen, Danhakl notched a win on the flat, as well as over fences and in the handy with scores of 92 and 88. The pair was also third in the stake class with a score of 89 to seal the deal for the amateur-owner 3’3”, 18-35, division championship. She also took reserve in the division riding Quest.
In the 3’3”, 36 and over, division, Waverly was champion with Meghan Rohrbaugh Bear and Hemingway was reserve with Stephanie Bulger.
“He’s still a little bit green,” admitted Danhakl of the 7-year-old Westphalian stallion (Arpeggio—Congenial) she purchased as a 4-year-old. “This was actually his first time showing indoors, and he did not bat an eye at anything. He’s a really brave horse. He just knows his job and is wise beyond his years. I was thrilled with him. He jumped beautifully, was so easy to ride, and acted like he’d been there for years.
“He can be a little stallion-y, more so than other stallions I’ve had, but once he gets in the program, he’s very calm, and I think that extra oomph that comes from being a stallion really helps him in the ring,” she added.
While Danhakl has multiple horses, they all stay with her for many years, and that is no accident. “I really feel like they’re family members,” she said. “They’re each different. I love them so much. Once they’re part of my family, I really can’t part with them, and I just love the relationship that develops over time.
Danhakl, who is a member of the WIHS board of directors, has a long history of success at the show.
“The first time I was champion at this show was 19 years ago in the small junior hunters, so there’s a lot of personal history for me at this show,” she said. “To come back again after a long break and be grand champion in both sections really means a lot.”
See full results here.