Monday, Apr. 15, 2024

The Washington International Celebrates 50 Years

From presidents to celebrities to Olympians, the Washington International Horse Show boasts a rich and varied history.

The U.S. Army Band marches in as President Eisenhower sits proudly in the wobbly, temporary seating placed along the edges of the ring and watches the parade of international jumping teams. Spectators are having trouble knowing what to watch—the horses or the first family.
   
It’s Oct. 10, 1958, and the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., originally used to house artillery for the

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From presidents to celebrities to Olympians, the Washington International Horse Show boasts a rich and varied history.

The U.S. Army Band marches in as President Eisenhower sits proudly in the wobbly, temporary seating placed along the edges of the ring and watches the parade of international jumping teams. Spectators are having trouble knowing what to watch—the horses or the first family.
   
It’s Oct. 10, 1958, and the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., originally used to house artillery for the
military, has opened its gates this year to a different kind of competition: a horse show.
   
That year there were only three teams—Germany, Mexico and the United States—but it was just the start for the Washington International Horse Show, and in the years to come there would be competitors from all over the world.
   
Still, the excitement of the show was infectious, and as the weekend concluded and the jump crew (who had never seen jumps before that week) pulled the last pieces of the ring down, the one request that was repeatedly made was for the show to return the following year.
   
Even though the crowd numbers were low and visitors complained that the admission price was too high, the show’s second annual event was entertaining enough to convince show officials to continue, and in 1960, after losing almost $100,000 in its first two years, the show was back again.
   
With a $1 admission price to lure the crowds and an entry list of almost 450 horses, it seemed as if the Washington International was a show that people enjoyed watching. Even though the puissance class ran at almost 2 a.m., hundreds still sat in the stands to see Harry de Leyer’s famous Snowman take the top honors.
   
Along with the international jumping classes and breed exhibitions, there were celebrities. In 1961, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, herself, presented the President’s Cup. Police reported that because of the capacity of the Armory and the crowds who showed up for the competition, more than 2,000 people were turned away from the show on “Kennedy Night.”

Get Your Autographs

Over the years the Washington International drew more celebrities: in ’74 first lady Betty Ford presented the President’s Cup trophy, and in ’76 Henry Kissinger was in the stands. Zsa Zsa Gabor even made an appearance at the show in ’86, riding in on Silver Fox, a Tennessee Walking horse.

It was the same year that for the first time in history an all-female team represented the United States in the Nations Cup. Anne Kursinski, Katharine Burdsall, Lisa Tarnapol and Katie Monahan rode to the win, and when asked about the all-girl team before the competition, Chef d’Equipe George Morris was quoted as saying: “There’s no better man or woman on the back of a horse anywhere in the world than Katie Monahan.”
   
Following their championship, Monahan credited Morris for turning the team into a
reality: “George has always liked his girls, and each of us on this team came up through the ranks under George’s tutelage.”
   
There have also been equine celebrities at Washington. In 1968, Aberali, the horse who played Aspercel in that year’s film The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit, was a competitor at the show with Kathy Kusner aboard, and in 1980, Case Ole, fondly known as The Black Stallion, put on a show with his trainer.
   
And of course, there were the famed before they became famous. In 1962, Mary Mairs, who would soon become Mary Chapot, was, at 18, the youngest rider on the U.S. Equestrian Team and described in the Chronicle news report as “the attractive California girl.” She and Kathy Kusner tied for champion international rider. It was the same year that the First Family had to cancel all appearances because of the American-Soviet situation and the impending Cold War.
   
Then, in 1966, Rita Timpanaro caused a stir when, after winning the AHSA Medal Finals, she reported to the press that she had no plans of trying to gain a spot on the USET: “I just don’t feel that I have the money, the horses or the inclination for that type of competition.”
   
Timpanaro had only been riding for six years at that point, and even though she was kicked in the ankle while waiting at the in-gate for her working hunter stakes class, she was still named reserve best child rider on a horse. She heard the news from her room at the hospital.
   
One special international competitor during the ’60s was Stroller, the 14.2-hand British pony who won the fault-and-out for international jumpers in 1967. Stroller looked “like a child’s mount taking it away from the big kids” as he was given his ribbon, the Chronicle reported. He went on to make international headlines as the first pony to compete and medal in show jumping at the 1968 Olympic Games. With Marion Coakes aboard, he won the individual silver medal in Mexico, just 4 faults behind William Steinkraus’ Snowbound.

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Washington Tidbits

•    In 1959, Carl Miller’s Windsor Castle’s sale price of $25,000 made him a show ring legend.

•    In 1963, the President’s Cup class offered a purse of $2,500. Today it’s $100,000.

•    In 1974, Susan Ford, daughter of President Gerald Ford, presented the President’s Cup, while her mother awarded the Inverness Trophy for the international team competition. In
1965, Vice President Hubert Humphrey awarded the President’s Cup.

•    When the show began, spectators were required to wear black or white tie attire, depending on where they were sitting.

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•    The first class in the FEI World Cup Series was held at Washington in 1978. It was the Anheuser-Busch-Budweiser class and was worth $20,000.

•    In 1962, Kathleen and Joe Kennedy, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s children, unnerved their governess when competing in an under saddle class. With Kathleen on her pony, Atlas, and Joe on his Geronimo, the two children spent most of the class either trotting side by side or cutting one another off.

•    Austin Kiplinger, 90, celebrates 45 years on the Washington International Board of Directors, including stints as president and chairman.

Celebrity show jumper Idle Dice also proved himself for the first time at the Washington International. In 1970, Rodney Jenkins’ experienced horse, Brendan, took a fall and was unable to compete in the President’s Cup, leaving him with “only one hope, the 6-year-old Idle Dice, not long ago just a green working hunter.”
   
Before the class, Jenkins talked about the horse’s personality: “He gets kind of fierce over the first three, so I decided to try to get him clean that far, and I felt pretty sure he’d go the rest of the way, because the jumps were large enough to make him want to jump them.” It was the first of many times a crowd would watch Idle Dice soar.
   
But Washington has seen many youngsters prove themselves. In 1978, three years after the show was moved to Maryland’s Capital Centre, Peter and Mark Leone took top honors in the small and large junior hunter divisions, respectively, and Peter was named best child rider on a horse. And Molly Ashe, as a “demure and poised” 12-year-old, claimed the medium pony hunter championship with Frito Bandito along with the best child rider on a pony award. In her interview, Ashe said that she had been “showing seriously” since she was 5.
   
In 1986, Aaron Vale showed the crowd that he would be one to watch, winning the large junior hunter division, the grand junior hunter championship, and the best child rider on a horse award with Incognito. His prep for Incognito? A little jaunt in the country: “Yesterday I took him and let him run in the woods. I’ve never run so fast in my life,” chuckled Vale. “Then he came right back and did his job today.”
   
That same year Lauren Hough showed off some hunter skills by winning the medium pony hunter reserve championship with the handsome Shenandoah Sundowner.
   
The very next year, “rookie sensation” Greg Best rode the soon-to-be-famous Gem Twist in the Nations Cup for the first time.

Keeping With The Times

And as the ’90s came and went, the show continued to host some of the most impressive horses and riders from across the country.
   
In 1994, when Rox Dene won yet another championship in the regular working hunters with the show’s highest scores—of 95, 96 and 97—trainer Rodney Bross told the Chronicle, “Today very few horses score in the high 90s. If any horse should, it’s Rox Dene. If you can’t have a 98 or 99 with Rox Dene, who can you have it on?”
   
Rider Elizabeth Solter must have felt the same way. She told Rodney in 1990, “I know I can ride her if you just give me the chance.” She told him she’d be champion at the fall indoor shows, and they were.
   
In 1995, veteran Canadian Ian Millar made an impressive comeback at the Washington International when he won his first President’s Cup aboard Mistral just two months after a serious fall. During the summer, Millar had broken five ribs, separated a shoulder and punctured a lung when Lonesome Dove fell at a water jump. And yet there he was, standing in the spotlight with Mistral.
   
He later said of her: “Mistral is a real woman of the ’90s. She’s very independent. You have to make a partner of her. You can’t train her, because you’ll win the battle but not the war. But a good mare is the best of all. Everything can be against her and she’ll still fight to win.” Apparently, Miller and Mistral had a lot in common.
   
Washington also brings back enjoyable memories for those who remember the early days.
   
In 2001, the second year the show was held at the MCI Center in downtown Washington, Betty Oare’s Estrella won the trophy for best trip in the second year green division, and when she was given the prize Oare was reminded of the inaugural year of the show: “In 1958, as a junior, I rode a mare named Siss and won that trophy. It was when the show was at the D.C. Armory. I didn’t even know the horse show had records that went back so far!”
   
Oare said she has many fond memories of Washington. One of her favorites includes the year (sometime in the early 1960s) she was interviewed by Sports Illustrated for a monthly column they used to write about sports not usually covered in the magazine. “I had my photo in the back and everything. You can imagine how thrilling that was for a young girl!” she said. “There I was, in Sports Illustrated!”
   
She also said when the show was held at the Armory she used to count on a few celebrity sightings. “We used to see Kennedy and his family sitting on the steps of the football stadium that was nearby,” she recalled.
   
“Back then the show was about glamour and publicity. It was very much an event in Washington,” added Oare, who also won the Virginia State Junior Medal Final in 1958 when the finals were held during the show.
   
Along with championships and international jumper classics, the Washington International managers try to provide their exhibitors and spectators with some surprises along the way. In 2005, the show’s sponsor provided a large cake to each of the champions. As Haylie Jayne joked when she won the younger large junior and grand junior hunter championship, “No other show gives you cake!”
   
The standing North American indoor puissance record of 7’71⁄2″ was also set at Washington in 1983 by Anthony D’Ambrosio and Sweet N’ Low.
   
Although there have been many changes along the way—Washington didn’t limit entries until the late ’60s, meaning that there were sometimes 70 horses in a division—one thing has remained constant for many years: the show is a non-profit organization. This year, for the show’s 50th anniversary, they are partnering with Autism Speaks, an organization working to change the future for those who struggle with autism.
   
Held at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., this year’s show takes place from Oct. 21-26.

Megan Martin

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