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Ride on: Horse show tied to deep traditions

Published 1:01 pm, Friday, June 18, 2010

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  • Paige Di Pietro rides Bossa Nova in the Hunters Competition last Tuesday morning. Photo: Jeanna Petersen Shepard / Darien News
    Paige Di Pietro rides Bossa Nova in the Hunters Competition last Tuesday morning. Photo: Jeanna Petersen Shepard

 

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The green fields at Ox Ridge carry a potpourri of smells. There's the rich leather of saddles and bridles, the scent of horses padding by and the hay and grain left out to feed the four-legged athletes. Then there's the smell that sets the Ox Ridge Horse Show apart from so many other American horse shows: the grass.

"It's so beautiful here. The history here is why a lot of people come, and it's nice to have grass for a variety," said Debi Jaynes, a representative from the United States Equestrian Federation who traveled from her home in Marco Island, Fla., to work at the show.

Jaynes travels to about 35 horse shows every year. She came to Ox Ridge 24 years ago, and is glad to be back, she said. She enjoys the opportunity to work at a grass ring, a quality that is shared by many "older shows," but is dwindling around the nation, she said.

Horses padding around on green grass is just one of the traditions that sets the 80-year-old show apart from others around the country. There's also the traditions of the riders themselves and the ties that bind them to Ox Ridge.

There are family ties and local ties. The club itself is like a family, according to the club's General Manager Alan Griffin.

"We've got a really good bunch of people here now," Griffin said.

"For me and this club, nearly every one is family or a friend of the family," he said. "There's so many people who rode here as children and have had their children and grandchildren learn to ride here."

Theresa Bowling and her 7-year-old daughter Avery are both competing in this year's show.

"I started riding when I was 5 years old," Theresa said. She continued to ride throughout her childhood on Long Island, before taking a 12-year hiatus to attend college and medical school.

"I didn't look at a horse for years, but then I made the mistake of moving to Darien," she said. Within one month of the move, she bought a horse; she began showing two months later.

"Within a year, I was at a higher level than I had been as a kid," said Bowling, who now lives in New Canaan. It's been 14 years since she joined the Hunt club and began participating in the shows, and she hasn't taken many breaks in that time.

"My daughter started riding when she was 2," she said. "Actually, I guess she was negative 6 months, because I kept riding for a while when I was pregnant."

This is the South School second grader's third Ox Ridge Horse Show. This year she's competing in the short-stirrup division after two years in the lead-line competition.

"I love riding," Avery said as she sat atop her 17-year-old horse Bella. "I like jumping, it's really fun. And I like going really fast."

Avery loves animals, she said. When she grows up, she hopes to be a small-animal veterinarian.

"She truly loves her pony, which is very important," her mother said after Avery trotted off to a practice ring. "She's a natural -- tough as nails. She's fearless."

Some riders don't have family ties like the Bowlings, but their growth within the club over the years has established a bond between themselves and the barn. According to Katherine Joseph, 18, that's a bond that cannot be broken.

She commutes from the city every week to train at Ox Ridge. It's a routine she's been following for eight years, since she was 10 years old.

Like many of the riders at Ox Ridge, she was introduced to the sport by her family. Her grandparents and mother ride for pleasure, and her sister competed, but Joseph's taken off on her own.

She will be riding her horse Renaldo in her first Ox Ridge Grand Prix on Sunday.

"I think it's a good time for me to move up," Joseph said.

"Right now I'm feeling a mixture of exhilaration and fear," said the recent high school graduate. "But I'm happy to be doing it here at home."

She'll have a cheering section at the Grand Prix. Flavia Callari, head of the horse show committee, said she plans to "scream like crazy" for Joseph as she competes in the competition's main event.

"I have a very deep connection to this show and this club. It's definitely a special place for me," Joseph said.

She has been participating in the annual show for almost half of her life, and in that time she has "done everything at this show," she said.

While she was accepted to Emory University in Atlanta, she deferred her enrollment for a year in order to spend more time on horseback.

"The point of the year off is to decide whether to make this a career or a hobby," she said.

That means a lot more time at her home barn in the upcoming 12 months, something she said she's looking forward to.

"I love it. I love the sport. I love it here. Just the people and the feeling of community that Ox Ridge instills in its riders," she said.

The club has about 54 members, and about 600 riders are expected to travel to the show throughout the course of this week. But while there are dozens of riders that have stayed with the club for decades, young riders like Joseph and Bowling are important to the club's future, said Griffin, who works as Joseph's trainer.

"We're trying to preserve this club so we can be here for another 80 years," Griffin said.