Danny Foster has been involved in horse shows for decades. He was a rider for most of his career before making the switch to his behind-the-scenes role as a course designer on the horse show circuit about 15 years ago.
"For me, when I wasn't competing any more, this was a great way to continue on with the sport," he said Sunday as he stood in front of one of the 16 obstacles he had constructed for the Ox Ridge Grand Prix.
"This job is a unique combination: it's part science, and part a feeling for the sport and the animal," he said.
It balances more than just science and sport; Foster has to create a course with just the right amount of challenge for the athletes.
"This is not an easy course. For the competitors here, I would think they'll think it's hard enough. There's a lot of tests," he said. "But I wouldn't expect them to think they're going to end up on the ground."
According to Ox Ridge Hunt Club board member Susan Knapp, the goal is to have about 20 percent of riders in the event score a "clean" run, in which they do not knock down any rails or boards. Three of the 16 jumpers -- about 19 percent -- who participated in the $25,000 Grand Prix Sunday afternoon made it through with clean runs. These three riders then participated in a "jump off," during which they tackled seven of the obstacles in the field.
"I think the jockeys know when they see me out here, they're going to have to work for it if they want a blue ribbon," Foster said.
In the end, it was two-time Olympic gold medalist McClain Ward who took home the coveted blue ribbon, by posting the fastest clean jump-off run.
Ward, who lives in Brewster, N.Y., is a staple at the Darien show, and has won the top prize more than once.
"It's a local show for us," he said. "And it's a great experience for the young horses to get out on the grass."
Before the race he said the "course looks like a nice enough test," but all in all, "it's just another day at the office."
For 18-year-old Katherine Joseph, it was a bit more surreal. Joseph has been training at Ox Ridge Hunt Club for eight years, commuting from New York City to ride on the weekends and throughout the summers. While she has been participating in the annual show for almost half her life, this was her first Grand Prix at her home barn.
Ox Ridge riders and staff members sat with fingers crossed as they watched the teen and her horse, Renaldo, navigate through the course. The viewing section erupted into cheers when she finished her run.
She did not qualify for the jump off, and placed 10th overall.
Joseph was one of a few riders to knock down a rail in a three-hurdle combination, an element which Foster identified as one of the trickiest in his course.
"That's a very difficult gymnastic exercise," he said. "[The hurdles] are very close."
Having a series of jumps in close proximity to each other requires a lot of accuracy from the rider, Foster said. While a horse usually completes a step in about 12 feet, the three-hurdle combination requires the rider to alter the horse's stride while also negotiating a landing and another launch.
Joseph was able to clear the first and third hurdle in the series, but knocked down the top rail on the second obstacle.
At the end of the day, she was pleased with her performance.
"My horse was just incredible," she said after the race. "We did it."