There was a time during the 1980s that 1,000 horses arrived en masse for the annual Ox Ridge Charity Horse Show. There were fashion shows and rows and rows of vendors.

The grounds were filled to max capacity as riders competed during the week-long event.

Since then, the numbers of riders and vendors has been nearly halved, and spectators at the event have taken notice. What they don't know is the reason why.

In its nearly 100-year history, the hunt club, one of the last of its kind, has been on the brink of nonexistence multiple times, according to Flavia Callari, one of the two business managers of the club.

The reasons span from lack of funds during the wars, recession, low membership and bad management. The club celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2014.

Since 2008, a new board, comprised of Callari, the other business manager Allison Potter, general manager Allan Griffin and assistant trainer Ruth Nicodemus, has taken on the challenge of bringing the hunt club back from the brink of multiple deaths.

"Our goal was to bring Ox Ridge back to its glory," Callari said. "Because of our passion for the club and the sport and the club's 100-year anniversary, we want to bring it into the next centennial."

Nicodemus re-created the junior program, which Callari said had vanished in her time away from the club.

Photos line the walls of the club's office of past shows from the '60s, '70s and '80s. The grounds flooded with tented paddocks and the fields in dismal conditions.

"Nobody really maintained it like we did," Callari said, pointing out the poor conditions of the fields in a aerial photo taken from 1980. "We're trying to bring it back to its glory, put a shine back on it."

Every year after the massive one-week show, the club gets to work repairing the fields from the week-long abuse of the pounding of the horses' hooves.

Following this year's show, the outdoor fields used for competition will require nearly $10,000 in repairs, according to Callari. The repairs are needed every year following the show.

Heavy maintenance is needed throughout the club each year. The indoor ring, which was installed in the 1940s and was formerly an airplane hangar, housed 100 horses during the week of the show. There were bare spots speckled with piles of hay throughout the entire ring, which will need to be repaired with footing for its use during the rest of the year.

"These are all expenses that we need to incur," Callari said.

She estimates that if the club brought in $320,000 in revenue from the horse show, the maintenance expenses following it could be nearly $290,000. Much of the money raised from the show is funneled back into the club for maintenance and town taxes. The remainder is given to the Pegasus program, a therapeutic riding program for children and adults.

The decision was made two years ago to put a cap of 600 on the number of riders that could take place in the horse show. There were roughly 550 riders during this year's event. It was a decision that has allowed the show return to its "old-fashioned horse show" feel and become easier to control. Additionally, Callari said, it's less of a burden on the surrounding neighbors and the town because fewer riders, the less traffic seen on the roads around the hunt club.

The club is one of two left, including the Fairfield County Hunt Club in Westport, which has more of a "country club" feel, Callari said. At Ox Ridge, it's all about the horses first.

"It's horses, kids and then the adults," said Callari. "And that's how you've seen us grow slowly and take care of the property and the horses."

Much of the property was in disarray, Callari said. The fields needed maintenance and the rings needed the proper footing, which is the material laid down within the rings. Without the proper footing, horses, like all other athletes, could suffer major injuries.

"You know, `If you build it, they will come,' " Callari said, quoting from the baseball movie "A Field of Dreams." "And they did. All the old riders started coming back."

However, installing the new footing was a pricey investment and not one that could be done without the support of a strong membership.

"Because the place had been so rundown and we didn't have the membership and we didn't have the money, we couldn't put the proper footing there," Callari said. "It was just dirt and sand and it wasn't maintained the way it should be."

With a new general manager, more and more is done, though it's a little at a time over the last seven years.

Behind the major barns, the open paddocks, where horses are able to spend time, slowly have been improved at the cost of $15,000 a year. All the paddocks are slowly being improved every year.

Additionally, as the number of horse shows increase, the number of participants at one show can decline.

"It used to be that there was a certain circuit," Callari said.

Not the case any longer, though. What once was a steady circuit starting in Florida and making its way up to Lake Placid and Vermont has spread further across the country at more and more show barns. "There are so many choices now. Riders can go to Canada and can go to Kentucky, it's everywhere."

The original property of the hunt club has shrunk in the last 100 years. During times of economic struggles, the club would sell off parts of the property in order to stay afloat.

The Ox Ridge Hunt Club, home of the annual horse show, was founded in 1914 as a hunt and polo club.

Polo has since been eliminated. According to Callari, when the economy fell, many of the polo players simply stopped coming. The members owed the club money, and as a result, it almost went under as it had in years past because they "just walked away."

The first horse show took place in the summer of 1926.

The show is a U.S. Equestrian Federation Hunter A-rated major riding competition and draws competitors from all across the country and the world.

"We need to keep this here," Callari said. "There's so much history here and it helps so many different people in so many different ways. It's not just, `Oh, the fancy people and their horses.' There's a lot more to it than that."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4407; @Meg_DarienNews

More Information

Fact box