Jumps into Action at Hunt Club
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)
Westport, CT – They soared over the jumps, maneuvered the courses and tried to be as quick and accurate as possible, rider and animal working fluidly as one.
The grassy grounds of the Fairfield County Hunt Club at 174 Long Lots Road was the stage Tuesday for the opening of the 89th Annual June Benefit Horse Show, a five-day event scheduled to run through Saturday, June 25. Over that period, the free show features 250 individual competitions across four rings, starting at 8 a.m. each day. Riders include children, adults, amateurs and professionals. A boutique shopping area with ten vendors, and hospitality tent open to the public through Friday, is also offered. The highlight event is the Grand Prix on Saturday, at 1:30 p.m., with a luncheon benefiting Westport-based Equus Foundation. Major event sponsors include Wells Fargo Advisors (George Venizelos) and Buick/GMC.
“This is a great opportunity to see top-level horses and riders competing and jumping obstacles,” said Lynn Coakley, President of the Equus Foundation, the mission of which is to improve the quality of life for horses and the people that benefit from them.
“We raise money for horse charities all across the U.S. that are using the animals to help people,” Coakley explained. As examples, she cited horses’ application in therapeutic treatments for people with autism, noting that the Hunt Club helped Equus launch a pilot program for autistic children at Giant Steps School in Southport.
Another charity Equus supports is Horses for Heroes, helping veterans, who are amputees or have brain injuries, coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Therapeutic riding accomplishes the same thing as a medical facility and is even more emotionally uplifting and empowering,” Coakley said.
Clients of Kids at Risk, another charity on Equus’ roster, feel this same empowerment through riding, due to the animals’ size.
Two types of riding are performed at the Horse Show: Show Jumping and Hunter. In the former, riders jump obstacles within a specific timeframe -- the fastest without knocking anything over wins. In the latter, riders are judged on the consistency and fluidity of their jumps. “Hunter is a takeoff on the old hunting days wherein horses needed to be dependable and controllable,” added Coakley.
In addition to the riding, special events are offered each day: On Wednesday, a free fashion show, at 5 p.m. in the main tent; on Thursday, a Barbecue, at $15 per person, with a Horseless Horse Show, wherein kids jump mini obstacles, begins at 5:30 p.m.; Friday, a free pet parade starts at 5 p.m. On Saturday, attendees of the Grand Prix event are encouraged to bring picnic blankets and sports chairs for spectating.
Hunt Club Riding and Stables Manager Robyn Pavone was glad to have Coakley and Equus on board, now for the fifth year. “Lynn and I have been friends since childhood and rode here as girls,” she said. “It’s nice for things to come full cycle.”
Pavone added that there have been many improvements to the facility and course. “Our jumps are all Olympic modeled and professionally designed by Steve Stephens, who is known the world over,” she said.
Serving as Ringmaster, a role he has performed at the Club for over 30 years, was John Franzreb III, toting a bugle to announce competition starts. “This is one of the most picturesque horse clubs in the country – a place where horsemen just love to come and compete,” he said. “The schedule and grounds are just fantastic.”
Browsing the boutique area, Westporter Beth Cofsky was glad to have the Club, almost literally, in her backyard. “I live close by and just joined the Club,” she said. “In fact, I have a tennis clinic here in an hour. My son Logan wanted to check out the horses. The animals are amazing.”
Relaxing between competitions, Lillie Keenan, 14, an accomplished junior rider from New York City, said this show is a favorite. “I love coming to the Fairfield Horse Show,” she said. “Most clubs are not all grass like this course, which adds an extra challenge for both rider and horse.”
About the sport, Keenan added, “I’ve been riding since I was six, starting at the Claremont Riding Academy in New York. I love riding and the connection with the horse. It’s really special.”