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Up ahead I saw that a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk. A group of children in strollers and standing by their parents’ sides were rapt, watching the animal on the other side of the fence. The adults were just as absorbed what was taking place before them.
No, they weren’t staring at an exotic creature in a zoo. They were standing on a street in downtown Washington D.C., and there was a small grey pony being shod on the other side of the fence.
The thing that struck me most about the Washington International Horse Show, which concluded on Sunday after six days of competition, was how the people of the city paused in awe to experience the things that are commonplace to you and me. To the group in the photo above, the pony waiting while his shoe was tacked on was as exotic a sight as a leopard in a zoo.
A man in a three-piece suit rubbernecked as he walked down the street, peering at the tent stalls in confusion. He asked if I knew just what was happening in there. Naturally, I supplied him with lots of fun facts about the big equestrian competition going on inside the Verizon Center. The horses were there all week, competing in an exciting Olympic sport, and no, it wasn’t the one that Ann Romney’s horse does.
That conversation repeated itself at several bars and in various degrees of detail with friendly D.C. locals during the following days; each time they were as dumbfounded by what I was telling them as I was that they had no clue what was happening right around the corner.
Many horse people filled the seats at WIHS for the nighttime classes, successfully presented as a full evening of equestrian entertainment for three nights in a row. Barn Night, which drew large groups of children from the area, is a genius thing, and the big name riders that stayed to sign autographs late that night are all heros this week to hundreds of young equestrians.
So many riders flocked to Washington to see the horse show, but if you ask me, it was the random passersby who really mattered.
Every person who stared in shock, wonder and sometimes fear at a hunter or a jumper walking along the sidewalk was one more person who went home thinking about a horse that day. If they met an overzealous equestrian reporter they walked away with a lot more knowledge about show jumping than they probably needed, but either way they walked away with a horse experience.
I love that. I wanted to see more of it. I want to see more of it. The only bad thing about WIHS is that it is such a rarity. It’s very difficult to catch the interest of random passersby from a remote showgrounds at the end of a road. But it was so tantalizingly easy at WIHS. From the saintly ponies available for young children to brush on Saturday morning, to the huge draft horses that anyone could walk right up to and pet or feed, to the friendly grooms and riders who allowed passersby to stop and pet their horses, the WIHS was an amazing ambassador for the sport.
Paulo Santana, who placed second in the President’s Cup Grand Prix with Taloubet, smiled when he recounted the reaction of people on the street when he left his hotel dressed to ride.
“When I came walking from the hotel in my riding clothes everybody was asking what is that, tuning around to stop and see, asking me how I can ride a horse in a jacket and tie,” he said. “It is great. I hope that they never quit having this show. I think it is one of the best in the United States.”
If ever a show was worth promoting to one and all, and ensuring the continuation of for many years to come, it's this one. If we've ever got a hope of growing equestrian sports beyond the level of niche sport, experiences like this are a critical piece of the puzzle. Nice work Washington, I'll see you next year!
Kids could pet and groom ponies on Kids Day
Gentle giants happily munched hay while a crowd tried to get close for a pat
Back to the barns
Reed Kessler's barn manager Stacey Hall introduced a couple of pedestrians to Ligist, who stood by patiently
Lauren Hough's Oh La La goes out for a handwalk
Paulo Santana's Taloubet strolled the streets with a dramatic backdrop. Later that evening he placed second in the $100,000 President's Grand Prix