To the uninitiated like myself, the show grounds for HITS, Inc. are as exotic as a foreign land. It seems to me as though we’ve left the everyday world far behind and have entered an alternate universe.
Horses and riders are everywhere, of course. Pulling into the parking lot, we waited for several pairs to cross our path. On the show grounds, the horses can be seen in their stables, getting their glossy coats groomed to perfection and peeking out behind walls bedecked with past ribbons won.
Walking the dirt pathways going toward the rings, horses and riders, we find ourselves accompanied by trainers and groomers walking alongside us. Others, both people and animals, are in the practice rings (actually, “schooling” rings, as I learn these are called), warming up and getting ready to compete.
Wearing picturesque attire that derives from the English fox hunting tradition, the riders look like they’re straight out of the past. If not for the profusion of golf carts buzzing around us, rented by people who want to cover the extensive grounds more quickly, it would feel as though we had gone back in time as well as to another world.
As all locals know by now, HITS is an acronym for “Horse Shows in the Sun.” Based in the village of Saugerties since 2004, HITS, Inc. has been producing hunter-jumper horse shows since its first event in Florida in 1982. Now a nationwide company, its circuit includes yearly events in California, Florida, Arizona and Virginia along with the shows in its home territory of Saugerties each summer.
Equestrians come to the Hudson Valley from all over the world to compete in the show jumping competitions here, which begin over the Memorial Day weekend and end in September. The first three weeks of competition determine who will move on to the next phase. The stakes increase as the equestrians attempt to qualify ultimately for the final events in September. The grand finale will be the championship weekend, featuring a million-dollar Grand-Prix competition on September 9, capped off with a live concert performance by Michael McDonald.
For the spectator, the shows are surprisingly inexpensive to go for the day and observe. Admission Wednesday through Friday is free, and just $5 gets you in on the weekend to watch the entire day’s events. The entire proceeds from the gate on those days go to Family of Woodstock, the local organization that helps families in need of food, shelter, and other services. Parking is free every day.
We tour the grounds with Asia Manning, who works as a secretary for HITS. Manning has that easy familiarity with the horse world that comes from growing up in it. Her father owns a horse transportation business, and she’s ridden and competed in shows herself since childhood. As we watch the crew “drag” the ring to make the footing perfect for horse and rider, Manning tells me that that kind of attention to detail is something that HITS does. There’s a lot of effort into getting it right. The surface is a mix of different fibers and sand, moistened but not wet, which allows the surface to “give” a little under the horse’s hooves.
The sense of purpose in the air is palpable. While this is a fascinating spectacle for the viewer, it’s clear that this is more than a pastime for the participants. Serious money is at stake for the professional riders. But the amateurs, too, have invested a lot in their sport, and their discipline and intensity shows in their demeanor.
We watch the first of the amateur riders about to compete in a hunter competition move into the staging area atop their horse. The trainer stands alongside the two, coaching the young rider with last-minute instructions and reminders. The horse appears relaxed, serenely accommodating the groomer who is applying polish to his hooves to make them shiny. In a hunter competition, says Manning, the appearance of the horse is important. The judge’s decision is subjective, based on good form and the overall appearance of horse and rider together. Taken as a whole, the impression has to be of a smooth and even ride, and it must look attractive.
From my viewpoint, before a step is even taken into the ring, they’ve already created a pretty picture. The rider’s attire is based on that worn in the fox-hunting tradition, which is what the hunter show competitions are based on. The rider wears a high-necked white shirt under a dark jacket with long tails, called a shadbelly, Manning tells me. It’s an elegant formal riding coat with canary yellow “points” peeking out under the double-breasted front, worn over lean khaki-colored breeches tucked into dark knee-high riding boots. The horses, with their lustrous, shiny coats, their manes and tails braided or styled in elaborate fashion, are exquisite.