Connecticut may not have the blue grass pedigree of Kentucky or the wild horse population of Colorado.
Small though the Nutmeg State may be it is more horse-friendly than one might imagine. Connecticut has a thriving equestrian community with about 47,000 horses and more than 500 equestrian-related businesses including farms, riding stables, training and boarding facilities, farriers, equine massage therapists, tack and feed shops, and large animal veterinarians.
Few people know it was Connecticut — not Florida or Kentucky, which was home to the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in any equestrian discipline (the late Bill Steinkraus of Westport and Darien). And Peter Leone of Lionshare Farm in Greenwich won a silver medal in team show jumping at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Connecticut has its own Triple Crown of horse riding. There are facilities for competitive dressage and show jumping, world-class polo, and pleasure riding.
Kylie Katz’s love for horses began as a young child at the Guilford Fair. “My mom let me do a pony ride,” said Katz, 20, of North Branford. Shortly thereafter Katz was taking lessons at Carriage Stone Farm in Northford before going to a stable in Durham. “I’ve been competing for 12 years,” she said.
Lindsey Rose Herbert’s inspiration came from watching My Little Pony on television. Herbert, 16, of Guilford, said she told her parents “I want to do that.”
Herbert’s years of dedication paid off at the recent Connecticut Hunter Jumper Association (CHJA) Finals at the Fairfield Hunt Club in Westport, a competition sanctioned by the Connecticut Horse Show Association. It is an invitational competition. Riders accumulate points throughout the season from January to July in order to qualify.
There are hunter, jumper and equitation divisions, divided into groups based on the age and experience of riders and horses. Herbert won a ribbon in the Children’s Hunter Pony Classic.
“We’ve won a lot at local shows,” Lindsey said of herself and her horse Quality Checked, aka “Pixie.” But, she added, “I’ve never won at a horse show of this caliber before. It made me reflect on the years it took to get to this point.”
Herbert spends four to eight hours a day at Beacon Woods Stables in South Glastonbury with The Chestnut Hill Show Stables team led by trainer Sarah Weaver.
“Our objective is an invisible ride so that it looks effortless and cohesive for the team of horse and rider,” Weaver said.
Participation in equestrian sports is expensive and time-consuming, particularly for those on a competitive track. First and foremost, they must have a love and respect for the animal, Weaver said. Equestrian competitions are the only sporting events where athletes are completely dependent on another living thing. “These horses are athletes, too,” she said.
Claudia Herbert, Lindsey’s mom, said equestrian activities are “a very expensive hobby,” although one well worth what kids gain. “It’s a terrific sport for kids. You build a relationship with your horse, your trainer, your barn mates, and the people you show with,” she said.
Weaver said equestrian activities build confidence and teach kids to deal with pressure. “It’s a huge responsibility but when they learn it they can use it for the rest of their lives,” Weaver said.
“It’s fun and it teaches you a lot of good life lessons,” said Jenna Venuti, 23, of Killingworth, who started training seriously at age 3 at the Westbrook Hunt Club in Westbrook, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The farm is also host to a number of competitions, including the recent Connecticut Horse Show Association Finals last month. Venuti said she learned from a young age to properly take care of a horse and equipment. The best lesson she learned is how to lose gracefully.
“You’re going to have bad days. You can’t always win,” Venuti said.
At the Westport show in August it was a winning day for Olivia Lawlor, of Guilford, who trains at Legendary Race Hill Farm in Madison.
“I’m crying,” Lawlor said with tears of joy as she qualified for a particular finals competition with the top score of the group. Ultimately, she took home the Reserve Champion ribbon that day.