Did you ever watch the fluidity of Olympic pairs skaters, the strength in motion, the total trust and how each partner fully commits him or herself to the other? The Hunter and Grand Prix equine events at the Lake Placid Horse Show are like that.
Unlike the Kentucky Derby, or many other races where a last minute change in jockeys is not uncommon, such a switch rarely happens in equestrian events as to master the complexity and difficulty of a ring requires hours - years of practice and partnership between the rider and horse.
The caliber of the riders is top notch. The best riders in the country come to Placid, many vying for future spots at the Olympics. The drama is high. Getting around the ring cleanly is no easy matter. During past Sunday's Grand Prix only 3 riders achieved a clean round, and then entered into a face off where time mattered.
"The rider has to make a judgment call," said Dr. Roland Brown as we watched the final rounds from his table. "A clean round is better than a faster round with a fault. You have to know your competition, are they aggressive fast riders who might make a fault, thus a slightly slower more careful round might be a better strategy? On the other hand you can't ride too slow or that too counts against you. Would it be better to push your comfort zone a bit?"
"What happens when a horse balks, but you try again and make it?" I said.
"Your ride is considered clean unless your horse balks twice, then you are out, and in a final round you could lose valuable time."
"I have been riding since age 6, we won't say the year that I started," said Debbie Stephens, a champion rider whose husband is a course designer and has been riding in Lake Placid since Ruth Newberry led the Horse Show. "My passion has become my profession. What is exciting and rewarding about this sport is that you and your horse on a given moment, such as just before a jump, have to be equally in tune."
"Horses are very unpredictable. Their instincts out in the wild protected them from lions and other predators. There are lots of things that can make them do something unpredictable, the movement of a branch. We have them doing things that are not natural for them. I jumped 7ft 8 in the pussince, the brick wall, setting an outdoor high jump record. The horse could not see the other side. I could not see the other side. The horse trusted me and together we made the jump and set the record. You and your horse develop a bond."
"I love Lake Placid. The level of riders is very high," added Stephens. "It is an Olympic qualifying venue and you have Dick Feldman. He never stops. He works all year round on behalf of our sport. One time I was seeking sponsors to help me out, and he contributed. I did not know him, but he helped give me a leg up. I'll never forget that. He supports riders of all ages. He loves the sport. He himself rides. He knows what it is all about."
"Yes, he fell off doing a jump last year, broke a collarbone or something like that, and was back up riding before the doctors felt he should," I said.
"That's Dick. The riders have tremendous respect for him. I encourage people to take advantage of this horse show. Where else can you see this high a level of riders and horses?"
An example of Richard and Diana Feldman's devotion to the sport was Jimmy Torano, Jr, age 2, accompanied by his mom Danielle, on a horse along with other future riders. He was one of several young kids all decked out for the ring sitting on top of a jumper for all appearances poised to make a circuit of the course. The Feldmans, along with Lake Placid Horse Show executive director Lori Martin, were out with ribbons and gifts in hand, awarding prizes to these young future jumpers for just being there and for the promise they represent to the future of the sport.
"What inspires you to come all the way up to Lake Placid to attend this event?" I asked Dr. Brown as we watched the riders ready for the final round of the Grand Prix.
"The riders of course, but also John Brown and Kate Smith," he said. "I have been smitten by the Adirondacks for a long time and make a point of coming up at least once a year. The first place I stop on my way into town is John Brown's Farm. Kate Smith is a bit of a long story that has its roots back in Revolutionary War with my ancestor Col. "Hell Billy" Brown." His tale was a terrific one that included his grandfather Dewey Brown who began caddying at the Morristown, NJ golf course which let to his becoming the first African American to get his PGA card, own a golf course (the Cedar River Golf Club in Indian Lake), and win amongst other major events, the Kate Smith Open in 1948 held in Placid where Kate herself gave him the award. Meanwhile Brown's father's Tuskegee airmen medal resides at the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake.
"My daughters Ellie 6 and Madeline 8 ride with Ken Whleihan," said their mom Katie Turton. "They both started when they were 3. Ellie is now doing the walk-trot and Madeline will do the short stirrup. I was a rider when I was a kid. It is fun to come back into it as a mom. They are doing well. There is a little out of control aspect, but at 6 that's OK. They are having fun. They love their ponies. There is not a lot of the competition aspect at their age, but this is where champions get their start."
"I am amazed by how poised and in control they look," I said.
"That's not just because of the riders ability, it's the ponies too. They deserve a lot of care after they do this."
"I think in every person's life there is a why," said Richard Feldman. "In my life the why has been horses. Without children like Ellie and Madeline there are no grownups here at play. The horse show has become a place where generations of riders have come to play with us."