WIHS - How Is This Happening?

I was all set and ready to recap my first-ever trip to the Washington International Horse Show, the one show I wished I had been able to cover in more depth in my book, when suddenly I saw this post on Twitter that perfectly captured my experience.

But, in all seriousness, after experiencing the whirlwind of only 48 hours at WIHS I felt I had to pen something of an addendum chapter to the book. I had heard about the show numerous times in my travels and seen its qualifying equitation class take place, but had operated under the assumption that it was just one of many interchangeable indoors shows. I knew it was a show that took place the last weekend in October in Washington DC at Capital One Area (formerly Verizon Center) where the Wizards, among others, play. It has numerous “finals” level hunter and jumper classes for amateurs, a world cup qualifier Grand Prix class and an equitation final. I had even at one point assumed that one referred to it by attempting to say “wish” with a lisp, later discovering most call it just “Washington.”  I found myself finally attending this show under unusual circumstances: a signing for my book. It was the first show I had attended for the sole purpose of doing this and, even more oddly, without my girlfriend. On an existential level, am I really the horse show boyfriend if I am now just at the show by myself? My signing was on Thursday’s barn night and costume class event. I arrived Wednesday morning and left Friday morning, so I unfortunately was only there for two days did not get the full show week experience. In order to really do this, I probably would have needed to follow around a groom for 24 hours, but I wandered around enough to get an idea of it all.

One unifying trait of most in the hunter/jumper world is their dauntlessness in the face of ridiculous challenges, such as guiding a 1,500lb animal over a jump taller than their own height or figuring out how to afford competing at all. Where most would approach these obstacles with some trepidation, the average horse-person barrels ahead with a “well, we’ll figure it out” mindset. From this comes crazy thoughts, like continuing to hold a full horse show in the middle of one of the most crowded metropolitan areas in the United States. At its core, WIHS is a testament to the admirable and perhaps slightly misguided chutzpah of horse-people. What kept sticking with me as I experienced it was that there is likely no other show that requires the hassle that this one does. Central Park and Miami share WIHS’s location-based challenges but are specialty shows with more limited amounts of classes. WEF has more entries and lasts longer, but is a more structured horse show environment. Even other indoors are out in more practical horse show locales like Lexington or Harrisburg. I haven’t fully developed my own opinion as to whether or not WIHS is worth the trouble, but enough others believe it is for it to continue thriving year after year.

Most normal people encounter the presence of WIHS in the city coming up from the Citycenter/Chinatown Metro stop, where you immediately see a long row of stabling on a closed street outside the arena. There are multiple streets closed to accommodate the horses, and it is almost impossible for public in the area to not be aware of the presence of the show. Where in Central Park I saw people occasionally get to see a horse going from the show ring to stabling, here the show and its stars were on full display on the other side of chain link fencing. Occasionally horses would walk right by on the sidewalk towards their stable next to busy commuters and gawking onlookers. Of course, my favorite part was how they would occasionally relieve themselves on the sidewalk, briefly leaving a large obstacle for pedestrians to avoid. The horses are bused in and out to stabling in Maryland in the middle of the night, with most horses staying no more than one day.

Capital One Arena is an imposing horse show venue—a large stadium under a state-of-the-art scoreboard. Seating is general admission, save for the VIP sections on either end of the ring. The venue seems practical during the night classes when the lower bowl is mostly full; less so during an afternoon amateur hunter class. The feeling of competing in such a space might be special enough to justify it, though I can admittedly say I will never be able to confirm this. As a media member/spectator, the main new experience was having a small army of people telling me where I could and couldn’t go with my yellow wristband. This comes with any major arena, but it was still jarring to have someone on the elevator pushing the buttons or to not be able to go to schooling rings. At one point when I was trying to get in the arena for the night class I was told at the main entrance to go the loading dock. Upon circling the building and arriving at the loading dock, I was told I should go to the main entrance. Part of me wondered how many horse people they had to endure a “don’t you know who I am?!” from. And, even though I did not personally see it, I would be remiss if not mentioning the infamous schooling ring at WIHS, which consists of one tiny room in the bowels of the arena with floor to ceiling poles in the middle of it. It has been consistently mentioned to me as one of the dodgier schooling arrangements on the circuit. As far as exercising the horses, the only time to do it in the arena is from around 11pm at night when the night class is done and broken down until about 5am in the morning, so it is not uncommon for you to be assigned ring time at, say, 3:40am. Again, the show goes on because these are the type of people that say “well, I’ll just have to wake up in the middle of the night to exercise my horse for this show to work.”

As a horse show boyfriend not having to deal with the at times harrowing logistics of showing at WIHS, this was easily one of my favorite shows. It may have something to do with the fact that I don’t think I sat through more than half a class the entire time I was there, or that I had no other real responsibilities other than my book signing. Perhaps it was the line of food trucks outside every day or even more amazing restaurants within walking distance of the venue. I was in the enviable position of reaping all of the benefits of holding a show in the middle of Washington DC, so, for me, WIHS was great. If I was a real Horse Show Boyfriend and my girlfriend was actually showing there, I would probably feel much, much different. Once I got the gist of the show after arriving on Wednesday, I walked around the nearby National Mall and then procured fantastic food and drinks. I even had to order a second drink to get over the profound disappointment of missing that night’s adult amateur jumping championship. The next day before my signing I took over the WIHS Instagram story and posted a few amusing things I observed.

Finally, it was time for my signing at 6:30. I rolled up to the US Equestrian booth, where they had told me a rider might be stopping by to sign autographs while I also had my signing. When I arrived, I saw this.

Yes, that’s right, Beezie Madden, multiple-time Olympian, most popular American female rider was doing a signing at the same time as me. As people started lining up for her, I took advantage of my captive audience and foisted my book on them, encouraging them to peruse it while waiting. She came and went in 20 minutes like a tornado, I never even got to say hello or give her a book, but she was very gracious listening to each person talk about how much they liked her. I even had a few people in the swarm of Bee-zie fans (see what I did there) that were actually there to get a signed book. I stuck around for another hour and a half and got to meet and take pictures with some awesome people who came by to say hi (thank you!!).

I was also right near the main entrance on the concourse, so I got to see lots of people coming in dressed up for the barn night festivities. After seeing all the effort and talking to people that stopped by, it became clear that this was really the Super Bowl for anyone in the DMV area that was in to horses. It seemed that there were quite a few riders that don’t normally attend A-rated shows in attendance. I didn’t get to see much of the actual classes in the ring—though I caught the tail end of the wild Shetland Pony Steeplechase. I watched the costume class, but spent most of it trying to figure out the gambler’s choice scoring. The crowd was very much in to it, cheering and groaning as riders went over the last jump.

I had been told researching the book that WIHS was one of the most produced horse shows on the circuit, and my experience confirmed that. Everything was very well thought out and organized—because it had to be in order for it to be pulled off. There are two very shrewd things about WIHS that I didn’t get to experience while there but appreciate greatly. First, WIHS invented their own equitation final that has become recognized as one of the big four that junior riders want to win. My feelings on upper-level equitation competition being something of a scam are outlined in the book, but I greatly admire WIHS solidifying their status as a top-tier show for juniors by realizing some 20 years ago that they could just make up their own slightly different equitation final and capitalize on the prestige attached to them. Even though it is probably the least prestigious of the four to win, it is still considered one of the majors despite its newness. They even have one of the better attributes of the finals, as they extend invitations to only 40 riders that qualify based on their points earned over the period. 

Even more impressive than this is how they manage to pull off the show itself: it is classified as a non-profit organization. Other shows, like the Hampton Classic and National Horse Show also have this designation that separates them from the larger shows such as WEF. I can’t verify it, but I would imagine that WIHS is the most expensive of all of these non-profit based shows to put on, based on the costs of doing it at an arena in the middle of DC (and paying all those people telling me where not to go). They have many creative ways of raising this money, the most notable being a gargantuan silent auction. This year’s had 151 items on it, and it included the usual standbys: coursewalks and lessons with top professional riders, jewelry, photoshoots and gift baskets. It also had even crazier items like tickets to the Preakness, an SNL taping, Hamilton(!) or a week stay in Paris. I should add as a sidebar that a portion of the money raised does go to other charities, most notably one for crisis assistance for military families, but I would guess the vast majority of the funds bought in go towards putting on the show. And this is why WIHS is secretly brilliant and worth the hassle: because people are willing to pay to make it happen. Without all the silent auction items donated and bought and without the VIP tables selling out, there would be no semi-ridiculous horse show in the middle of a major city in a major sporting arena. And hey, I could never afford to bid on the two tickets to the Fall ’18 Badgley Mischka runway show (gown also included) or a coursewalk with Kent Farrington (though I could probably just creepily walk behind him and pretend he’s talking to me). But someone can afford these things, and that’s why I get to go to a horse show where I can go get great food and drinks in between classes. So I’m personally glad WIHS is still improbably, defiantly hanging on as the only full-fledged horse show held in a major city. Especially because I don’t have to go flat a horse at 3am.

PS: If you liked this and haven't read my book yet, you should buy it!!