The local horse set normally frolics amid the rollingest hills, the greenest pastures, and the biggest mansions of scenic locales like Middleburg and Potomac.
But for one week a year, this sporting crowd occupies a far less pristine setting. One of pavement, mountain-size manure piles, and mobile homes in just plain yucky Landover.
Welcome to the Washington International Horse Show.
Since 1958, the world’s best equestrians have made yearly pilgrimages to the nation’s capital with their pricey animals, showing off the hunting and jumping and prancing facility that can only be born of a lifetime of strategic whippings. The horses aren’t the only ones who have it tough, though. Their rich and powerful owners are put through some undeniably tough paces of their own so that the annual show can go on. This affluent clique even adopts a temporary persona as trailer trash.
About 900 horses and 100 horse people called the parking lot of the USAir Arena home all last week. The beasts were stored, between jaunts on the coliseum floor, in identical small metal pens, regardless of their valuewhich ranged from the high five figures for the hunters to the low seven figures for the finest-bred jumpers. Equine opportunity housing, you could call it. The two-legged participants, most of whom boast similarly sterling financial portfolios, fared only slightly better. They spent the week squatting in the several dozen mobile homes that were packed together as tightly as the horses in Lot F.
“Oh, it’s really not that bad,” argued Stephen Soule, one of the trailer park’s inhabitants, as he surveyed the concrete stable around him on Saturday night. He paid no mind to the 15-foot-high mound of sawdust and horse dung that for the past six days had been growing steadily just upwind from his assigned quarters. Soule’s tuxedo and casually aristocratic air didn’t come close to jibing with the low-rent scenery or the fecal smell that pervaded the perimeter of the arena.
Soule knows both sides of the horseman’s life. He grew up surrounded by the animals in lush Potomac and now splits his residence between a home in West Palm Beach, Fla., and whatever warm-weather ports his sailboat takes him to during his yearly six months on the water.
He began learning the less cushy attributes of the equestrian existence when he was a student at Whitman High School way back in 1960, the first year he worked the Washington International Horse Show. He hasn’t missed a show since. In the early days, it was held in and around the D.C. Armory, and Soule served as a mere groom for the caged beasts.
Over time, Soule has been promoted. For the past 21 shows, in fact, he’s been the official veterinarian for the high-dollar event. The title is pretty prestigious; the same can’t be said for the conditions Soule endured while here. The converted Chevrolet van that show organizers furnished for Soule and his wife provided less square footage than any single room in his Palm Beach digs.
For the first few years of his vet gig, Soule took the hotel room that was offered as a lodging alternative. But because the show’s animal doctor is on call 24 hours a day, Soule eventually opted to forsake things like comfort and hygiene in exchange for a few extra hours of sleep.
“If I was staying at a hotel, I’d just get called back every time I wanted to get some sleep,” he said. “The way the horses are housed at this show, with their feeding schedules disrupted, and the warmer-than-normal temperatures we’ve had here, well, that’s why I’ve been getting a whole lot of calls for colic this year. This isn’t the way horses are supposed to live.”
What about people?
“I can’t say living in a trailer is what I’m used to,” he chuckled, pointing to the full-size Weber barbecue kettle sitting outside his van’s door. “I don’t like the fact that anybody can shut off my water and heat and unplug my electricity and cut off my propane whenever they want, but that’s the kind of thing that happens when you live in a trailer. I’ll survive.”
Not all the tenants of this Winnebago wonderland were content to survive as discomfortably as Soule. A few parking spaces and a few large puddlesmade up of either bath water or sewagewere the temporary residence of the Caristo clan. Mother Holly, father Ralph, two children, and eight horses were down from the Hamptons for the week.
The Caristos’ 46-foot Elkhart Traveler accommodated two ample bedrooms, a living room with a component stereo and 29-inch television (hooked up to a satellite dish positioned outside the mothership), and a decent-size kitchen loaded with a microwave and a host of other electric appliances. Hitched so close to Soule’s pony of a crash pad, the Caristo abode seemed a veritable Clydesdale. Holly Caristo was very conscious of, and even a little embarrassed by, the grandiosity of her dwelling compared to some of her new neighborhood’s habitats.
“Other people I’ve seen here have much smaller campers, what they call ‘crampers,’” said Caristo. “This is not a cramper.”
Land barge or no, the Caristos weren’t entirely enthralled with the conditions.
“It would be nice if there was a sewer hookup for us,” said Ralph. “At least they’ve been pretty good about pumping out the sewage for us. The water runoff from all these trailers has been a problem this week, too.”
Youngest daughter Heather appeared nonplused by her weeklong immersion in destitution. On what turned out to be the last trip from arena to trailer she’d have to make for this year’s show, the NYU freshman and dressage rider fairly skipped over the standing water that covered her blacktop front lawn. Decked out in equestrian regaliaknee-high riding boots (about $600), jodhpurs ($150), riding jacket ($300), and black riding cap ($100)she conjured Liz Taylor circa National Velvet (as opposed to Liz Taylor circa International House of Pancakes).
“I really don’t mind it here,” Heather bubbled, revealing as much natural charm as a Middleburg or Potomac meadow.Dave McKenna