Anthony d'Ambrosio, of Red Hook, N.Y., already was a successful grand prix rider and trainer when he attended the 1983 Washington International Horse Show. That year, he added his name to the record books when he and Sweet 'n' Low cleared 7 feet 7-1/2 inches to win the Puissance high-jump competition, a record that has held for 25 years. D'Ambrosio, now an FEI "I" level course designer, is one of the most sought-after designers in the country.
What kind of business did you have at the time you broke the Puissance record?
I had a training stable and was training horses and riders at the time.
Was the Washington International Horse Show a regular stop on the tour for you?
Yes, it was. If we had any grand prix horses, we were generally at Washington and the indoor circuit. Washington has always been a great horse show; I've always enjoyed it.
Tell us about Sweet 'n' Low.
He was a 17.1-hand Thoroughbred horse bought off a track in Pennsylvania, I believe, and was trained in his early years by Jack Rockwell, a very good trainer in the New York area. He sent the horse to Terry Rudd for awhile, and she had some nice success, and then he was sent to me after that. I was working with him for a couple of years and we showed him in the grand prix and the jumper derby.
He really had quite a lot of jump, so we started to do the Puissance competition at the Washington Horse Show in 1982. He was very good and he jumped 7'1" to be second that year. We didn't try for the record that year. I actually pulled him out of the competition at that point. The following year we went back and had the opportunity to jump for the record. Because of his experience there the year before, we tried.
Did you have a lot of experience in Puissance classes?
I did actually. I'd been doing Puissance competitions since I was 17 years old. I actually won my first Puissance as a junior when I was 13. I had a good knack for the Puissance. I won probably more than 50% of the Puissance classes I was in. 1983 was the second time that I had broken the world record. I broke the record in 1973 with Sympatico, another 17-hand Thoroughbred at the National Horse Show. Then 10 years later, I had another great horse and was able to break it again.
What do you like about Puissance?
It's a bit extreme, and I always enjoyed the goal of jumping a very large fence. It was a great challenge. As a very young person at Madison Square Garden, I watched Frank Chapot and Bill Steinkraus show in it. My dad would always take me in to watch the Puissance. It's a great crowd favorite. I could relate to it and the excitement of it. I was a rider at that point, and it was something I hoped some day that I would have the thrill of. I gravitated towards that type of an event. I seemed to understand how to ride to the wall, and I could teach a horse how to jump a big wall. It was kind of natural for me to want to do that.
How did you prepare a horse for the Puissance?
You want to show them a big wall. I always had a Puissance wall in my ring at home and we would not necessarily jump huge all the time, but I taught them how to jump a wall. If they were preliminary horses jumping 4'3" to 4'6", I'd let them jump the wall from 4 to 5 feet, just so they could learn how to make the effort. Before we would show at the indoor circuit, I would let them try over a bigger wall at home. With Sweet 'n' Low, we would jump him in our own ring at home before he went down there, about 6'9" or 6'11". I didn't try and break a record at home; it was just so he understood what to do and what kind of shape he had to be in, in order to jump the wall successfully.
How did you celebrate when you broke the Puissance record at Washington?
It's funny; we would have liked to celebrate, but we didn't only have Sweet 'n' Low [there]. We'd brought 10 [horses] and our two dogs in our horse van. We used the horse van for transportation back and forth to the hotel because we ran kind of a mom and pop operation. By the time we finished with the class, got him cooled out and put away and went back to the hotel, we were just hoping to get a bite to eat. We went to the restaurant and they were closing it, so we didn't celebrate! We just went to bed and got ready to go to work the next day.
Since you broke the record, have you seen the Puissance change?
The Puissance has always been the same and has always required certain qualities in a horse and rider. It hasn't changed at all in its essence. What has changed is the number of entries in any given Puissance class at our international indoor competitions. You don't have the number of entries that are experienced at it and enjoy the competition to get to the heights we used to with more regularity back in the day. When I broke the record at New York and Washington, we had teams from Germany, France, Italy with Puissance specialist horses and riders. They were there with their best Puissance horse to try and win. Now it seems that without the teams, there aren't enough horses and riders who are really experienced at that and make it a focal point of their training. In that respect, it's changed.