Joe Fargis vividly remembers his first visit to the Washington International Horse Show (WIHS), but he wasn’t at the show to ride.
“I used to ride at the Junior Equitation School, which was Jane Marshall Dillon’s in Vienna, VA. We used to go and sell programs at Washington. The programs were $1, I remember that,” Fargis said. That was in the first few years of WIHS, which began in 1958.
In the more than five decades since, Fargis has been involved with WIHS on many levels and his contributions have earned him induction into the show’s Hall of Fame. “Joe’s skills, awards, accolades and accomplishments in the sport would be more than enough to join the Washington Hall of Fame, standing alone,” said WIHS Vice President Claudia Frost. “But Joe has done far more. He has been an exhibitor, trainer and supporter of the Washington International Horse Show for decades, helping to preserve and sustain Washington as the country’s leading metropolitan indoor international horse show.”
Fargis, 70, was a student of Dillon’s at her famed Junior Equitation School, where the legendary instructor (herself an inductee into the WIHS Hall of Fame in 1999) instilled a firm foundation of horsemanship as well as riding skills into her students. By the early 1960s, Fargis began to show at WIHS on ponies.
“The entry fees were so expensive for us that we would share the entry fees on a pony or a horse,” Fargis recalled. “I’d do a class on a pony, then someone would pay the entry fee for the next class and ride that pony in that class. It was more fun than I can tell you. We looked forward to it all year and we’d be up all night the night before, braiding and scrubbing the ponies.”
When their classes were done, Fargis and his fellow students would return to WIHS to watch the international open jumpers compete. “It was like another world, all those beautiful horses and pinque coats,” Fargis said.
Even now, Fargis’ clearest memory of WIHS is from those years that the show took place at the National Guard Armory. “I remember the smell of the tanbark,” he said. “It was a different smell. You know how a Christmas tree smells when it’s fresh? It was that kind of special smell. I remember going in that building and smelling that smell and being so excited. It’s a silly thing to remember, but it’s my memory of that show.”
Fargis continued to show at WIHS throughout his junior years, winning a class aboard one of Dillon’s junior hunters in the ‘60s. He transitioned out of the juniors in 1966 when he turned 18 and continued to make WIHS a fixture in his show calendar. “I rode hunters there in the late ‘60s and was champion a few times,” Fargis said. “I rode some good horses for J. Basil Ward, who was from Gates Mills, Ohio. His horses were wonderful in the working hunter division.”
In 1970, Fargis fulfilled his childhood dream in 1970, earning his own pinque coat as a member of his first U.S. Nations Cup team at Lucerne, Switzerland. He became a consistent presence on U.S. Nations Cup teams and returned to WIHS on the team. He also was a frequent contender in the President’s Cup Grand Prix. The Pan American Games in 1975 were Fargis’ first appearance on the U.S. team at an international championship, and he helped the team earn gold there. In those years, Fargis also built a successful training business in Virginia, Sandron, in partnership with Conrad Homfeld.
It was also at WIHS that Fargis’ most famous equine partner made her way into the spotlight. Touch of Class, then ridden by Debi Connor, topped the intermediate jumper division at WIHS in 1980, then Connor went to Florida to train with Fargis and Homfeld. When Connor broke her leg, both Fargis and Homfeld showed Touch of Class until 1982, when Fargis put a syndicate together to buy the diminutive Thoroughbred mare. That year, Fargis and Touch of Class began winning at the grand prix level.
It was with Touch of Class that Fargis would accomplish his greatest achievement—team and individual gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. They jumped two clean rounds to help the U.S. team clinch the gold, then had to jump off against Homfeld and Abdullah for the individual gold. Their final clean round secured the gold. That fall, Touch of Class and Fargis won the President’s Cup Grand Prix at WIHS.
Pictured: Joe Fargis aboard Touch of Class at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
“My favorite memory may be sharing the Olympic experience with two friends behind the scenes in L.A., then seeing firsthand the culmination of years of dedication, hard work and true team effort manifest themselves in team gold and individual gold and silver in one of the most unbelievable equestrian experiences of all times,” said Frost. “You could feel the palpable joy and pride Joe had for his horse, his team and himself.”
Fargis would go on to help the U.S. team take silver at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games riding Mill Pearl and serve on many winning Nations Cup teams, including at the 1985 WIHS. He continues to ride, train and show today and is based out of Sandron in Middleburg, VA.
Fargis has been involved in WIHS on many different levels. He’s competed there for decades, has judged at the show, and has served on its Board of Directors.
“When you look at his competitive career, he’s done it all,” said Tracey Weinberg, who has ridden with Fargis. “He’s won two Olympic gold medals, a Pan American medal, and the biggest grand prix classes in the country. He’s a horseman through and through. There are no shortcuts or gimmicks. Every single step of a horse and rider’s program is meticulously thought out.
“But the best commentary about Joe is that he treats everybody the same, whether you are a 2’6” rider or a grand prix rider,” Weinberg said. “That to me is the biggest definer of a horseman and a gentleman and it truly defines Joe. That’s why he’s so deserving of the Washington Hall of Fame honor. He’s a legend for what he’s accomplished himself in the ring, but what he has helped others achieve, regardless of their level of skill and capability is truly admirable.”