Austin Kiplinger looks back over 50 years at the helm of the Washington International

Austin Kiplinger recalls highlights from more than 50 years at the helm of the Washington International -- from Jacqueline Kennedy to Arthur Godfrey to the infamous streaker.                                                                                                     

Looking Back Over 50 Years

By Austin H. Kiplinger, WIHS Chairman Emeritus

As the horse show circuit continues to expand in the US, especially in the warmer climates, a few of the old timers continue to thrive. One such - The Washington International - will celebrate its 53th anniversary this year.

When I joined the Show's Board in 1965, the event was held at the old D.C. National Guard Armory on East Capitol Street - across from RFK Stadium. It had ringside box seats where the opening night crowd was dressy and frequently included First Ladies, Cabinet officers and diplomats, as well as foxhunters from nearby Virginia and Maryland. The East Coast Circuit consisted of Harrisburg, Washington, New York and Toronto.

Washington had long been celebrated as a city of horses, but mainly on bronze statues in the middle of circles, squares, and parks, including military heroes George Washington and Andrew Jackson and Civil War generals like Sheridan, Sherman and Thomas.

The early shows in Washington had strong support from the diplomatic corps, since many of the ambassadors had begun their careers in the cavalry. In recognition of this, the Washington Show contained a Diplomat's Class, and, on Hunt Night, a Class for MFHs. In fact, one of the less reputable sports of that evening was the informal custom of betting on which of the ambassadors or Masters of Fox Hounds would get a refusal (or perhaps -- perish the thought -- would get dumped in the dirt).

Throughout the '60s and '70s, a string of top riders streamed through the in-gate, including Kathy Kusner, Frank Chapot, Rodney Jenkins, Mary Mairs Chapot, Eve Fout (riding Jackie Kennedy's horse), Carol Hoffman and top riders from Canada, Mexico, England, Ireland, and South America. The course designer was the noted British horsewoman, Pamela Carruthers, and to celebrate opening day in 1970, the Show took a carriage to the White House and gave Mrs. Nixon a ride around the South Lawn.

Spectators, at various times, were treated to visits from such celebrities as, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Arthur Godfrey, as well as performances by the Canadian Mounties, the Lippizaners, the Clydesdale Hitch, a male "streaker" and the Navy's Blue Angels.

The Show has also brought vivid memories for those of us whom were involved in it, including one that didn't really involve horses. It was 1968, the year of assassinations and street riots. I was sitting in a ring-side box dressed in white tie and scarlet, entertaining opening night guests when an attendant came up and whispered in my ear: "You are wanted urgently in the office." There I found a contingent of uniformed police from the bomb squad who told me there had been a threat against the Armory and a bomb was set to go off at 10 o'clock. I asked what we should do and they said: "It's your call, sir." I concluded that we could not evacuate 200 horses and 6,000 people without doing as much damage as a bomb would do, so I said, "Search the building and we'll sit tight."

As the minutes ticked away I sat tightlipped in my box. When 10 o'clock neared, I almost held my breath.  10:01.  10:02.  10:03.  I began to breathe again. The clock ticked on, the crisis was over, and no one in the stands had even known there had been one.

Now, as the Show looks forward to celebrating its 53th anniversary, competitors and spectators will pour into the center of Washington and riders will stable their horses just nine blocks east of the White House. I wonder what George Washington would have thought about all this. 

--First published in USHJA 'In Stride,' Dec. 2007