Ox Ridge Hunt Club at 100
With its rich legacy, the storied club is poised to celebrate its centennial in style
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When Patty Heuckeroth was a toddler growing up at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in the late 1940s, her father, Otto—the club’s general manager and head trainer—used to ride by the house at lunchtime every day, swing her up in the saddle and canter around the polo field. “I had two older brothers who didn’t ride,” she says. “By the time I came along my father had lost hope.” He needn’t have worried. From the moment she first felt the adrenaline rush of being on a horse, the young Patty was hooked—or, as she says today, “hell bent for leather.”
Patty went on to become one of the most accomplished junior equestrians of her generation. After high school, she moved to Virginia to work with Gene Cunningham, one of the country’s top trainers, where she continued to hone her skills as a professional. In 1969, she built a horse farm in Southern Pines, North Carolina, long a winter destination for the horsey set in the Northeast. To this day, she credits her success in the show ring to her early training at Ox Ridge. “My father gave me the basics, then the horses taught me.”
Patty is just one of many great horsemen who got their start at Ox Ridge in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There was also George Morris, Ronnie Mutch and Victor Hugo-Vidal, all of whom learned the sport under the watchful eyes of Patty’s father, Otto Heuckeroth, and his assistant, V. Felicia Townsend.
“Miss V taught everybody before they were anybody,” says Flavia Callari, a longtime board member of Ox Ridge. Miss V’s roster of star pupils included George Morris, an Olympian and former chef d’Equipe of the U.S. Equestrian Team. In his book Hunter Seat Equitation, Morris thanked his early mentors: “To V. Felcia Townsend for giving me confidence and Otto Heuckeroth who taught me about ‘the Horse.’”
The Sporting Life
Located on a broad sweep of land between Mansfield and Middlesex roads in Darien, the Ox Ridge Hunt Club was incorporated in April 1914 by a group of polo and hunt enthusiasts. They bought sixty acres from John McCormick, an opera singer and gentleman dairy farmer. On weekends they would play polo and foxhunt. Other equestrian disciplines—dressage and English-style hunt seat—followed. The first horse show at Ox Ridge was held in 1926. Otto Heuckeroth arrived a year later. The German riding master was a strict disciplinarian who always put the welfare of the horses first. “My father and Miss Townsend stressed horsemanship and sportsmanship,” says Patty. The pair set a high bar, founding a legacy of first-rate instruction that produced thousands of fine riders over the years. That instruction helped to establish Ox Ridge as one of the preeminent equestrian facilities in the country.
But Ox Ridge was even more. It was a place where likeminded people bonded over their shared love of horses. “Our entire social life revolved around the club and its activities,” says Doris Gawhyler, 90, who first came to Ox Ridge in 1964. Doris and her physician husband, Max, moved from New York City to a house on the edge of the polo field, where they still live. Every day they’d walk over in the afternoon to ride their horses and then let them graze; afterward they joined other club members for cocktails in the bar and potluck dinners. “On Wednesday night Otto organized drills in the indoor ring. We’d have German marching music and he’d put the horses and the riders through their paces,” she says. “On Sundays, we’d go for trail rides and then gather for brunch. In the winter, we’d go skijoring across the polo field.”
Over the years, the club’s fortunes waxed and waned. There have been hard times (the Depression, two world wars) and good times (the heydays of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s) and hard times again. “When I first came here, the barns were full, and there were tons of juniors and ponies,” says Theresa Bowling, a former board member who started riding at Ox Ridge in 1996. “I remember one day in particular, thinking ‘Enjoy it, because it won’t always be like this.’” Indeed, not long after, a combination of factors—trainers leaving, aging facilities, the economic downturn—made the club’s prospects for growth look dim. By 2005, the once thriving membership had dropped off to a handful of loyal supporters and two-thirds of the sixty-stall facility was empty. Faced with a townwide rise in property taxes, Ox Ridge was pushed to the verge of bankruptcy. Its storied past and rich legacy seemed destined to end up in a few cardboard boxes in an attic somewhere.
Against all of these odds, the board persevered. The group turned to experts for help in coming up with a sound financial plan. “We were very aware we had a piece of history in our hands,” says Bowling. “Our priority was to do whatever it took to keep the club from going bankrupt. We started running it like a business and not like a family farm.” In 2004, the board hired a new general manager and head trainer, Alan Griffin. “He has an amazing work ethic,” says Alison Potter, the club’s business manager. “We hadn’t seen that in a while. He’s completely selfless when it comes to this place. That attitude has trickled down to all the members and the board.”