Ox Ridge Hunt Club at 100
With its rich legacy, the storied club is poised to celebrate its centennial in style
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.”
Riders Return to the Ring
Now, after a multi-year capital improvement campaign, the club is poised to celebrate its centennial anniversary sporting refurbished barns, state-of-the art riding rings and spruced-up grass turnout paddocks. There are treadmills to rehabilitate injured horses and heat lamps in the wash stalls to soothe irritated skin. A grant from Connecticut Light and Power provided the funds for a new heat-sensor lighting system, which has cut energy costs in half. Today, for the first time in many years, the barn is operating at capacity, and the youth riding program has been revived. Also thriving is the therapeutic riding program Pegasus, founded here in 1975.
“There have been some pretty tough times over the years,” says board member and rider Sue Knapp. She and her family lived across the street from the Ox Ridge Hunt Club and as a little girl she would beg her parents for riding lessons. When she was 9 years old, they bought her a junior membership. She remembers being dropped off by the school bus and hanging out at the barn until dinnertime. “We didn’t have the amount of extracurricular activities that kids have these days,” she says. “We had our riding and that was really it. Ox Ridge was our home away from home.”
Jim Buchanan, president of the board, remembers his first encounter with Ox Ridge as a young boy living in Stamford. He got mad at his parents one day and ran away from home. He came up Ox Ridge Road and discovered the polo field for the first time. “It was the biggest thing I’d ever seen and very intimidating,” he recalls. “I hightailed it right back home.” Fourteen years ago, when his own daughter was looking for a place to ride, one of his employees suggested Ox Ridge. “I thought it was a private club,” he says. “I had no idea people were welcome to come in and have a look around.”
That misconception is one the club struggles with to this day. “We are a private club but we welcome new riders,” says Potter. The New Canaan resident started riding in 1998. Soon after, she bought her first horse. Ten years ago, Potter stepped into her current position as business manager on a temporary basis. “I told myself I’d come in to dust things off,” she said. “Now, every morning I pull into the driveway and pinch myself.”
Similarly, Griffin planned to spend just a few months at Ox Ridge when he arrived in 2004 to fill in while the head trainer at the time spent the winter show season in Florida. That trainer never came back. “I didn’t think I’d be doing it full time,” says Griffin, a grand prix rider who had previously worked with Olympian McClain Ward. For Griffin, bringing Ox Ridge back to its glory days has been a labor of love. He’s put his competitive career on the back burner so he can devote all his energies to the club. “The first years were very hard,” he recalls. “I love trying to keep the old history but we needed to bring the facilities up to date. The main thing was re-doing the stalls, getting the paddocks back and putting in new footing in the rings. We have two of the best sand rings around.”
Lower on the priority list are the buildings, such as the old corn crib and the general manager’s house, which date back to the early 1900s. “What does it say about us that our employees live in antiquated dwellings while our horses live in the lap of luxury?” asks Potter.
In order to stay competitive, the club has made some concessions. There are still three levels of membership—active, associate and junior—but there is no initiation fee and the monthly fees are nominal. “It’s really just a way for us to keep our nonprofit status within Darien,” says Flavia Callari. There is a small but active membership. In the old days, new riders had to commit to become members after ten lessons. Now, riders who don’t own their own horses may buy lesson packets of ten, and keep renewing them for as long as they would like. In addition, seasonal memberships are available for riders who want to board their horses for four months. “It’s great for somebody whose trainer is in Florida for the winter,” says Callari.
Callari has been a driving force in the effort to get the club back on solid footing. “I love Ox Ridge and its history,” she says. “It’s a hard industry and a hard economy, but we try to be respectful neighbors and to be good to the town of Darien.” As for what the future will bring, anything is possible. “Our location is ideal and management is top-notch,” says Buchanan. “First, we had to rebuild Ox Ridge. Now, there are people who care about it.”