Memoir

The Piping Rock Country Club Rally of 1969

©Peggy Vurgason

It was the night of July 20, 1969 and world history was being made.

Instead of going to bed early, our C2 team stayed up to watch Apollo 11 land on the moon. Neil Armstrong opened the hatch of the Apollo at 10:39 PM and slowly made his way down the ladder. With each step we leaned closer to the television as if we could help him with this mission. Twenty minutes later, he stepped off of the ladder and on to the moon.

Joanie jumped off of the couch and yelled, “Hooray, we’re on the moon!”

Neil Armstrong said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Walter Cronkite said, “Oh boy! Whew! Boy!”

When the excitement was over, we headed to the bedroom suites at the basement level in Joanie’s house.

Joanie was the D.C. of Amwell Valley Hounds Pony Club in Hunterdon County, NJ. We stayed over the night before the regional rally at the Piping Rock Country Club on Long Island to get an early start the next morning. Team members were Debbie and her horse Crimson King, Dianna and her horse Pride, Richie and his pony Minuet. Since Tommy’s horse was not up to the rally, he was the stable manager and captain.

At 5:00 AM the alarms went off. Shortly after, we left in a caravan for Long Island. Our team rode with Joanie, in her long black limousine followed by Joanie’s van with the team’s four horses, then the “B” team’s trucks and trailers.

As we drove through the big city, Joanie smiled back at us in her rear view mirror. “Have you guys ever been to New York City?”

Richie looked at the rest of us and answered, “Of course, we have all been to the Madison Square Garden National Horse Show.”

“I wonder how many famous horses drove through the city on their way to the Garden,” I said dreaming that one day Hootenanny would be one of those famous horses.

Joanie knew what I was thinking and she turned and gave me a wink. “Well, if Snowman could jump those huge jumps and he was part plow horse, then maybe someday Hootenanny could do the same thing,” I said, trying to sound confident.

We entered Long Island and landed at Piping Rock Country Club. Joanie stopped at the gate and we opened our windows and peered out at the prestigious club. The air was hot and humid and more rain was expected.

We continued on our way to the stable area passing the golf course with rolling hills and breathtaking gardens. In the stable area, there were hedgerow barns instead of tents like the previous rally.

After the long ride, everyone was glad to get out of the car and stretch. We unloaded the horses and equipment and set up our stable area where we would be spending the next three days together.

The first phase of competition was the written test that we took later that afternoon. The test was hard and I felt a bit disappointed that I did not understand all of the questions.

The rain began to pour in buckets and created an atmosphere of gloom. The five of us stood in the tack room and Richie spoke up. “I am glad that we don’t have to be out in this.”

No sooner did he get the words out of his mouth, Joanie appeared wearing an oversized bright yellow hooded raincoat and her fishing boots.

“Are you guys ready to walk the cross country course?” She was small in stature but her voice bellowed through the entire stable area.

We all looked at each other with surprise.

“She has got to be kidding,” Richie mumbled under his breath.

Tommy laughed because his job as stable manager was to stay with the horses.

Most of the course was in the woods, where the trees protected us from the rain. There were logs over ditches and jumps that popped up out of nowhere. The course went down a steep hill, then crossed a deep creek and up another steep hill to a brush jump. Walking the course was very difficult in the mud.

I whispered to Joanie, “I know Hoot can do this.”

Debbie nodded, “Crimson can do it too.”

Joanie turned to both of us, “Keep confident and ride hard. The ground is very slick.”

Then she looked at Richie. “What do you think?”

He seemed a little uncertain because Minuet was just a pony. “It is going to be tough, but she can do this.”

“That is what I like to hear,” Joanie replied with confidence. Then she turned to Dianna who was standing several feet away from the group.

“Ride your horse hard, Dianna,” Joanie called to her.

Dianna raised her chin up and answered Joanie, “My Arabian can do this.” Her voice cracked and she really did not sound as confident as she had hoped to sound. Joanie chuckled and we all walked back in the rain to the stable area.

The Friend’s Academy hosted the pony clubbers overnight. It was the school Joanie attended when she was a young girl. All of the pony clubbers bunked in sleeping bags on the gym floor while the pony clubber leaders and chaperones slept on comfortable beds in the dormitories.

Thank God we were all so tired. We fell asleep quickly.

The next morning, the rain stopped for a little while during my formal inspection and dressage test. To my surprise, we received a perfect score for inspection. The inspectors were much nicer than the previous rally. Perhaps they had a little more sympathy due to the awful weather.

I expected Hoot to be a bit full of himself after being cooped up in a strange stall for over 24 hours. However, warming up on the wet slippery grass kept him focused on his own balance.

The rider ahead of us gave her final salute and I brought Hoot back to a walk and headed for the dressage ring. I could hear the judge critique the rider who had just completed her test. Her voice was kind and I smiled to myself thinking there was no reason for me to be intimidated.

Joanie was not there to cheer me on and no one from my team was there to watch me. “I can relax and do my best,” I thought to myself.

The dressage bell rang. I took a deep breath and entered the ring at a strong trot. Hootenanny knew when he was in the show ring and his gait always livened up. As we halted at “X”, Hoot stood perfectly square. I saluted by dropped my right hand and bowing my head.

I remembered Joanie instructing us, “Always smile at the judge when you pick up your head.” My horse felt so good that my smile broke into a nervous little giggle.

The next seven minutes were all business as Hoot and I danced around the dressage ring. The wet grass made the turns a little too tight for comfort, but Hoot kept moving forward putting one foot in front of the other with cadence and grace. Our last movement was an extended trot across the diagonal of the ring and Hoot felt almost airborne.

We turned down the center line, halted square at “X” and I gave my final salute. The judge stood up and beckoned to me.

“What a wonderful horse,” she said. “I know it is hard to balance on the wet grass, but you did a remarkable job. I can tell this horse loves you.”

“Thank you so much,” I said letting out a sigh of relief and gave another nervous little giggle.

As I approached the cross country course, fog was beginning to set in and I could see Richie coming across the finish line. He and Minute were covered with mud from head to toe. As Richie walked past me, I could see disappointment written across his face.

“We only had one refusal, but we made it. Be careful, it is very slick.”

I trusted Hoot and headed for the starting box, ready to conquer the world.

The countdown was complete and Hoot bolted across the open field for his first two fences. As we entered the woods, everything became dreary. I could hardly see the direction flags and began to second guess myself in a panic. In a split second I noticed a fence judge sitting in a lawn chair bundled up in a bright yellow rain coat—Joanie!

“Am I headed in the right direction?” I asked her through my laughter. Her eyes sparkled through the dreary fog. She looked at me as if she wanted to laugh with me, but said nothing. Actually, she was not allowed to speak to me and if anyone heard her, I would be eliminated. But, her smile alone was enough to give me confidence and keep going.

As I galloped through the woods, the rain clouds shifted and shadows were suddenly forming before my eyes. The visibility grew poor and the jump ahead of me appeared to be alive. Hoot picked up his head and shifted his weight back in uncertainty as he studied the unusual obstacle.

“Come on Hoot,” I spoke to him and pushed him with my legs and seat. My horse trusted my voice and continued bold and confident. We galloped through the finishing flags with a clean round.

Debbie and Crimson also finished clean. But Dianna had several refusals.

We were glad to arrive at the barn for the third and final day. Our stable inspections had all gone well and we just wanted the sun to come out—it did for a little while in time for stadium jumping.

The course was set on a grass field. The jumps were brightly painted and flower pots decorated the area. When we walked the course, I could see where the ground was uneven and had to stop and think about how I would make the turns. I asked my “B” team buddies for advice. Jeri said to go slow and sit up straight. Sharon advised to make the turns wide and line up straight to the fences.

Hoot sensed my tension when I walked into the stall with his tack. He stood quietly as I slid the saddle in place. I could see him out of the corner of my eye turn his ear in my direction. Then, as I was adjusting the saddle pad, he turned his head and nuzzled the back of my neck.

I turned to him and sighed, “It’s a tough course.”

He looked deep into me with his soulful eyes and put his head on my shoulder. That was his way of telling me to settle down and be confident.

Unlike the day before, we had an audience for stadium jumping, our last phase of competition. I could see my parents sitting on the bleachers along with other team parents. This was a good sign as Hoot always did his best in front of an audience.

I watched the “B” riders do their stadium jumping paying close attention to the turns and the striding in between the jumps. Many of the horses had trouble with the triple combination. There were several rails down and some had refusals.

After the last “B” rider completed his course, the fences were lowered for the “C2” teams.

Jeri walked over to me for a pep talk. “Remember not to rush the turns and sit up straight. The footing is slick.”

Sharon was right behind her and added, “Hold your turns wide and keep him on a straight line to the fences, especially at the triple combination. I know you have done courses harder than this. Relax and you will be fine.”

I felt privileged having the support from the “B” riders whom I idolized over the years.

Once I entered the ring, everything seemed to fall into place as Sharon said it would. I said a quick prayer as I made my opening circle. Hoot picked up his pace and arched his neck. No matter what venue we were competing at or how far away from home we were, Hoot was in his jumper mode and nothing could stop him now.

I did not notice the ground being slick because my horse took control and did what he had to do to get us safely around the course. I held my turn and headed straight into the triple combination. Hoot flew over the first element and landed clean, then took a big stride to the second element and landed clean, took two more strides to the third element, a black and white spread jump, and landed clean.

My horse continued blazing through the stadium jumper course and finished without time or jumping faults. The crowd cheered and Hoot arched his head and swished his tail as we walked out of the ring.

Richie’s Minuet and Debbie’s King Crimson also went clean. Dianna and Pride had some trouble on the triple combination.

Our team finished fourth out of eight teams and the week had finally come to an end.

Apollo 11’s mission was a success on the moon. Hoot’s mission was a success at Piping Rock Country Club.

That’s my story and I am sticking to it.

God bless all who read my story.


About the Author

Peggy DeForte Vurgason began teaching horseback riding at the age of 15 and later went on to ride professionally. Today, she competes in Western Dressage and trail riding on her horse, Homerun Joe, and along with her husband George and his mule, Billy John. Peggy is the author of The American Riding System, the fiction series Long Ears and Short Tales, and the soon-to-be published novel Hootenanny Spirit.

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