No need to pop the hood on a muscle car to gaze upon impressive horsepower around here this fall. Some of the top horses in the country, even the world, will be in the area and revved up to the max to perform in events that showcase their athleticism, strength, skill, courage and beauty. And you don't have to be an equine expert to enjoy these four-legged stars and the skills of their two-legged partners.
Three of the events -- the International Gold Cup on Saturday; the Fair Hill International Festival in the Country Friday through Sunday; and the Washington International Horse Show Oct. 25 through Oct. 30 -- are annual competitions. The fourth event, "Cavalia," is a theatrical performance that blurs the line between horsemanship and show business. It is making its first appearance in the region Oct. 26 to Nov. 8.
Picking the venue that suits you best is really a matter of time available, taste and spectating style.
The Gold Cup, like its better-known spring version, the Virginia Gold Cup, is where the horsy come to hobnob, with the races sometimes running second to seeing and being seen.
Fair Hill is for people looking for a day trip, while the Washington International Horse Show can be a spur-of-the-moment outing, undertaken even at the end of a hard day in the office saddle. And "Cavalia," a sort of Cirque du Soleil on the hoof, should appeal to anyone who has enjoyed that famous troupe's mix of spectacle and fantasy.
International Gold Cup
With a crowd of more than 25,000 expected, the fall Gold Cup at Great Meadow in The Plains, Va., a verdant setting about 50 miles from the District, is hardly a small event. But compared with the spring race, which attracts twice as many people, the October edition is more user-friendly: Traffic is less horrendous, and the weather is usually cooler.
The Gold Cup lineup features seven steeplechase and flat races and offers the hunt country version of eat, drink and make merry -- while looking good, of course.
Although jeans aren't banned at the Gold Cup, they "are rarely seen," warns the race's Web site. "Afternoon dress" -- dresses and hats for women, sports coats and ties for men -- is appropriate attire, it says.
So this is the chance to wear that trilby or picture hat that normally resides in the back of the closet. And you can't go wrong with tweed or khaki.
Cuisine is a crucial element of the Gold Cup experience, too. Aim for "elegant portability," says Marion Benedetto of Purcellville, who has won the last two tailgate contests for the best buffet presentation. "Simple but special" is her recipe for success.
Simple means food that is "comfortable and easy to eat" -- no knives required. Special means silver platters and flatware, a pretty covering for the table or tailgate, flowers and a centerpiece.
For tailgate tyros, Benedetto recommends plastic drink ware -- glass is too dangerous; plenty of beverages, alcoholic and otherwise (champagne is the quaff of choice in hunt country); and weighted tablecloths so the wind doesn't make a flap. And wine lovers should remember to bring that all-important corkscrew.
Oh, and about the races.
Businessman, jockey and man-about-Middleburg Colvin Ryan plans to have a mount for the Gold Cup and to be otherwise "active" on the racecourse Saturday.
The fifth race is the International Gold Cup Timber Stakes. Jumps are made of posts and rails -- in this case, 18 of them, each about four feet high, spread across 3.5 miles. Ryan recommends a visit to the paddock before the races to watch the horses being saddled and to eavesdrop on the jockeys discussing strategy with trainers.
"It's part of the ritual," he says.
It also can be the place to pick up a tip on a winner for that informal bet. As a sage observer remarked one day while watching a horse prance, rear and throw its jockey in the paddock, "That horse has already run its race." He was right, too.
INTERNATIONAL GOLD CUP -- Saturday from 10 to 7. Great Meadow in The Plains, Va. 540-347-2613. vagoldcup.com. Take Interstate 66 west to Exit 31, turn left on Old Tavern Road (Route 245), enter through Gate 9. The Gold Cup is held rain or shine, and the day's events include Jack Russell terrier races, a carriage parade and a performance by the Washington Redskins Marching Band. $60 per carload at the gate (up to six people, children younger than 12 free).
Fair Hill International
Festival in the Country
Fair Hill is well known in horse circles, but it draws a perfect blank outside of them. Not deservedly so at all.
For anyone who likes animals and finds the outdoors great, this is a good choice for a fine fall day. It's inexpensive, family-friendly and even dog-friendly if your pets are leashed. The only caveat is that the 5,000-plus-acre Fair Hill natural area is about 90 miles from the District, near Maryland's Pennsylvania and Delaware borders, so you should get an early start or even stay overnight in the area if you want to attend events on both weekend days.
The dressage phase of the two main competitions -- one called "eventing" for riders and the other called combined driving for carriage drivers -- begins Friday.
Riders and drivers will perform a sequence of required moves in the ring with perfect precision as the goal. Dressage is subdued, studied and subtle.
But there's nothing subdued, studied or subtle about the second phase of these competitions. "Super Saturday," Fair Hill calls it, and Sunday is no slouch either.
The marquee event Saturday is the cross-country or endurance phase of both competitions.
Riders will gallop nearly five miles over rolling countryside and jump 40 obstacles, including ditches, gates, tables, walls and embankments. These intimidating obstacles can be nearly four feet high and almost six feet wide. The riders will have walked the course, but for the horses, it will all be new. Trust between horse and rider, obviously, is essential.
The field for this prestigious event, one of only two in the country at the "three-star" level (only four annual events worldwide and the Olympics are four-star), will include Olympian Karen O'Connor from The Plains, two-time world champion Bruce Davidson and defending Fair Hill champion Phillip Dutton.
Kim Severson of Scottsville, Va., who won an individual silver medal and a team bronze at the Athens Olympics, came in second at Fair Hill last year, although injuries will keep her sidelined this year. She recommends getting a program and being at the cross-country course in time to see the first of 60 to 70 horses take off at 12:30. The water complex obstacle, which includes jumps into and out of water, "always creates a big splash," she says.
Derek Di Grazia, who designed the course, says that Fair Hill is "one of the prettiest venues out there, especially with the fall leaves." From a single viewing area near the start of the course, spectators can see 17 jumps. A series of jumps, including two water complexes, also is within a short walk of the fairground area, he says.
Meanwhile, in another part of Fair Hill, the marathon phase of the carriage competition has no jumps, but it does have mazes to negotiate over a course of more than five miles. Classes are for one-horse, pairs and four-in-hand carriages. The three-phase combined driving competition is a relatively new sport initiated by Britain's Prince Philip when his polo-playing days were waning. Displays of competitive carriage driving are rare, especially at the advanced level that takes place at Fair Hill.
Doug Kemmerer, who lives in Unison, Va., and has competed in the driving event at Fair Hill, says Saturday's marathon or cross-country phase of the sport is "very exciting, very demanding," a test of "stamina, agility and the driver's ability."
Competitors use lightweight, high-tech carriages "designed to bounce off trees," he says, which can become necessary when the rigs thread through obstacles, sometimes with the horses at a canter to optimize the time.
On Sunday, both events will move back to the ring. The three-day participants will compete in show jumping, with a dozen jumps set as high as four feet and as wide as five feet.
"Each course has a rhythm, like a piece of music," course designer Sally Ike explains, and if the horse and rider are off the beat, they won't do well.
Show jumping is a spectacle, with brightly painted jumps decorated with shrubs, flowers and tree trimming, and the horses and riders all polish and shine.
The carriage competition on Sunday is another pageant -- gleaming horses, fine leather, and handcrafted and antique carriages. Drivers will be in formal dress, including top hats, and the bigger rigs will have liveried grooms aboard. They will face an intricate course of cones that allows only a six-inch margin of error on either side of the carriage wheels.
Fair Hill also features a 100-mile endurance riding competition; dog agility trials expected to attract about 400 entrants; sheepherding demonstrations; and miniature horse displays.
FAIR HILL INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL IN THE COUNTRY -- Friday through Sunday from 8 to 5. Fair Hill, Md. 410-398-2111. fairhillinternational.com. Take Interstate 95 north to Exit 100, Route 272 north. Follow Route 272 for five miles and turn right on Route 273 east and continue for six miles. Go through Routes 213/273 intersection at Fair Hill Inn and turn right on Gallaher Road. The event is held rain or shine. $10 Friday, $12 Saturday and Sunday; children younger than 12 free. $5 parking.
Washington International Horse Show
At 47 years old, the Washington International Horse Show is the grande dame on the equestrian circuit, but it doesn't lack for spirit. If you haven't seen either of the show's two top attractions -- the Puissance competition Oct. 28 or the President's Cup Grand Prix on Oct. 29, you might want to rethink your weekend plans. And if you have seen them, you know they are worth seeing again.
The Puissance (French for power) is a single-elimination high-jump competition with a $25,000 prize. Competitors jump four obstacles in the first round. The first two, set at a not-insignificant 41/2 feet, are considered warm-up jumps and are eliminated in later rounds. The third fence is big and wide -- about 6 feet tall by 7 feet across. The final jump, a wall, starts at 5 feet 9 inches, but at every round, another brick is added until the field dwindles to one.
The last horse and rider standing will continue to go higher in an attempt to break a Washington Horse Show record that has stood for more than 20 years -- 7 feet 71/2 inches. That is like jumping over the living room.
The $100,000 President's Cup on Saturday night is another jumping competition but of a different style. This is a Jack-be-nimble, Jack-be-quick kind of contest with about 17 five-foot-tall obstacles. The object is to go "clean" over the course -- meaning the horse refuses no jumps and knocks down no bars or rails. Speed, not style, counts. The complicated course requires sharp turns and explosive acceleration combined with superb control.
For hard-core horse people, show events begin Oct. 25 with many hunter and jumper classes and a barn night for local riders. But on Oct. 28 and during day and evening sessions Oct. 29, the show dangles a bunch of carrots to entice a general audience -- barrel racing, an entertaining Western sport requiring hairpin turns and high speeds; freestyle dressage, a balletic performance to music; terrier races, in which frenzied Jack Russells pursue a lure to comic effect; meet-and-greet with members of the Mystics WNBA basketball team; free pony rides; and many vendors selling jewelry, buttery leather boots, prints and paintings, dog collars and more.
After the President's Cup, country singer Tracy Byrd will perform.
WASHINGTON INTERNATIONAL HORSE SHOW -- Oct. 25-30. Oct. 28-29, evening sessions begin at 7:30, Oct. 29 day session at 1. MCI Center, 601 F St. NW. 301-987-9400. WIHS.org. For tickets ($15-$60), call Ticketmaster at 202-397-7328. Separate pony pavilion with pony rides and face painting is $5, $10 for a family, free to ticket holders.
When "Cavalia" played Boston last month, the critics went gaga. Reviews bulged with such extravagant adjectives as "stupendous," "enchanting" and "spellbinding." "It seems there is almost nothing anatomically possible for them [the horses] that they will not do," said the Boston Globe. The only occasional and small sour note related to a sequence that went on perhaps a tad too long. The critics also might have added that the steep prices -- $59 for an adult and $39 for a child for just partial-view seats -- put the show out of reach for many families. But those caveats aside, there seems much to love about "Cavalia."
The show is the brainchild of Normand Latourelle, a founder of Cirque du Soleil, and the link is obvious. Like Cirque, "Cavalia" seeks to create a fantasy world through a multimedia production featuring live music, elaborate costumes and atmospheric lighting. A 200-foot-wide projection screen provides a changing backdrop for a troupe of 47 horses and more than 30 acrobats, aerialists, dancers and riders.
Performances take place inside a 26,264-square-foot white tent with a 160-foot-wide stage. Horses need lots of room to gallop, which they do freely in parts of this show. The "big top" will be set up two blocks south of the Pentagon. It takes 12 days to erect and three to dismantle.
Latourelle had never ridden a horse before he came up with the idea for "Cavalia" -- a coinage meant to resonate with such words as "cavalcade" and "cavalry." But Latourelle had plenty of theatrical chops. When he saw how the audience focused on a single horse crossing a stage filled with 200 actors during an outdoor pageant he presented near Montreal, he decided to put on a show with horses -- but not a horse show.
In France, Latourelle found Frederic Pignon, a horse trainer of a different color, to help him create "Cavalia."
Pignon, 37, grew up with horses, riding trails bareback without a bridle or saddle. "Horses were like friends," he says. His wife, Magali Delgado, an Olympic-level dressage rider who performs in a lyrical pas de deux and other acts in the show, shared his philosophy.
Although "Cavalia" features trick riding, Roman riding (in which riders stand astride two horses), dressage, jumping and other before-seen equestrian feats, Dominique Day, vice president and co-founder of the show, says the audience won't see any "cracking whips."
"We wanted the show to be about beauty, to make even non-horse lovers marvel," she says.
"People call Frederic a horse whisperer, but it is the horses that are whispering to him."
In one of the most arresting parts of the show, called "Liberty III," Pignon plays with and nuzzles three unfettered stallions.
"I have done it for 500 shows now," Pignon says, "and I still have the same pleasure doing it. My challenge is to have them [the horses] fresh and happy. If they don't like something, I do something else."
This laissez-faire attitude leads to a certain amount of improvisation at each performance. For example, Aetes, one of the equine stars of "Liberty III," sometimes kisses his trainer and sometimes declines to do so.
"I never teach him this," Pignon says. "When I go to see the horses in the night, a time to be close and relaxed, he scratches my face with his tongue. One day he wants to do it in the show."
Aetes also doesn't care for rearing much, so sometimes he lets his costars go through that motion while he waits it out lying down.
"When Aetes does what he is supposed to do," Day says with a laugh, "we are almost disappointed."
"CAVALIA" -- Oct. 26 to Nov. 8; no shows Oct. 30, Oct. 31, Nov. 3 and Nov. 7. Two blocks south of the Pentagon at the southwest corner of Army Navy Drive and South Eads Street, Arlington. $59-$79; children younger than 12, $39-$59; seniors and students, $44-$64. Parking is $10 in advance, $15 on site. For more information and directions, call 866-999-8111 or visit cavalia.net.
M.J. McAteer is the letters editor for The Washington Post.