A soft rain fell in fits under a gray sky at Swan Creek Farm in Bridgehampton on August 13, gently pelting the riders steering their horses and ponies around in two adjacent dirt riding rings.
Mandy and Jagger Topping, the husband and wife trainers who run the show barn, stood just outside the fence, keeping an eye on a trio of younger riders who had just finished up lessons with their ponies, while a group of four teenage girls were warming up in the next ring, getting ready for their lesson. A smattering of jumps dotted the grass field in the distance behind the rings, and beyond them, mansions surrounded the expansive property, tucked away in south-of-the-highway horse country.
The overcast skies, cooler weather and laid back atmosphere made it easy to forget that it was the busiest time of the year for the riding stable and others like it in the area. It was 12 days out from the start of the biggest horse show of the year, the Hampton Classic, but no one was panicking, or barking out orders with extra intensity, or stressing about preparations. That kind of approach is basically the antithesis of what the Toppings do.
Swan Creek Farm is unassuming in a kind of increasingly rare way when it comes to the plethora of high-end riding stables on the East End, where there seems to be a new operation popping up almost every year. There is no fancy synthetic all-weather footing, or architecturally modern appointments in the barn and tack rooms. The light blue barns are clean and well-maintained, and the vibe is old school, relaxed and cozy, rather than trendy, chic and fast-paced. There is nothing grand or elaborate about the farm. Instead, there are people who know horses and riders — and how to help them achieve greatness together — as well as anyone in the business. And they’ve been doing it longer than almost anyone out here.
Swan Creek Farm was established in 1969, by Jagger Topping’s parents, Patsy and Alvin Topping, in the same year Jagger was born. Patsy, 74, was still there on August 13, sitting on the railing of the indoor riding ring giving out instruction and encouragement to a young rider dealing with a stubborn pony. The family has been taking riders to the Classic and other prestigious shows around the country for decades, and has the hardware and ribbons that prove they know what they’re doing.
Horse show prep is horse show prep, no matter the destination. There is not much deviation from the routines and logistics required to make it all happen. But even seasoned professionals like Mandy and Jagger Topping will agree that there are different elements at play when it comes to getting ready for the Hampton Classic. They took time earlier this month to speak about some of the factors at play when it comes to preparing their riders to put their best foot (and hoof) forward at the crown jewel of the summer show season.
Riding On Grass
The Hampton Classic is one of the few shows left in the country where a majority of the classes are contested in grass rings. Of the six rings for competition, only one has the sandy footing common at most horse shows. Riders at the show will compete either exclusively or mostly on grass, so getting a feel for riding and putting together a course on a footing that differs in feel is a big part of getting ready.
Swan Creek, like many other barns in the area, has a large, unfenced grass field, and the trainers will set a course of jumps on the field and do lessons out there during the summer months so the riders and horses can get a feel for jumping on grass. The difference, of course, is that at the Classic, the grass rings have an enclosed barrier in the form of closely trimmed privet hedge. Riders at Swan Creek spend the summer riding both in the grass field and the fenced-in sand rings. (Pony riders spend less time on the grass, because the ponies tend to view it as an invitation to put their heads down and eat). The Toppings also take their riders to the Sagaponack Horse Shows, which is right down the road from their barn and is the only other local show contested on grass. Those shows — one in mid-July and another in early August — are also considered a good Hampton Classic prep show for local barns in the area.
“We jump on the course in our grass field a couple of weeks before the first Sagg show, and now we’re back in the ring just making sure that all our horses are confident, because the ring is more defined and mechanical,” Jagger said. “Then, in another week or so, we will move back out onto the grass.”
Peaking At The Right Time
The Hampton Classic is an enormous, week-long event that involves an incredible amount of planning from a logistical standpoint. Swan Creek takes anywhere from 15 to 20 horses to the show, more than it typically takes to other shows. The show also comes at the end of the season, which is good for the serious show riders, because they are in a groove, but Jagger and Mandy point out that making sure the horses and riders aren’t overextended by the time they reach the Classic is a key consideration as well.
“One thing we really try to do is not let the horses go beyond before the Classic,” Jagger said. “Everybody is out all summer and everybody wants to ride, ride, ride. By the end of June and beginning of July, we hit it pretty hard, but right now, we’re in an easy two weeks. We try to get them to [the Hampton Classic] in a place where we think the horses and kids are about to do their best work. With other shows, we don’t really think about that, we just go and do our thing.”
Mandy and Jagger also pointed out that they like to make sure the horses and riders are exposed to different environments and atmospheres throughout the show season, so they try to vary the locations where they show. A popular destination for many local barns are the HITS Horse Shows in Saugerties, New York, and many barns make that show series their primary destination for the summer months. The Toppings try to bring their horses and riders to a mix of shows, from Saratoga to HITS to Massachusetts and a few local shows as well. No matter where they are, the goal is the same.
“My biggest thing is, can we do at the horse show what we do at home?” Jagger said. “We try to practice it at home, and then do what we practiced at the horse show.”
Both Mandy and Jagger stressed the importance of showing on a regular basis and gaining the experience that comes from competing at several different shows, and how that is crucial for success at the Classic. They say they try to make that point with their riders, even though they have had some in the past who only want to do the Hampton Classic but aren’t interested in showing off of Long Island beforehand.
Handling The Big Energy
The more experienced riders will be the most prepared, but the Toppings admitted that the Classic will still throw challenges to even the most seasoned horses and riders, simply because of the unique atmosphere and energy that surrounds the event. How the horses and riders respond to that can vary widely, based on their personalities.
“There’s a huge amount of energy there, and the horses feel it,” Mandy said. “It can be really exciting, and a lot of the horses will respond positively, too.”
Both Mandy and Jagger have, for years, ridden their clients’ horses, particularly on opening day, in the professional hunter classes, something most trainers will do for their clients at shows. It gives the horses a chance to get around the course and get accustomed to the energy, guided by expert hands, before their regular riders take the reins. Like people, horses have personalities, tendencies, and quirks, but that doesn’t mean they will always behave the same at the show as they do at home, especially at a big show like the Classic.
“Some of the kids will get caught by surprise [by their horses] and we have to say, ‘Listen, it’s a big deal to him today. You don’t have to kick so hard.’ Other horses can be a little intimidated, and you have to sort of hold their hand. That’s my job, to let them know they’re OK and they can get through it.”
The Toppings sometimes have to provide that same support for the riders, but they said they’ve been proud of how their students have handled the show over the years.
“I feel like our kids are pretty stoic,” Jagger said. “Just as long as they know what to expect out of their horses and we have their horses in the zone for them.”
Managing stress is a big part of horse show prep, and even more so at the Classic. Riders typically have a bigger audience at the Classic, and dealing with what goes along with that is another factor the Toppings have to consider.
“One thing that throws us off is the party atmosphere there,” Jagger said. “Kids have been going to shows with almost no one coming to watch, and at this show, now their parents, aunts, uncles, friends and houseguests are all there. For me, that’s the thing that gets me most off guard, when we haven’t had a big entourage for a kid all summer and then all of a sudden, you have that.”
That issue can be particularly problematic in the younger divisions, like leadline and short stirrup. Parents congest the area around both of those rings, clamoring to take photos, and the riders themselves are still young and inexperienced and subject to nerves more than the older riders.
Mandy pointed out that the buzz of activity that surrounds virtually every ring at the Classic can be tricky to deal with, and luck plays a factor as well.
“I’m always thinking about the three hunter rings,” she said. “Those rings have a hedge that goes around the perimeter, and there is always a ton of activity on the other side. The horses can hear it, but they can’t always see it, or they can see bits and pieces of it. It could be a baby stroller or someone with a shopping bag, but it’s enough that it can catch them by surprise. So I’m always saying to the kids, you don’t want to hang on your outside rein so that your horses are looking outside the ring. Ride them straight, and have a little inside feel [on the inside rein] so their attention is inside, not outside.”
Mandy recalled a year when one of their riders, competing in the children’s hunter division for the first time, was coming up to a jump and there was a rabbit sitting on the ground directly in front of the jump.
“Luckily, it scooted away in time, and the horse didn’t see it. But I was like, really? A rabbit?” she said, laughing.
Enjoying The Ride
There is a lot to manage at the Hampton Classic for the trainers of show barns like Swan Creek, but at the end of the day, they want to make sure the horses and riders enjoy themselves as well. And while they do their best to stick with the “it’s just another horse show” mindset, the Toppings also acknowledge that the Hampton Classic is special, for many reasons.
“There’s a lot of pride involved, because it’s a local show and we’re a local barn and have a lot of local riders, so we want to put our best foot forward,” Mandy said. “But we always try to do that.”
“It is a really big, fun, exciting deal,” Jagger added. “For the people around us, it’s an exciting thing at the end of the season, so it’s OK to allow them to have that.”
They both agreed that there is a lot of emotion involved in the show, not just for the horses and riders, but for family as well.
“We can always expect one parent who will show up and be really excited and be like, ‘Go get ’em!’” Jagger said, laughing. “And we’ll be like, ‘No!’ But you can look at the kid and be like, ‘OK, let’s not go get them all that much.’”
Sometimes, the fact that the show represents the end of the summer season and, for many riders, a return to school, can add to the emotional intensity.
“I’ve had kids standing at the in-gate ready to go in and they burst into tears, and I say, ‘What happened?’ and they say ‘I don’t want to go back to school,’” Mandy said. “And you’re like, ‘OK, let’s just go ride the horse.”
All those factors aside, the Toppings say that at the end of the week, they want to feel like everyone had a good time and felt proud about what they accomplished.
“We try to keep it straight and level, but also enjoy the pageantry of it,” Jagger said. “Because it’s a great week. There’s no other horse show like it.”