Ever since Ben Tula started working as a trainer at Wölffer Estate Stables three years ago, he’s been enamored with the Grand Prix field at the back end of the 100-acre-plus horse farm and vineyard in Sagaponack.
The sprawling grass field that borders Montauk Highway, adjacent to the vineyard’s popular Wölffer Wine Stand, is an enticing playground for horse and rider, with trees, shrubbery, banks and gentle ditches interspersed throughout, offering a delightful change of pace from the simple rectangular grass or dirt riding rings familiar at most riding stables.
Putting the Grand Prix field to good use and sharing it with the larger equestrian community on the East End was a goal for Tula from the start, and last year, the farm revived an old fall tradition, hosting the Wölffer Estate Derby in the field. On Sunday, riders of all ages were out on the field again for the second iteration of the event, giving their horses a chance to stretch their legs and show off their athleticism and talent on a picture perfect fall day.
The event started at one of the smaller grass rings at the stables, with young riders and their ponies competing in a cross-rails “derby,” followed by increasing fence heights with the 2-foot derby, and a 2-foot-3-inch to 2-foot-6-inch derby, also in the smaller field. Competition then moved to the Grand Prix field for 2-foot-6 to 2-foot-9 derby, the 3-foot to 3-foot-3 derby, and finally the 3-foot-3 to 3-foot-6 derby.
Hosting the show in the last two years has represented a return to tradition of sorts at the stable, one started by the estate’s namesake, Christian Wölffer, who died in 2008. While it has been a low-key affair this year and last, drawing a small group of horses and riders from local barns, Tula hopes to see the show continue to grow in coming years.
“Since the first day I saw that field, I said we have to do a horse show here,” Tula said. “I heard stories about the old Sagaponack Derby that Christian Wölffer used to organize during the harvest season, and I felt we needed to bring that back.
“I think it’s something different and special for a lot of our local people who can’t or won’t really go to many away shows. The opportunity to ride in a field like this is huge. It makes you feel like you’re at a five-star show. So we wanted to give them that.”
In horse show competition, different classes and divisions are organized not only by age and ability level or fence height, but also by what the judges are looking for. Jumper classes are simply a race against the clock, while equitation divisions are judged on the form and skill of the rider.
In hunter classes, like those at the Wölffer Derby, the horse’s form is under scrutiny, with the judge looking to see a horse complete the course at a forward but steady and controlled pace, clearing the obstacles with ease and athleticism but also with care.
The fences and other elements horses and riders must take on in a hunter derby class are meant to mimic those they would find in a traditional hunt field, where pursuing a fox through the countryside and across sprawling estates would require them to ride at a brisk pace through undulating terrain, navigating fences, ditches, banks, stone walls and water elements—all of which are re-created in the Grand Prix field at Wölffer.
Some of those more challenging elements were left out of the competition on Sunday, particularly at the lower fence heights. But at the higher fence heights, riders also had several points in the course where they had options — another feature of hunter derby competition. At certain points in the course, they could chose to negotiate a fence over flat terrain or one at the bottom of a gently sloping ditch, where they rode downhill to a fence, landed and then immediately proceeded uphill and out. Another option gave riders the choice of clearing a single, slim vertical fence or a wider shrub obstacle.
The biggest class of the day was won by one of the smallest riders. Twelve-year-old India Nye-Wenner and her horse, Danny, took home the blue ribbon in the 3’3/3’6 derby. Nye-Wenner, a Montauk resident, is trained by Tula at Wölffer. In the 3’/3’3 division, trainer Merry Harding took the win with her horse, Hat Trick, while in the 2’6/2’9 division, Debbie Thayer, trained by Harriet deLeyer at nearby Topping Riding Club, took top honors with her horse, Asterisk Z.
Tula said the show was a success and thanked friends from two local tack shops — the Tack Trunk and Brennen’s Bit and Bridle — for their support, as well as trainers and staff from Beach Acre Farm and Hunter’s Landing. Tula said he’s already anticipating next year, and what the future will hold.
“I’m very excited to repeat it next year,” he said. “We have a few things to improve for the next one, but we are hoping that one day this can turn into a AA-rated show.”