By Carla La Fleur
Part of what I love about FemaleSoloTrek is how Terri finds hidden treasures wherever she goes-whether it’s a tiny Mediterranean town, or her own neighborhood. Here is my story of how, through volunteering, I came to experience a popular local horse race from a totally new perspective.
One of my favorite teenage memories is visiting the Maryland Hunt Races with a fellow horse-crazy friend of mine. We got all dressed up in our sundresses and sensible(ish) footwear and packed a picnic lunch to watch the Thoroughbreds and their jockeys tackle the most challenging steeplechase course in the country.
I found it so thrilling to watch the riders sail over 4-foot solid jumps that I would never have the guts to attempt. Yet the Thoroughbreds are clearly LIVE to race and jump. It is not uncommon to see a jockey part ways from his horse…and the horse continues the race without him!
After a long day in the sun, we had quite a hike back to my little Ford Focus parked in a field. Quietly keeping watch over the crowd from the hilltop was a man on horseback in a scarlet coat. The rider and his horse were the picture of teamwork–the horse with his ears pricked at attention, the rider fastidiously smoothing his horse’s mane while he kept an eye on everyone. I wondered–how do you get that job? How does one become so involved in the horse world that you’re not just a competitor–you and your trusty horse are the event volunteers?
Well, ten years later, I know because I am one of those people. As it turns out, being a volunteer allows you some spectacular behind-the-scenes access. I wanted to share what it’s like to be an insider of the infield and the many ways to enjoy a local steeplechase, because I’ve done almost all of them.
WHAT IS STEEPLECHASING
A steeplechase is different from the flat races you see on TV, like the Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown races. A steeplechase is a race over jumps on an outdoor track. It is said that the origins of steeplechasing come from when small-town jockeys would race each other to the church steeple, jumping hedges and fences along the way.
Today at a steeplechase, you will see “timber” races over wooden fences, “brush” races with hedge jumps, and turf races on grass with no jumps–all on a prescribed course. At the Potomac Hunt Races, we even have pony races for kids and sidesaddle races.
HOW I GOT INVOLVED
Most steeplechase races have a connection to the local foxhunting club–hence the names like “Maryland Hunt Cup” and “Potomac Hunt Races.” (Note that modern foxhunts are more accurately described as “fox chases” because the aim is not to kill the fox.) Steeplechase horse trainers often use the sport of fox chasing as a way to keep their racehorses fit over the winter. Both types of riders have a strong interest in the preservation of rural land. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and as I found out–the way to become a steeplechase insider is to ride with the hunt. Long story short, I stumbled into fox chasing after a brief and ill-fated experiment with dressage, and the sport quickly took over my life.
I spent every weekend exploring unmarked trails with my horse. The only way to find out about them was to go with someone in the know. Which landowners had agreed to allow trail riders on their property, and which should I avoid? Where could I find hidden jumps tucked into the trees? I learned all of this, and felt the joy of a Thoroughbred stretching out his legs, galloping the way he was born to do! And I reveled in the secret knowledge I had of the territory.
As it turns out, the owner of the horse I rode was a volunteer organizer of Crowd Control for the Potomac Hunt Races. So I’ve found myself doing that job for the past four years, just like the man and his horse I found so intriguing at the Maryland Hunt Cup. It is a labor of love to make sure our horses and equipment are spotless from hoof to tail for this event, but crowd control is a fun job. It mostly involves being a friendly representative of the hunt (AKA letting people pet and take selfies with my horse) and occasionally corralling errant children who run onto the racetrack when a race is about to begin!
I also hosted my “bridle” shower at the Potomac Hunt Races before I got married, an event that Terri, my mother-in-law and author of FemaleSoloTrek, attended! It was such a special day–casual, horsey, and plenty of sangria flowing. Not only were my family and friends there with my husband-to-be’s family, but my equestrian family was there too.
HOW TO ENJOY A DAY AT THE RACES
You don’t have to be a horse person to enjoy a day at the races. Your average steeplechase spectator is simply someone who enjoys eating (and drinking) outside on a beautiful day with their friends and family. How to spectate:
- Have a picnic party. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy the races, and now you do not even need to worry about parking on the grass if your car does not have 4WD. As the event has grown increasingly popular, now there is a $10 shuttle service. Bring your cooler and sunscreen, and let the shuttle bring you to the races from Quince Orchard or Poolesville High School!
- Buy a railside spot and have a tent party. This can be anything from a fancy catered affair to a family potluck. Railside spots are $250 and each spot fits about 10 people comfortably.
- Learn to read the race form. When you arrive at the races, you will be provided with a program (race form) listing all the competitors. There is not official gambling at the races, but it is always fun to pick a horse to cheer on, or to place bets unofficially with your friends. I love to pick the horse with the most outlandish name as my favorite to win!
- Let kids splash in the RBC KidZone. On most days, the shallow man-made pond is a water complex used for the equestrian sport of eventing. But on race day, it turns into a mini kayak pond for kids. For the more competitive kids out there, don’t forget to sign up for the stick horse races!
- Forgot your race day hat? No worries, you can shop at Vendor Village the day of the event.
- Be safe. Don’t bring your dogs, for the safety of the horses and riders, and do not walk across the track during a race! Avoid walking behind a horse, as it can cause them to spook or kick (Leave at least one “horse length” of distance if going behind a horse is unavoidable.) Be careful of where your feet are around horses because it really hurts to get stepped on! (Speaking from experience here!) Do not approach the racehorses or jockeys–they need to focus on competing, and fit racehorses can be very high strung. Keep kids close to make sure they follow these safety rules too.
- Meet a horse up close! The Crowd Control riders have a job to do, but during down time (when races are not going on) we are happy to let you pet our horses and take a selfie. (The horses take ApplePay or CarrotPay.) You can find the crowd control riders because we will be wearing formal hunt attire (black or scarlet wool coats) and our horses’ manes are braided. Always ask before approaching a horse.
- Wear sensible shoes. My first year at the races I was convinced I had to dress up. You certainly can if you want to, but be aware you are going to be walking around in the grass all day. You will see people wearing anything from dresses and bespoke hats to T-shirts and shorts.
And if you know the right people…you might just get the best seat in the house to watch the races.
Have you ever gotten special access as a volunteer at an event? We would love to hear about it in the comments below.
Find out more about the Potomac Hunt Races, and save the date for the third weekend in May every year. Hope to see you there!
Carla LaFleur is the daughter-in-law of the author of FemaleSoloTrek. You can find her equestrian writings at thefrugalfoxhunter.com, but lately her focus has turned more to dog training than horses. She is active on Instagram @FluentDogTraining.