Horse Hero Mary Chapot

Mary Chapot horse rider

One of the first women to earn a berth on the USET looks back on her horse-showing days in California, campaigning at home and abroad on the Team, and winning the very first grand prix in this country.

How did you become involved with horses? Was your family involved?

My mother had been interested in riding, but she turned to tennis when her mother hid under the grandstand whenever she jumped. As for my sister Wendy and me, we rode at summer camp and at home. There was a little tiny riding stable that did hacks very near us in south Pasadena Chuck Williams and his wife owned the barn. The schools Wendy and I went to had a once-a-week time we could go and rideā€¦ one show a year kind of thing. A little lady named Rosalind Johnson taught us. Once a week became twice a week and a $500 horse, and it went from there.

From Roz Johnson I went to Mike Manesco for a few years out in Glendale, which was a bit of a commute. He was from Romania, very strict – “heels down!” – but he gave us some really good basics. Maybe a little bit exaggerated, though. Mike talked very highly of the Caprilli method — it was the Caprilli this and the Caprilli that, but we got a good foundation.

I remember a good horse named Tickertape. He’d never go near the in gate, so Mike would grab the bridle, pulling the reins out of my hands, and lead us through the in gate. Then he’d give my horse a slap on the rump. By the time I got him pulled up, I had a refusal.

I won my first Medal at age 11 on a very nice horse named Peter Pan that Mike loaned me. He was a wonderful horse but not for sale.

What were the horsemanship classes like?

Medal classes in California in those days were few and far between, perhaps two or three a year and only at the really big shows. There wasn’t the possibility of coming east – you didn’t go into them to qualify, you did them because it was a special class. There were no Maclays in California when I was just starting.

I don’t remember the courses, so they couldn’t have been terribly hard. I do recall some hunter courses, so the equitation was probably the same: you’d start off with a fence in the center, next to a gazebo where the judges sat, so that was always a challenge. Then you might jump a fence in the corner off a bent line, then make a U-turn so you were jumping the same fence twice.

Then came the Flintridge Riding Club, didn’t it?

The commute to Mike’s got a bit too much, and my parents knew a lot of people who were connected with Flintridge. Jimmy Williams had started teaching there, so we made the move. Actually, Roz Johnson moved there, and we still had a horse with her.

I was at Flintridge from age 12 to age 15. When I first started with Jimmy Williams, he had a lot of Western horses. He was learning about the hunters and jumpers himself. He was very good at watching people and learning about horses, about their minds and what they were thinking and what caused a problem. Having so much Western influence as he did — the stock horse and the cutting horse, he really wanted his horses to mind him. Jimmy had the best of both worlds: to let the horse figure out things on the course, but at the same time he trained his horses to listen to him. He was the total dictator.

But Jimmy wouldn’t go that far with his students. because he knew we were going to make mistakes. He always taught his students to leave their horses alone over the jumps, to let them have their own eye and their own mind. You could influence them when you knew how to, but if you were going to mess it up, you were better off letting the horse figure it out. We didn’t know it then, but we had some really nice horses that would deal with us that way.

I still use a lot of Jimmy’s bits. He’d have a “bit of the month:” you’d outfit every horse in a double twisted wire, for example. Or a Pelham, or German draw reins that hooked into your reins. As soon as you got enough of them to outfit every horse you owned, he’d be on to something else.

Jimmy was such a genius at bitting a horse and keeping him fit for me. I had a hard time doing it on my own because I didn’t have that knowledge myself. If something didn’t work, Jimmy would say, “well, try this.” I just didn’t appreciate why something worked or why it worked but then stopped working. I never for a minute regret moving East or being with Bert, but I wish I could have had a little more time with Jimmy to learn the techniques and the “whys.”

Who were some of the other people who rode with Jimmy at that time and whose names we’d recognize?

Susie Hutchinson and Robert Ridland. Anne Kursinski was just starting. We had a lot of fun. We’d go to week long horse shows, and have a class a day. That is, one class in each division, but we’d show in everything: pleasure horse, on the flat, over fences, equitation.

One horse did everything. We’d braid our horses on the first day and leave them braided all week. – manes and tails.

Then came the United States Equestrian Team.

In 1961 the Team held six screening trials throughout the country. Each was two or three days long. [USET show jumping coach] Bert deNemethy traveled everywhere.

Out on the West Coast we didn’t have a very good awareness of the Team. In fact, jumpers were a little bit of a rough-and-tumble thing… riders wore chaps and just jumped. I never would have thought about the screening trials, but I won the Medal and the Maclay in 1960. Bert deNemethy, who had been one of the judges, got in touch and asked whether I’d try the trials.

When I had been East that once to the Fall shows the previous year, I got to see the international teams. They were awesome, wonderful to watch, but no way I’d ever thought of being a part of it.

Moreover, I hadn’t done the jumpers very much. I had gotten Tomboy the year before; I had tried her in order to do the Medal and Maclay because my horse had gotten hurt. She wasn’t what I wanted for the Finals, but she sure was a wonderful jumper. I pestered my parents. They said, “you want a jumper? You want to do that?” You see, jumpers were just beginning to take a hold. People started wearing boots and breeches and riding coats as the proper thing to do. Much of that was due to Jimmy Williams and Barbara Worth, who wore riding coats and made it look exciting – a real sport.

And so I went. The screening trial was held at John Galvin’s beautiful place outside of Santa Barbara. There were 12 or 14 of us, including Carol Hoffmann [Thompson], Bill Robertson, Stephanie Zachar, Kevin Freeman, and Otis Brown. That’s where I met Carlene Blunt, who’s been my good friend ever after.

Anyone who could bring a horse did so, but if not, the Team supplied horses that had been loaned to the Team. We did three days of flatwork and gymnastics followed by a couple of courses. There were two sessions a day, one with Bert and the other with Stefan Von Visy, who trained the three-day team back then.

Following the trial, Bert picked five or six of us for further training. Bert made a lot of use of the cavaletti, which Jimmy didn’t, so I thought I’d go back and tell Jimmy how it was done. Luckily, Jimmy saw Bert for himself.

Bert was a lot more flat work than I had done. The jumping was a little bit into counting strides, which I hadn’t done.

I still had the Mike Manesco way of riding: how far could you get your heels down and toes out. Bert refined my form. He showed me how to put my leg on a horse and how to keep a horse in front of me, things I hadn’t needed in California.

I never had trouble with Bert’s Hungarian accent, but he had wonderful expressions. One was “first clean, then fast,” which I never quite figured out.

Kathy Kusner, Carol Hoffmann and I were the first women on the Team. I suspect the idea of Bert teaching women to ride was considered a nice step, but no one expected us to learn so well so quickly.

Now you were on the Team.

In 1961 I ended up riding on the Team in Washington and then going to Europe the following Spring. Europe wasn’t a shock for me the way it was for others. Frank [Chapot] and Billy Steinkraus, who had more to do with jumpers, would have found Europe for the first time different, but it was just a new experience for me. I hadn’t done much with the jumpers, and I had expected huge fences. But I had two nice horses, so I was pleasantly surprised that I could jump the fences so easily. Frank said he couldn’t understand how Tomboy kept going slower and slower but clearing the jumps. I was blissfully unaware of what was going on.

To see how popular horse sports were in Europe was wonderful. Take Aachen, for example: television, huge crowds, and the enthusiasm. Speaking of Aachen, Tomboy was good at water, and Aachen had double Liverpools. Frank told me to be concerned because the distance was a little odd and the fences were a little offset. My mare just sailed over the Liverpools, and I wondered, “what’s Frank talking about?”

We did things as a team. There were certain parties and receptions we had to go to. Bert was a little bit worried about what the girls might show up in. He’d say, “all right, be in the hotel lobby at 5:00 PM, hair washed and a nice dress.” And he’d be dropping us off at 5:30.

At the time I first joined the Team, you couldn’t show in any other classes at a horse show. The first few years in Washington, we’d show in our class, then go back to the hotel and change into black tie and go to an embassy for a cocktail party. I can’t imagine doing that now; it would be too much.

Nobody had any students – we just didn’t have the business that people now have. You had to pretty much be a bona fide amateur.

We had a good group. When you made the Team in the spring, you were on the Team for the rest of the year because we didn’t have the broad base we now have. There wasn’t that kind of pressure to produce. Of course, you wanted to. If Billy won six classes, and the story was in the USET newsletter, you wanted to be in it too.

You won the individual gold and team gold medals at the 1963 Pan Am Games in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Kathy and I roomed with the fencing team – a nice group of girls. I also enjoyed seeing the Brazilian culture.

Winning the gold medal was a thrill. I was so naive: I didn’t feel the pressure. It was a nice way to do it, with no expectations. I remember the courses had a lot of color. If there were striding problems, I didn’t notice. I had a lovely horse in Tomboy – I’d just kick and go. It drove Frank crazy. He’d ask, “how can this girl do that and win?”

Tomboy also won the first Cleveland Grand Prix in 1965, which was the first grand prix to be held in the United States.

Jerry Baker produced the grand prix, and he did a wonderful job. The fences were imposing, with more flowers than anyone in this country had ever seen. The class was on a big grass polo field. Before that, everything was pretty much in a ring. In California, our biggest shows were at state fairs where everything was in a ring, although back East I remember grass rings at Devon – grass in the middle with tanbark on the outsides – and at Piping Rock and North Shore.

I don’t remember any particular related distances or combinations; it was the presentation that was the most impressive, but I was very well mounted and unaware of any problems.

It wasn’t year-round showing, was it?

Our show schedule was a lot different in those days. We’d start out at Farmington [Hartford, Connecticut] at the end of April or the beginning of May. We’d finish up at North Shore and Piping Rock [on Long Island, New York] in September. Those who were on the Team went to the Fall shows. Other than that, our horses were off until we did Farmington again. We’d turn them out all winter in the snow until when we started to do Florida.

Florida started for us in about 1965. That was when Frank bought Good Twist, although he had been there before. Carlene Blunt has a beautiful show at her place in Village of Golf. We’d be in Florida for six weeks or so: Winter Haven, Carlene’s place, Miami, and that was it back then.

Your other outstanding horse was White Lightning.

My mother thought she wanted to get into raising horses. She bought a mare that was already in foal. I don’t remember why she bought that particular mare, but White Lightning was the result. My mother still liked hunters, so she shipped Lightning East (Frank and I were married by that time) with the idea of our showing the mare as a hunter.

Frank very quickly picked up that she wasn’t a hunter. She was a year younger than Good Twist, so the two of them grew up together. Frank and I also had a friendly competition between his stud and my mare.

Lightning was a different type from the type I liked, like Tomboy, where all I had to do was get her somewhere near the range of jumping the jump and she would spring over it. Lightning was busy, fast and careful. Frank ended up riding her in the Munich Olympics. He felt a little under-horsed, but she gave the Team a score they could use.

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Mary Chapot is still active in the horse business through Chando Farm, Neshantic Station, New Jersey, with her husband Frank. Their daughters Wendy and Laura have been involved in the sport; Laura continues to show jumpers.

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