Tally ho at 100

Sir Winston Churchill once said, “When you are on a great horse, you have the best seat you will ever have.” Members of the Ox Ridge Hunt Club have a grand view in Darien and can say this with pride as they celebrate the club’s 100th anniversary with a vision for the future.

“We have been gearing up for this for the past few years,” says Flavia Callari, a member of the club’s board of stewards. “Our barn is completely full and we are at full capacity for the first time in a decade. A lot of work was done at the club to upgrade the property. The two outside rings are finished and our next project is the indoor ring. ”

This month, the club will host a Father’s Day Show for Jumpers and Hunters on the 15th. The major Centennial Celebration will be held Oct. 11th, an evening complete with a cocktail party, dancing and a silent auction to launch the Save Our Field Foundation.

“It’s the last open space in the area and has historical value,” says Callari about the need to raise funds to refurbish the field.

She hopes alumni will return to support the cause and join in the festivities. “Moving forward, we are willing to rent the field for weddings, events and polo matches.”

History is a word that resonates with Callari, who says there are many memories of Ox Ridge. “Everyone in the equestrian community has a story here. I got my first horse in the 1980s and now have his grandson. Ray and Cheryl Francis, the show secretary, got engaged here in 1985 when they were in the training business.” Callari says it’s a family affair for Sara Gleason, who rode at Ox Ridge as a junior and has returned to ride with her youngest son, Sam. The club’s oldest members are board member Sue Knapp and Nate McDonald, who have been riding since childhood.

Founded in 1914, the present property of 37 acres was owned by Irish tenor and opera singer John McCormack who operated it as a dairy farm. The club’s name comes from the oxen on the farm and the ridge that crowns the polo field. (Hunting is no longer part of its mission.)

Many of the original operational facilities can still be found on the site. The dining area was once McCormack’s milk house, and the clubhouse was his icehouse, both built to stay and renovated attractively for their current purposes. The polo barn housed dairy cattle until the barn was converted to stable horses.

In 1975, Ox Ridge was the first club in the area to have the Pegasus Therapeutic Riding program for people with special needs. The program had a long successful history in Europe. A group of equestrian women who explored the effectiveness of therapeutic riding brought a similar program to Fairfield County. They offer equine-related activities and therapies for children and adults with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities.

The members of Ox Ridge are mindful of giving back to the community and sharing their beautiful space. “One thing we do to give back to the town is offer free use to a charity.” This year at the March meeting, members selected OPUS for Person to Person in Darien, which provides those in need with everything from food and clothing to scholarships and loans.

Ox Ridge Hunt Club was honored this year when the club was invited to participate in an exhibit of photographs and memorabilia at the Kentucky Horse Park’s International Museum of the Horse in Lexington. The show runs through Dec. 15.

To support the charity shows, club members enlist donors from the community. Callari’s family business, the Callari Auto Group (BMW of Darien, Mini of Fairfield County, Volvo of Westport and Fiat of Fairfield County) has been a strong supporter of the club.

“We have been involved in the charity horse shows since 1985, giving back to the community and supporting the equestrian sport through sponsorship, Callari says.”

The Callari Auto Group has deep roots in the area, too. Callari’s father, Felix, who founded the company, emigrated from Tunisia to Darien in 1954, finding work as a mechanic in Stamford. Over the years, he bought a gas station and obtained car dealership franchises that became the auto group.

Ox Ridge has a top notch instructional program and is proud of many of its successful students, who include Olympic medalist George Morris, known as the “founding father” of Hunt Seat Equitation, Ronnie Mutch, Victor Hugo-Vidal and Patty Heuckeroth, whose father Otto came to ride at Ox Ridge in 1929 and remained for more than 40 years as the manager of the club. Flavia Callari says that what sets Ox Ridge apart from other clubs is that it is solely a club for horse lovers.

“We’re here to foster aspirations in the equestrian sports.”

Many members focus on showing and competing at horse shows both locally and nationally. Bearing this in mind, the trainers concentrate on each rider’s individual goals and skill level with the ultimate hope of producing an effective rider and showman.

As for when to start children with riding lessons, Callari says, “We like to start them at 7 to 8 years old when they are cognitively ready.” If you’re interested in having your children ride, she says, you should send them to the club’s summer camp to get acclimated. The camp is a major program for families, with educational as well as fun activities that include arts and crafts and clinics with farriers and veterinarians.

Callari says the club has had to reinvent itself to keep up with the times and is upgrading the facility to draw more professional riders.

“Like the field of dreams, if you build it they will come.”

In addition to cosmetic changes, the club has updated the footing to make it safer for the riders and horses.

Still, she says, “It’s old and not as fancy as other clubs, but we love the property. Everyone works hard to keep the shine on it to preserve it for the next 100 years. I would love to bring my grandkids here.”

For more, visit oxridge.com.

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