Jumper riders have to be a hardy lot. After they've trained every day for months before a horse show, it can all be over in a flash. A jump taken a hair too fast, too close, too far back--too anything--can spell the difference between a gold medal and a goose egg.
This weekend, more than 200 amateur and professional riders from Orange County are testing their physical and emotional mettle at the Orange County Horse Show Assn. Championship Show in Coto de Caza. Proceeds from the show, held jointly by OCHSA and the WestMed Gold Club, will benefit the speech and hearing department of United Western Medical Centers.
The year-end finals competition, which began Friday with hunter-jumper classes, culminates in a $10,000 grand prix jumping event Sunday. The purse has attracted a number of top-name competitors, including nationally renowned jumper trainer Mark Mullen.
Based at Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, Mullen has 18 horses and several students entered in the three-day show. His leading contender is a scopey jumper named Fast Company, whom Mullen will be riding over the grand prix course.
"I feel good about our chances," Mullen said earlier this week as he schooled the Dutch warmblood in the training arena at Huntington Beach. "But anything can happen. In a sport like this, the game isn't over until the last horse jumps."
Fast Company, an 8-year-old bay gelding, had been a consistent competitor as a junior jumper under Heather Braun, 17, and has won several modified classes under Mullen.
Mike Braun of Laguna Beach, who owns the horse, is chairman of the horse show committee. He is a board member of OCHSA, which was formed four years ago with 87 members and now has more than 400.
"I'm excited to have my horse in the show, and I'm also excited that the association has grown enough to hold a show this large," he said. The show began as a one-day affair with fewer than 100 entries.
Braun said the spirit of the show is to reward all for their accomplishments this season.
"The winner of every class--from the littlest junior to the grand prix winner--will receive a cooler and a pewter medallion. This is the season championship, so everyone here is a champion," he said.
Mike Nielsen, a Huntington Beach trainer who has been OCHSA's president since its inception, has 20 horses entered in the show and two in the grand prix. He said the regional association is geared to give Orange County jumper riders "a stepping-stone into the grand prix ranks."
To enter the show, riders or their horses must belong to the association and must have qualified at an OCHSA-rated show this season. Twenty-two horses are entered in Sunday's grand prix.
Unlike a nationally rated grand prix, which has jumps up to 5 1/2 feet high, Sunday's event is a mini-grand prix. It is still a rigorous test for horse and rider, with fences of 3 feet, 9 inches to 4 feet, 6 inches and including a water jump. Style does not count in the grand prix, unlike the hunter classes in this weekend's show.
Frank Chapot, who has competed in six Olympics and coached the 1984 U.S. Equestrian Team's show-jumping squad to its first-ever Olympic gold medal in Los Angeles, said grand prix jumping is "a competitor's discipline."
Chapot said a grand prix course should be "an exam of the horse's and rider's abilities to extend and collect the stride, to jump high and to jump wide, to show their versatility. It's an exam of the rider's training of the horse, who needs the right mixture of courage and chicken. He has to dare to jump a scary-looking obstacle, but he has to be chicken enough to not want to hit it with his legs."
He said there are no "bonus points" for style. "The object is to get over the fence as quickly as possible without knocking it down. The best way to do that is however you can."
Darlene Sordillo, an author of two books on horse training, covers equestrian sports for The Times. Readers may send horse-related news to her at: Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa 92626.
ORANGE COUNTY HORSE SHOWS ASSN. CHAMPIONSHIP SHOW
WHERE: Coto de Caza Equestrian Center, 1 Coto de Caza Drive, Coto de Caza.
DIRECTIONS: San Diego Freeway to El Toro Road (east). Turn right on Santa Margarita Parkway, follow to end. Turn right onto Plano Trabuco Road and follow into main gate at Coto de Caza.
COST: Spectators free. Holiday brunch $25 adults, $12.50 children 12 years and under.
INFORMATION: Orange County Horse Show Assn., 3817 Atlantic Avenue, Suite 137, Long Beach 90807, (213) 830-1009.
Today-- 8 a.m.-1 p.m.--hunter and equitation classes
4 1-5 p.m.--OCHSA medal finals
Sunday-- 8 a.m.-noon--jumper classes
5 Noon-2 p.m.--holiday brunch
5 2-4 p.m.--$10,000 grand prix