Enjoying the Horse ShowBy Pam Gleason
Historically, the Aiken Horse Show in the Woods has been the culmination of the Aiken winter equestrian season. It was started in 1916 by Louise Hitchcock, who conceived of it as a competition among the members of the old Winter Colony, as well as a place to showcase the many beautiful horses in town. The first show, which had 17 classes, was held on March 16, a beautiful but windy day.
“Seemingly a majority of the Aiken tourists, many visiting from neighboring resorts, and many natives attended. One of the finest displays of horseflesh that could be put forth in a Southern resort paraded their virtues,” reported the Aiken Journal and Constitution. The article went on to say “by the success of this Saturday’s show, it is practically assured that this will become an annual institution.”
Aiken’s newspaper was right. The Aiken Horse Show soon became a fixture on the calendar, and the class list and number of entries grew. Although the show was always highly competitive, it also had a certain informality about it. Harry Worcester Smith, writing in Life and Sport in Aiken, (Derrydale Press, 1935) explained it this way:
“The arrangement of the Show is as simple as possible. The ring with its Hitchcock jumps, the judges, but there are no entry blanks or entry fees. Those desiring to start their horses make post entries to the announcers at the gate and there are sometimes thirty or forty crack horses waiting outside the ring, with their riders eagerly watching how this or that contestant goes over the course, and wondering when they can have their chance.”
In the 1920s, the show expanded to two and then three days. Children’s classes were an important part of the show, including a leadline class for the smallest children, which gave ribbons to every competitor. Once the children graduated to riding by themselves, according to an article written by Mrs. Hitchcock in 1928 in The Sportswoman, they had to “begin to learn to be good losers.” The 17 and under class was another of Mrs. Hitchcock’s favorites. “There is no place in the world . . . where from the ages of two to eighteen, such a number of coming horsemen of both sexes can be found,” she explained. The 17 and under class featured children from the age of 11 to 17 riding hunters. These were generally not the horses these children usually rode. Rather, they were horses belonging to adult members of the Winter Colony, who allowed the children to ride them for the class.
“When this class was first started about five years ago, I was obliged to go around begging and persuading owners of hunters to let me have them for the children to ride, and of course I only wanted the very best,” continued Mrs. Hitchcock. “Now that everyone sees how well the horses go for these young people, there is no trouble in getting them mounts.”
The horse show continued to expand in the 1930s, with as many as 350 horses showing over the weekend. When World War II came, although the show got smaller again, the tradition continued. For instance, in 1942, there were just 16 classes, more than half of them for children. In 1944, at the height of the war, there was just one class for adults, the open hunter class, with seven classes for children.
At the war’s end, Aiken once again became a haven for horsemen, and the Aiken Horse Show regained its prominence. By 1950, the show was part of “Sports Week,” a week of festivities that also included the Aiken Trials races, polo matches, drag hunts, golf games, and a sports day at Aiken Prep. The events were prominent enough to attract the attention of the national press. For instance, in 1950, Life Magazine featured a photo of a teenaged Aileen Wood on the cover, dressed in her horse show clothing. Inside the magazine, there was an illustrated article about the events. “Big Week at Aiken: Horses and the Horsy Society Wind up Winter Season.” Photos that accompanied the article included pictures of horses being judged in hand, as well as a great shot of Pete and Dolly Bostwick jumping together in the pairs class.