JOHNSTOWN, OH(AP) — One of the first times Maddie Dunlap rode a horse, she fell off and ended up with a concussion.
“The horse was very big, and I was very little,” she said.
That was a dozen or so years ago, back when Dunlap had just started riding as a form of therapy after her father died. Today, the 18-year-old New Albany resident and Columbus Academy senior, who returned to the saddle after recuperating from that initial injury and from subsequent falls, is considering a career as a professional rider.
On any given day, you’ll likely find Dunlap astride her Irish sport horse, Boujis, or her Holsteiner, Owen, or one of the other horses stabled on the Licking side of County Line Road, west of Johnstown proper.
She rides several hours a day, honing her skills and bonding with the horses she takes to different events.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said.
Dunlap is one of a growing number of amateur and professional riders from central Ohio who have taken an interest in English-style “hunter jumper” competitions, complete with formal attire for the rider and horses that jump over several feet of fence rail, all with the utmost poise and pageantry. It’s a separate sport from Western riding, which involves a different saddle and tack, riding style and horse handling.
Central Ohio was already on the map in the greater equine world, thanks to the All American Quarter Horse Congress, which draws an estimated 650,000 people to Columbus in October. Organizers say the 24-day event pumps $285 million into the area economy.
“It is a very busy time of year for horse people,” said Tera Gore, owner of Irongate Quarter Horses in Croton in Licking County, who serves as a director for the Ohio Quarter Horse Association. “The Congress is one of the largest shows really in the world. It brings people from all over the country.”
She added, “We are one of the toughest showing states in the quarter horse world. People who want to be competitive, they want to come to Ohio. We do have probably the best horses around.”
Additionally, there are facilities, such as Irongate, and other stables dotting the countryside around Ohio’s capital city, with trainers helping young and old riders learn to sit tall in their saddles. Competitors from around the world will be in the area over the next few weeks to participate in the Congress, the New Albany Classic and the Split Rock Jumping Tour.
“Some of the largest equine events in the country are held here in central Ohio,” said Matt Harris, the developer behind the new $10 million Brave Horse Equestrian Center near Johnstown. “There’s so many great trainers … You have all these young riders, amateurs and professionals, riding here in the community. … People are coming from outside of our community to experience these events.”
Abigail Wexner, lawyer and philanthropist and wife of L. Brands founder and Chairman Leslie H. Wexner, helped spark the growing interest in English riding when she started the New Albany Classic Invitational Grand Prix and Family Day two decades ago.
The event offered the opportunity to combine Wexner’s love of horses and her desire to help victims of domestic violence through a single-day event that draws 15,000-some people and that has helped to raise $30 million-plus for the Center for Family Safety and Healing, which supports victims of family violence and abuse.
Show jumping wasn’t as popular in central Ohio back in 1998, that first Classic year, when 750 or so people turned out to watch.
“We’re really on the cusp of changing,” Wexner said of the area’s competitive riding scene. “Now, we’re starting to see the emergence of other world-class competitions (in central Ohio). I think we’ve created an environment where people say there’s a market for it.”
Those initial grands prix also helped spark an interest in riding among young people, such as Ali Wolff.
“I just dragged my parents to every single pony ride,” said Wolff, recalling her initial years in the saddle. She’s been riding since she was about 7.
Wolff attended the first New Albany Classic in 1998. Today, at age 28, she’s one of the few professional English riders from the Columbus area, competing regularly. She spent a couple of months riding in Europe and Canada this year.
It’s a full-time job, with daily rides starting around 8 a.m. and stretching throughout the day. Wolff is serious and committed to the sport, participating in the New Albany Classic eight times as an amateur and last year for the first time as a professional.
There’s one nice thing about central Ohio’s growing role in the international equine arena: Wolff doesn’t have to go as far from home to compete.
“We’re really starting to put ourselves on the map,” she said, adding, “It’s very exciting that they have come to my hometown. It’s a nice change not to have to drive 11 hours to New York every week to compete.”
The gravel drive beside the stables where Dunlap has her horses doesn’t look like much. Just a couple of years ago, it would have ended in about 75 acres filled with soybeans or corn.
But follow it and you’ll come to a state-of-the-art horse facility, the biggest of its kind in the Columbus area, with new stables and outdoor riding arenas ready for international competition.
It’s called Brave Horse — that’s what riders often say of their animals when they perform well — and it’s fast becoming a desired destination for equine competitors, with the Split Rock Jumping Tour expected to draw 300 riders for two weeks of competition, starting Wednesday.
Twenty years ago, Harris was a central Ohio transplant from Connecticut who didn’t know a whole lot about equestrian sports. But one of his kids fell in love with the sport after attending a horse camp, starting Matt and his wife, Amy, down the path that ended at what today is Brave Horse, complete with a large grand prix arena and a half-dozen other rings, 250 permanent stables and room for additions.
It’s a facility built to accommodate local ponies and top-tier competitions, with much attention on the health and safety of the horses and riders, Harris said.
Lexington, Kentucky, may be the mecca for equine enthusiasts, but central Ohio is fast becoming a destination for riders, Harris said. The first competitions took place at Brave Horse last year, setting the stage for this year’s Split Rock tour stop.
“We see horse shows from different communities approaching us, (saying) let’s do something together,” Harris said. “There’s lots of horse shows all over the country — a lot of great horse shows that have done really well. We’re just trying to join the ranks of memorable experiences and a destination that everyone wants to go to.”