Mary Mairs Chapot

Mary Chapot and Tomboy. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

BY ANN JAMIESON

“I’ve always loved animals,” says Mary Chapot. “We always had dogs in the family. And horses were another animal to love, to pet, to hug.”

While Mary’s mother loved horses, and wanted to ride, her grandmother was another story. “She was  a little afraid of them, and would hide under the grandstand while my mother rode,” remembers Mary.

Mary’s mother didn’t get the opportunity to ride as much as she wanted to, so she made sure that her own girls were going to get the chance.

In addition, says Mary, “It let her be involved with horses a little bit again, so it worked out for everybody.”

Mary began riding at a summer camp in California that had a small horse program, She loved it so much that soon she was bugging her mother, “Can we do this a little more?”

“More” came to mean a horse of her own. That horse was Rocky Reef, a failed racehorse. “She didn’t cost much, and we boarded her at the local hack stable

“There were three schools that took part in lessons there.” Mary’s school wasn’t one of them, but she would “tag along with one of the lessons.” After lessons finished in the ring, the whole class was allowed to go out on trail.

“We would get to do one loop.” But Rocky, harkening back to her roots, didn’t like being behind the other horses. Although Mary was told to stay in the back, Rocky wanted to be in front, and expressed her annoyance at being held back by bucking, often dumping Mary in the process.

Mary didn’t get discouraged. Rather, she took it as a problem she had to solve, a technique she used throughout her career. “Riding on the trail made you think; you weren’t just up/downing in a ring. I thought it was pretty fun when I could actually succeed.” In time, Mary and Rocky worked out their differences.

Rocky wasn’t a good jumper, but that didn’t stop Mary either. She tried to make her into one, displaying another trait that would serve her well in her career: determination. 

She began training with Michael Manesco, a rider from the Romanian army.  “I learned the heels down, look up part, but it was a bit of a schlep to his barn.” Fortuitously, there was a place that was much closer:  Flintridge Riding Club. Training initially with Jimmy Scarborough, she later moved on to Jimmy Williams when Mr. Scarborough retired.

Mary has never failed to appreciate her luck. “It was just convenience really, since Flintridge was closer. I was attending a very serious school during that period, so my barn time was somewhat limited. There is so much to be learned from horses, if we only listen, and I regret not being more observant then. I have thought many times over the years, I wonder what Jimmy would have done with this one, or that one.

“He taught me to let the horse do his thing, to not get in the way. He taught me a lot, and he taught my horses more.

“You do the best you can, but let the horse think a little bit. To solve a problem, think what the horse is thinking. Why did he do that? And how do we fix it?

“Jimmy emphasized that ‘You’re a team; you are not the sole director of the team. You both work together, and let the horse do his work.”

Riding with Jimmy between the ages of 12 and 16, Mary went on to win both the Medal and Maclay Finals in 1960, becoming the first West Coast rider to earn the titles. She competed on a loaned horse named Red Bird that she only had ridden the year before at the Pennsylvania National.

Mary notes that it was “so bizarre. It was nothing you would ever do today.”

She also didn’t realize until years later the significance of her double victory.

Mary is one of the few people to ever win, and then come back later and judge, the Medal Finals.

While looking for an equitation horse for the finals, Mary had gone to Dave Kelly and tried a horse named Tomboy. She remembers, “She was pretty green, but I just loved her!”  Tomboy was tremendously talented, and careful, but too green, and definitely not an equitation horse. Mary had done some jumpers and thought, “Maybe Tomboy can do that.” Her parents purchased the mare…for $7500.

Mary and Tomboy. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

Although Mary doesn’t feel that either Dave or Frank (Chapot, her teammate and future husband) thought the horse was going to turn out to be much, with Jimmy’s help Tomboy showed everyone just how capable she was.

Tomboy was “a wonderful caretaker for me. She seemed to know that she had to ‘take care of this kid,'” as she took Mary from the Junior Jumpers up through Open classes.

When Mary traveled to Madison Square Garden for her winning Medal and Maclay classes, she got to experience something she’d never seen before. California at the time was “way behind the East Coast; there were no team competitions. People rode in chaps and didn’t even wear hats.” 

Mary and Tomboy at Aachen. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

Watching the international teams compete at the Garden, Mary thought, “This is where I want to be. 

“The following year  I rode in the screening trials that Bert de Nemethy ran, and then came back to the east coast to work with him.” At 17 she became the youngest rider on the United States Equestrian Team. 

Mary, Bill Robertson and Kathy Kushner. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

Gladstone was the place to be, and Mary was right in the thick of it, along with Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, Kathy Kusner and Billy Robertson. They were later joined by Chrystine Jones Tauber, Carol Hoffman Thompson and Neil Shapiro. 

Aachen parade of nations. Steinkraus & Ksar, Kushner & High Noon, Chapot & Tomboy, Wiley & Nautical, Frank & San Lucas, Robertson & Trail Guide

Bert at the time was in the process of rebuilding his team after George Morris, and then Hugh Wiley, retired.

“Frank and Billy were the mainstays and they were just wonderful help with guidance. Billy and Kathy would sit in the corner and just discuss bits, and how we were going to do certain things.

Mary & Vestryman at Aachen. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

“At about that time the FEI decided that they weren’t going to allow standing martingales and Kathy’s wonderful horse Untouchable went in a standing martingale, so there were many discussions as to how we were going to solve that problem.

“She had to take it off, and did a lot of flatwork to compensate, and he went on to compete in two Olympic Games. He was a super horse.”

Aachen team. Robertson & Trail Guide, Mary & Tomboy, Steinkraus & Sinjon, Frank & San Lucas. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

When Mary and Kathy first competed with the USET their biggest challenge was the FEI’s weight rule. Both of them were light weights and women (including their saddles) had to weigh in at 154 pounds. For men it was 165. For Nations’ Cups and Olympics the required weight was 165 pounds. The two women had to put weights in their saddle pads and the only weights available were racing lead boards, making the saddles, as Kathy Kusner said, feel like they “were sitting on a pile of rocks.”

Both experimented with the weight placement until a saddle maker came up with a pad that placed the weights before the knee rolls and behind the rider’s legs. But the best relief came when the weight requirements were dropped, allowing men and women to compete equally at the international levels. 

“That was a good loss when the FEI lost that rule,” Mary recalls.

Aachen. Kushner & High Noon, Steinkraus & Ksar, Mary & Tomboy. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

The five-member team went to compete in Europe and Mary says it was “a good team experience. We were the only Americans. We got along with each other and helped one another, rooted for one another. We were a unit; we weren’t wondering if someone else would take our spot.

It was fun!”

North America at that point had its own Triple Crown of international events, Washington, New York, and Toronto. Mary rode on 22 winning Nations’ Cup teams, including stateside and abroad.

Mary & White Lightning. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

Twice she won the Grand Prix at the National Horse Show in New York, and competed in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City riding White Lightning.

At 18 Mary, riding Tomboy, became the first American and first woman to win Gold at the Pan American Games, taking both the Individual and Team Golds. Mary remembers, “When you put that flag on your saddle pad, boy your heart pounds a lot harder!”

Mary & Tomboy. 1965. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

Along with teammate Kathy Kusner, Mary made history when they became the first women to ride on the U.S. Olympic Show Jumping team, competing in Tokyo with Mary riding Tomboy.

The next year she made history by winning the first Grand Prix in the United States, the Cleveland Grand Prix at the Chagrin Valley PHA Horse Show, again on Tomboy, whom Mary names as the most influential horse in her life.

“She got hurt at a young age, but she was such a good horse, so scopey and capable; she kind of spoiled me for the others.”

Mary & Tomboy at Hickstead. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

She and Frank together made history as the first husband-wife combination to compete for the USET. That same year at the National Horse Show Mary and Tomboy won the International Stake, clinching the team championship for the United States.

Another top horse that both she and Frank competed on was White Lightning. Mary’s mother bought a mare who turned out to be in foal, and the result was White Lightning. It was amazing luck, as the horse “turned out great, competing in two Olympic Games!” Mary declares, “I have been really lucky with my horses!”

Mary & Tomboy at Aachen. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

Mary and Frank initially were team members, who became close as they traveled, trained and competed together. When they married, they lived on Frank’s parents’ farm before buying Chado Farm in Neshanic Station, New Jersey, in 1970.

The farm was a cattle farm, but Frank and his father converted it for horses. Jackhammering all the stanchions out of the cement floor, they made it suitable for the new occupants.

Mary & Anakonda at Devon, 1968. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

From 1962 through 1967 Mary won many big classes at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show including the Prix de Penn National on Anakonda, and in addition won the Grand Prix at the National Horse Show in 1966 and 1968. She competed in the Mexico City 1968 Olympics riding White Lightning, and was inducted into the Pennsylvania National Horse Show Hall of Fame in 2016.

All of Mary’s triumphs are meaningful to her in different ways, from the first Grand Prix in America, to the Queen Elizabeth Cup, all of the Nation’s Cups, the Grand Prix in New York, the Olympics, and the Gold Medal in Brazil in the Pan American Games. All have special memories, but she particularly enjoyed the Nation’s Cups because each rider’s score counts toward the team score. “When we went to Europe we did a lot of Nations’ Cups. It was fun, competing as a team, I liked that.”

Mary & Tomboy at Aachen. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

The most famous horse to come out of Chado Farm was Gem Twist, by Good Twist out of the racehorse mare Coldly Noble. Gem was born at the farm. His mother had pulled her suspensories on the track, so her owner, steeplechase rider Joy Slater’s grandmother, decided to breed her. 

“She had six foals, none of the others were Gem Twist, but they were all pretty darn good!” says Mary.

Gem didn’t stand out initially. As a two and three year old, he was “just one of the group. I said to Frank ‘This is one of the clumsiest horses I have ever ridden. He needs to go up and down those hills and figure things out.'” 

Mary began riding him on those hills at the farm to strengthen him and improve his balance. “He got really good, and this girl that works for us, Linda Sheridan, began working with him.”

Gem initially competed in some hunter classes, and then moved on to the lower jumper divisions. “Greg Best happened to be a talented local kid, so he was a logical choice to take him further. Greg had great long legs and they were a match.

“We sold him to Michael Golden to ride, but he was a bit too much for him. He was a little bit feisty and jumped so hard.

When people asked Frank “When did you know he was going to be the one?” he would answer, ‘Not until he went into the ring in the Olympic Games.”

“He jumped so high you could see the potential there, but until the big day you didn’t know if it was going to work out,” explains Mary.

“Frank just loved that horse! When he went in the ring, Frank would pull a hair out of his tail every time, and the girls would yell at him. I don’t know why he thought that was a lucky thing.”

From a clumsy kid Gem morphed into a superstar. “He just loved to jump, just loved to compete, to jump as high as he could. Watch me! He was a true once in a lifetime horse. He took so much out of himself and jumped so high it was hard to stay with him.”

Watching him (here’s Laura and Gem showing the world how it’s done: LauraandGem) you can see the competitive fire that powered Gem. He knew the game and he gave everything he had to win.

Gem went on to win two silver medals at the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. a team silver at the Pan American Games, and at the World Equestrian Games in Sweden was named “World’s Best Horse” in 1990. He competed with Greg Best, Leslie Howard (after Greg hurt his shoulder), and then Laura Chapot, always giving his all for each rider, and  he is the only horse to have won the AGA Grand Prix Horse of the Year title three times. He was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame, and is considered by many to be the best show jumper the world has ever seen.

Mary & Vestryman at Aachen. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

Although Mary has retired from competition, she hasn’t retired from the sport. She continues to attend shows with her daughters and to officiate as a USEF judge. 

“This sport gave me a focus, something to do, a direction,” something she hopes it is providing for upcoming generations as well. 

Mary with Tomboy & Vestryman. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

“I can still enjoy the horses. I stopped internationally at first so we would go to the shows and we would all compete and then my back kicked in where it was just a little bit hard. We were lucky enough that both girls would respect what Frank and I said; it doesn’t always happen that way. They were as competitive as we were so it was another team thing almost. With Frank and myself we didn’t have any rivalry, it was go to the ring and cheer, it was all part of the family and it was great. 

Mary & Tomboy at Aachen. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

“Wendy and Laura and myself we did our own shipping, we did our own braiding, we had Buddy and Cookie King with us helping out. The girls learned how to put on a bandage and how to braid a mane, a lot of what goes into it. It gives you a good feeling when you’re successful, that you had a real part in it.

“It makes that fifth place ribbon kind of count because you were part of it, it’s not that blue ribbon that’s hanging up in the barn, it’s how it got up there.”

“The sport has been very kind to me; I have enjoyed the ride and I’m still enjoying it!”

Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

Mary and Frank were both inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame (although in different years). Mary’s words on the occasion were: “In the end, it wasn’t about boys vs. girls, men vs. women, or males vs. females; it was about yourself and your horse, how well you developed a partnership, and how well you rode. I shall forever be grateful to all my horses, especially Tomboy and White Lightning, for giving me the opportunity to represent my country and to experience all that went with it.”

Mary & Tomboy, Weisbaden. Photo courtesy of Mary Chapot

About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years. She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
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