Fairfield County Hunt Club: Entering a New Era

Melania Smirnoff and Bellefour’s Steel Fox. Photo by SEL Photography.

BY Summer Grace

From the magazine

On a balmy, breezy morning in June, banners swayed and plants rustled amid the impeccably-manicured grass field as the scene was set for the 99th annual Fairfield County Hunt Club June Horse Show. 

Clients of the club’s equestrian team, each dressed in their shadbelly, followed dutifully behind head trainer Jenny Martin-Rudaz as they walked the course. Land Rovers dotted the otherwise naturally-decorated derby field, and crisp white linens were draped over VIP tables. The stage was set for the International Hunter Derby. 

And the venue was set for the next 100 years of horse showing.

The Fairfield County Hunt Club has been a pillar in the equestrian community since 1923, making it one of the longest-running equestrian clubs in the country. Fairfield has spent much of this year celebrating its centennial anniversary, with the annual June Horse Show as its premiere event. 

A time-honored and well-loved tradition, this year’s horse show proved its commitment to the growth and excellence of hunter competition with the addition of the featured $15,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby, presented by Land Rover of Fairfield. It was hometown hero and third-generation Fairfield County Hunt Club competitor Hannah Isop who earned the headlining honors of the day.

The showgrounds. Courtesy of Fairfield County Hunt Club.

The club has offered a place for members to refresh and recharge from the stresses of everyday life with a variety of events and activities, including the club’s founding equestrian events. As with many club venues, the Fairfield County Hunt Club was born from an afternoon of equestrian fun that grew into something more. Averill Harriman commissioned a famous sculptress to design and create a polo medal. Immersing herself in her work, the artist grabbed a polo mallet and mounted up, which quickly attracted attention to the estate. Soon, polo matches were being held onsite and within the year the idea was floated to form a club that would include horse shows, polo, and hunting. 

In the 1940’s, Emerson Burr began his training career at Fairfield. No one was aware at the time, but in the coming years, the club would become the birthplace of one of the most prestigious and revered competitions in young rider history—the United States Pony Finals. At the time of Burr’s employment, children were still commonly mounted on horses of a smaller stature, but the rise of the pony had begun to take hold in Europe.

Burr soon found himself face-to-face with the small creatures when his neighbor acquired them into her backyard. Intrigued and encouraged by the children’s response to the pony, the once-reluctant Burr dove headfirst into the particular discipline, and by 1960 he had a strong lineup of elite ponies taking top placings at competitions across the country. As word of Burr and his harem of winning mounts spread, so did the club’s world-wide recognition. 

The venue has played host to multiple top-level finals but their role as a premiere event host began with the first ever United States Pony Finals in 1967. With Burr’s passion for creating a perfect pairing of child and pony mount, the club quickly became a mecca for prestigious ponies and pony riders and secured itself another important role in history. The oversight of the club by Burr was a game-changer for the program, and with the likes of fellow esteemed athletes such as Grand Prix rider Leslie Burr-Howard in the mix, the club quickly set the standard for horsemanship in the surrounding area and beyond. 

The Next 100 Years

Today, the club continues to offer lessons in the hunter, jumper, and equitation disciplines for members of the club, now under the tutelage of Martin-Rudaz. The Fairfield riding program has had a long-standing foundation of success for developing horses and ponies starting from the beginning of their careers. 

From the time of Emerson Burr’s leadership, the program was well-known for its role in developing some of the most well-known ponies in the sport, including High Fly, Woodland’s Silver Lining, Satin, and Kiss Me Not. 

Throughout the past century, Fairfield has prided itself on bringing up the next generation of exceptional equestrians, starting from Leadline to the ponies and moving up the ranks through the hunter, equitation, and jumper disciplines. Fairfield places an emphasis on not only developing a solid riding background, but also a ground foundation in horsemanship. 

Many of the club’s young members have not only gone on to produce top results at various equitation, hunter, and jumper finals, but have also become top-level professionals in the sport. Alexa Pessoa, Cody Quintana, Vivian Yowan, and Kelly Goguen, among others, have all been participating athletes at the club. 

Martin-Rudaz has brought the longstanding, prestigious club into modern times in equestrian sport. Her time at the club spans over 30 years, and her riders continue to take top placings at the national and regional levels, from the Children’s ponies to the Medal and Maclay. A prime excellent example of the club’s program is Martin-Rudaz’s own daughter, Isabel Rudaz, who took top honors in the 2021 Zone 1 Maclay Regional aboard her self-produced mount Diasandro.

Jenny Martin-Rudaz (right) with her daughter Isabel Rudaz and legendary and longtime Fairfield Horse Show Ringmaster John Franzreb. Photo by SEL Photography.

In the show program, riders have the opportunity to compete at the most prestigious events across the country, but also have the unique opportunity to enter multiple events in their own backyard. The June Horse Show has been a pillar of the venue’s calendar each year, and the 2023 show was both a step forward into the future while paying homage to the club’s illustrious past. There are plans to revitalize the venue’s grass field—one of the few left in the country for competition. While primarily focused on the hunter discipline, the June Horse Show featured a select number of jumper and equitation classes. 

To add to the celebration, the club hosted a variety of events throughout the week including a ‘Woof and Hoof’ derby benefitting the Equus Foundation, Rising Starr Horse Rescue, and the SPCA of Westchester, as well as a Sip and Shop featuring vendors and delights from Nômade Westport, and a highly-attended Cocktails and Carburetors evening, featuring classic cars from across generations. 

Margaret Huber & Danton du Houssolf. Photo by Leslie Newing.

“As we continue forward, we really want to make this a boutique horse show catering more to hunters and equitation,” explained Wynatte Chu, a long-standing member of the Fairfield County Hunt Club, hunter competitor, and board member of the June Horse Show Committee.

“Our goal is to give the exhibitors, trainers, and families that special touch that many horse shows are missing now.”