Sing Your Song
On Monday, October 17th at 10 p.m. EST/PT, HBO will air an inspiring, compelling and deeply beautiful memoir documentary about artistic renegade and human activist, Harry Belafonte, Sing Your Song.
Being in the entertainment and music industry for the majority of my career, I have had a chance in to briefly meet and work with Mr. Belafonte and his daughter Gina while they were working on this film, and a recording. I did not get to know him well, but you need only a brief encounter with this man to capture the significance of his journey. I ran into Mr. Belafonte and his wife just a week ago at a benefit and gala hosted by his long time and dear friend Tony Bennett. I shared with him that I had seen the documentary, that the executives at HBO had enthusiastically shared it with me, and how much I truly believed it should be included in music curriculum in schools as it exhibits and captures the connection between art, music, culture, and social change in some of the most important parts of our country’s history. Many youth may not even realize this history or it’s connection to music. He humbly thanked me for my opinions, and we shared a moment discussing music and art in the public schools. We were standing, coincidentally, in the middle of a benefit surrounded by musicians, artists, actors, and political leaders who were there to show support for Tony Bennett’s “Exploring The Arts” which funds programs in the New York City Public School system. Tony, a long time friend and activist himself, played the benefit concert with Belafonte in Montgomery, Alabama the night before the King Marched to the Alabama State Capital, and marched on Washington with King and Belafonte. All of which is in this great film. I immediately began to believe that the documentary title means so much more than one screening or airing of the film on the network. It truly is what many of us, and particularly youth need to see. Sing Your Song.
We are living in a period of change both in our country and around the world. An era that is redefining both right before us. Many people feel lost in this change, particularly youth, and that results in a lost of their inspiration and hope, and ultimately a loss of voice. Harry Belafonte used his voice for his entire life. His journey created tipping points both artistically and politically that altered the course of history. Many of these events, moments, and relationships were well publicized or carefully bandaged in a song, play or film he appeared in. I imagine, most of the important and altering parts of his “movement” were woven so deeply into the fabric of how he woke up in the morning and went to sleep at night that even he may have not realized the impacts he made by his existence, or even make sense of half of what he found himself engulfed it. What is illuminated is that he followed his heart, and “sang his song.” Transfixed by music and the power of the thoughts and images that were artistically communicated in the theatre, he realized early in life that acting and singing and the voice he had through it would influence people profoundly.
In the 1950s, Mr. Belafonte was inspired by the voice of Paul Robeson. He credits Mr. Robeson, whom remained a friend, advisor, and fellow civil rights activist throughout his life, in having an intense influence in him finding his creative artistry.
Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Harry shattered boundaries, risked his life and became a voice for humanity. Mr. Belafonte’s work shaped and reflected the times in which he lived and the impacts that race and human rights made on society. From refusing to succumb to studio and network demands for segregated casts in productions, to his ability to lead and organize the artist community of musicians that were friendly with the “movement,” and represent Black America to future leaders of the country. He marched on Washington and in Montgomery, Alabama with Martin Luther King, Jr. Each day was not only full of purpose, but also enriched with culture, art, and risk. The first African American to star as a lead with a Caucasian love interest both in theatre and in film. The first recording artist to sell one million copies of an album in both the United States and the United Kingdom (Calypso, 1956). The first to sell one million copies of a single (“Day-O”). The lead in a traveling theatre production in segregated America in the 50s; he was constantly faced with negotiations in moving into venues and places for the first time, breaking down barriers. As he sang, his popularity and influence grew, but so did his commitment to Civil and Human rights. He collaborated with the likes of Sidney Poitier, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horn, Dorothy Dandridge, Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, Dianne Carroll, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Tony Bennett, most of which shared his views in human interest and where the country should be going. He stood for something. He loved passionately. Was loyal. This is what led him to liaise and to establish relationships with Martin Luther King, Jr., and both Robert Kennedy and Jack Kennedy. Race relations intensified the climate and the mood of America, and he became increasingly more submerged in the fight for change. Devastated by many of his experiences along the way, particularly at times of being accused of being “unpatriotic,” he would not allow these experiences to undermine his course in the fight for injustice and his ability to influence and bring people together through music. In reference to the historic recording in 1985 of the song “We Are The World” (U.S.A. for Africa), which was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and produced by Quincy Jones. Quincy says, “It was Harry that brought us the dream. It was Harry that called us and said let’s do something,” in reference to a trip Mr. Belafonte had just returned from in Ethiopia.
We are living in a time of struggle and debate in our country. Education, jobs, enterprise, healthcare, social needs and even debates in equality continue and perhaps always be at the center of the question of leadership, and the motivator of purpose. What all of us may need is a little art and music, and as Mr. Belafonte has said, “to find the truth and hope from within ourselves to create change.”
It is said that history has been written on the back of a horse and for me an arduous opinion to put into words just what human beings owe to the equus callubus. It is believed that even the most intellectual and complex of early civilizations were not able to carry their knowledge very far had it not been for the horse.
This animal of distinct beauty and power has captivated mankind since the beginning of existence. Sports that involve this great creature stretch back as far as history has been recorded. Horses are creators, perhaps prophetic, mystical. They have contributed to the evolution of our civilization like no other creature on earth. A fierce warrior would not have gone to battle without his horse. Immortal in Greek mythology; the equus callubus was our first and most reliable mode of transportation and devout laborer. In precise example, we still define a car’s speed in “horsepower” today.
My earliest memories of horses are of my parents taking my brother and I on pony rides during holidays in the summer at the Eclipse just across the park from the White House in Washington, D.C. where we lived. Photographs captured them holding our little bodies on top of Shetland ponies while a lead walker took us around in a circle in the park. Another is of my brother and I begging our maternal Grandmother to feed nickels into a mechanical horse in front of the Woolworths in Dubois, Pennsylvania while we took the 5-minute ride of the machine rocking
stormily back and forth. And didn’t we all love a carousel with the circus music playing? These strong and sensitive creatures capture our imaginations and deliver a part of the soul that is embalmed so deep inside us that we do not even know how to reach these depths inside of ourselves, and occasionally an exceptional experience touches that spirit. Black Beauty, Mr. Ed, Secretariat, Man O’ War, Scout, Trigger, Affirmed, and Pie from the film National Velvet; we have been touched by them all. Our country’s first President, General George Washington was known to almost always been carried by his cherished “Old Nelson”. What would have been the outcome of American Revolutionary War if Paul Revere had not rode the historical “Midnight Ride” proclaiming to Patriots “the British are coming”?
Horses are our heroes, much like sports legends Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, or Billy Jean King. They have performed at the highest standards for centuries. The in the midst of “The Great Depression”, it was a small underdog chestnut stallion named “Seabiscuit” that rose up as a National symbol of hope and perseverance. Today, we most commonly identify the sports of Horse Racing, Hunting, Jumping, Dressage, Eventing and Polo with the Equine, and Eastern Long Island has the innermost of it all. The Hamptons has an Equestrian community that considers themselves family and is recognized all over the world of producing great athletes,
both horse and man alike, and hosting world class events such as Bridgehampton Polo and The Hampton Classic. Like many family’s it is rich in a long history and tradition. The Hamptons Equestrian community has a tight knit and competitive behind the scene life of athletes, trainers, grooms, veterinarians, blacksmiths, administrators, and transporters. It is an eco-system beyond the pretty settings we all admire driving by daily on the way to the beach or to meet someone for lunch at Pierre’s.
I grew up riding in Howard County, Maryland and outside of Washington, D.C in an area, similarly to the Hamptons that is rich “horse country”. I am from a middle-class family, and against most stereotypes of the blue blood and old money that exclusively dominates Equestrian sports, most of my friends that also were Equestrians came from very humble and middle class American families. I began formerly riding at both the old Columbia Horse Center and the Dayton Horse Center. My first horse, “Hark The Angel Gabriel”, or “Gabe” as I called him, was a 16.1 hand Bay Gelding Thoroughbred that my mother and I rescued from a farm close by when he was 3 years old. He was a sleek and gentle mannered horse. Though large and strong in size, he was a gentle and precautious athlete. I realize now, I could have done anything to “Gabe”. Gallop him for hours through the fields, hours in the ring training; he just was there for me. A loyal companion. I showed Gabe in the Hunter-Jumper and Equitation circuit in Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia until I was about 17 years old. One day, I was training and in a lesson on him, when against farm protocol and rules, a farmer took a short cut past the ring to get to one of the barns. It was a strict rule, and is at most stables that machinery not go next to riding rings with mounted riders. As he was passing, the tractor let out a large backfire that sounded like military artillery. Gabe was frightened by the sudden loud bangs and spooked out of his typical easy-going disposition. He began bucking and rearing and sent me flying into a fence where a rock hit me in the back of my neck beneath my helmet. I was knocked unconscious with a concussion, but lucky enough to not have any other serious injuries. My mother, a Registered Nurse, was watching my lesson, and immediately tended to me while the ambulance was en route. I do not remember much past the actual event of the tractor backfiring, but it was the last time I rode for years until I came to the Hamptons.
I moved to New York to work for Sony Music in the late 90’s and that is when I began summering in the Hamptons. Growing up in Maryland, the setting and backdrop reminded me very much of where I had grown up minus the social circles. I was not into much of the party scene, despite the fact that I was in the music industry, but did embrace the beach, my backyard and beautiful surroundings that were an escape from city life. I am not certain if even those who visit seasonally for the parties, great social scene, and shopping realize they have much to thank
to the gorgeous farms that have kept the Hamptons, well, “the Hamptons”. Lavish homes and estates have replaced centuries of farmers and their land. Still, a drive down Scuttlehole past Two Trees Stables or Applewood Farm, or Rose Hill Farm or Wolffer Estate on Route 27 is a site that is beyond breathtaking, and defines what the Hamptons has been about for decades.
The Hamptons equestrian community is recognized around the world for producing world class athletes, both riders and horses alike. What happens behind the fences of these stables is much beyond the bucolic facades. There is an entire sport, business, community and life beyond the green pastures. Athletes in training. Young persons with dreams. An eco-system of people employed because of this creature, the horse.
As I thought about my own personal experience around horses most of my life, and what drew me back into Equestrian life was the day I walked into Two Trees Stables in my late 20’s a decade after my fall to “ride again”. I had repeatedly driven past this breathtaking farm at the corner of Hayground Road and Scuttlehole in Bridgehampton, and longed to stop and go inside.
Two Trees Stables resides on a total of 115 acres of which was formerly Carwytham Farm, a dairy and potato farm that stretched across Scuttlehole to what is now the Atlantic Golf Club. Originally owned by Sayre Baldwin, and then his son Dan, David and Jane Walentas, real estate investors that lived in New York City, purchased 60 plus acres of land in 1993, then added adjacent acres a few years later that now is Bridgehampton Polo. “The original barn and farm were somewhat rudimentary”, says Jane Walentas. “The former owners had built a small horse operation around one of the daughters that rode. David and I didn’t have any experience in the horse business, but we had begun to ride at Sag Pond (now Wolffer Estate Stables). We decided to hire architect, Jack Beyers, and drew up what is now the North Barn, and also a large indoor riding facility. The Main Barn was there, but not in the best condition. We then added the South Barn. We ultimately renovated everything,” continued Walentas. “A series of colorful trainers and world class horses then called Two Trees home. I have to say, it was the “it” stable. George Morris, a founding father of Hunt Seat Equitation, held clinics there. Olympic Dressage rider and trainer, Robert Dover had our Dressage ring built. It became quite the place to train.” She reminisced.
On that day I decided to walk in to see what I could find in the form of a lesson, Thea, the Office manager, greeted me. She signed me up for a lesson the next day at 10 am with whom at the time was a trainer there, Mercedes Mann Olivier (Mercedes now runs Toppings Riding Club). I then drove to Brennan’s Tack Shop in Bridgehampton Commons and bought new gloves and a few other accessories. I had still owned britches, boots, and my old riding helmet that surprisingly all seemed to fit just fine and technically more than sufficient for my first lesson in years, though fashionably a bit out of date. And as stereotypes are handed out, Equestrians are usually at the top of the list of well-dressed athletes.
The next day I showed up for my lesson, and was happy to see a 16 hand Bay Mare named “Lizzy” that reminded me so much of “Gabe”. She was gentle and a pleaser. I was instantly hooked again, and decided I would again focus on becoming a great rider, which as an adult is very difficult when working and traveling constantly. So, I became a weekend equestrienne This continued for years, until I decided to have a horse of my own. I now have two. One 17.1 hand, 7 year old dappled Grey Dutch Warm Blood Gelding, “Verne Xequoia” or “X” as we call him. He is a bit naughty and playful, much like a boy in kindergarten that is very smart, good-looking, athletic, and everyone spoils, so he tries to get away with everything because he thinks he can. The other is a 16.3 hand 17-year-old Selle Francais Bay Gelding, “Je Suis”, or “Juicy” as it becomes when said fast in an American accent. He is an old soul and seasoned veteran of the Hunter-Jumper show circuit. I learn from this horse everyday. He has the most positive attitude and no opinion other than to please. I have become a better athlete and person because of these two animals. They teach me patience, love, and to perform with “heart”. I do not have any children yet, but when I watch them perform or in competition, it brings me pleasure I could only equate to a mother watching her children do something for the first time or the same thrill some get on the edge of a closely scored football or basketball game. They just give it all they have. Without fear or reservation. If only we could all keep that in mind as we go through life.
Today, Mercedes younger sister, Alexandra Mann Talmage, trains me. Alex has been at Two Trees for 17 years,and “came in and added some stability to the crazy environment” says Walentas. Alex is a staple in the Long Island and New York show circuit both as a trainer and as a judge. She has run Talmage Equestrian out of Two Trees Stables over almost the same stretch of time, and has trained hundreds of young people that have grown up coming to the Hamptons or that live in the Hamptons. Mercedes and Alex are two of five children in what was a horse family. (Their sister Maria Mann trains racehorses in Florida). They have cousins in Argentina that have a ranch, but they spent the majority of their lives in East Hampton. “I learned to ride at sleep away camp at the age of 10 on a horse named “Shadow”, says Talmage. “I will never forget him. I found the barn at camp, and I then missed every other activity”. The next few
summers the Mann’s spent in East Hampton where one day a 12 year old Alexandra saw a paddock with two Morgan horses through an ally in the middle of town. The paddock was attached to a small farm owned by lawyer Robert Osborne, that had a law office next door, of which his son still runs to this day. Alex knocked on the door, and introduced herself and had the audacity to ask if she could exercise his horses. Mr. Osborne, dressed in flared jodhpurs, walked her out to the small barn, and handed her the keys. “I can not believe he trusted me like that,” said Talmage. She rode her bicycle to Mr. Osborne’s small farm in the middle of East Hampton
each day, riding his two Morgan horses, of which her favorite became a Gelding named, “Star”. “I used to ride Star across Main Street. Everyone loved it. After a while, he knew the route across Main Street, up Dayton Lane, behind Guild Hall, along the Potato fields, and then he knew that after Beach Road is when we would begin galloping up to the Maidstone, and then arrive at the beach. I would invite my friends and my sister, Mercedes, to meet me. Then we would ride back.”
Described by her sister Mann Olivier, “Yes, those were special times. Did she tell you about the time we rode the horses to Amagansett?” I responded by telling her Alex had left that story out. “Oh my goodness. She rode Star to Amagansett to visit a friend. She tied him to a tree to go in for a drink of lemonade. Star untied himself, and took off running all the way through Amagansett. He knew his way back, and tucked through yards and alleyways through the Town of East Hampton, all the way back to Mr. Osborne’s farm. We found him back at the barn as if nothing had happened. He was quite the horse. He made it on the cover of the East Hampton Star twice. Once when get walked over to Mr. Gardner’s and stepped on his pool cover and fell in the pool. The East Hampton Fire Department had to come haul him out, and another when he got out of the barn when it caught fire due to an electrical shortage and burned down. The fire department made it there in time to save the other ponies and horses, but Star got himself out prior to the fire departments arrival”.
“I added stalls to that farm and began to compete in the Hunter Jumper circuit. I took small breaks to try other things. I had plenty of opportunities. I was a stylist’s assistant. One summer I was a babysitter for Dina Merrill, and traveled with her on location in Illinois for the shoot for the Robert Altman film, “A Wedding”. I always knew this is what I loved.” Added Mann Talmage, “I met my husband, Tom Talmage, whom is now an East Hampton Police officer, shortly after high school. He purchased my first horse for me for $2,500. Up until then, I was riding Mr. Osborne’s horses, and horses I was training, but belonged to my clients. I owe my career really to Tom and Mr. Osborne. Without them, I would not have gotten started, or doing what I love. It became my life and my business.” Talmage left Osborne’s farm after 14 years in 1994 to move to Two Trees, where she has been since. “There have been so many great professionals that have come through Two Trees,” says Jane Walentas. “We are mostly so proud of the young children that have been taught to ride, given something to be proud of, and become well rounded students and adults as a result of that. All these years, all of those children. It makes me proud. They have represented our farm throughout the circuit in New York, New Jersey, New England, and WEF in Florida each winter. Alex is a large part of that piece of the joy.”
In writing this story, it inspired me to talk to more people that have made the sport their life and career. The people that live inside the sports in which horses are the centerpieces seem to be a part of an unspoken tribe. Whether it is a Trainer, a World Cup or Olympian jumper, or at top ranked Polo player, or a young girl taking her lessons at one of the stables here, there is one thing in common. Horses are their life. Horses have changed their life for the better.
I decided to step behind the white fences of these large stables in the community of the Hamptons, and give a glimpse to the eco-system of the sport. Whether you are conscience or not, these horse training facilities are anchors to the beauty and land that is increasingly difficult to find without a new oversized mansion or subdivision. Laura Belmont de Gunzburg is an Equestrian whom has competed in the Hampton Classic for the past 8 years. Born in Paris, then moving to New York City when she was 6 years old, Laura has ridden almost all of her life. She attended Lycee Francais School, of which became difficult for her competitive show schedule. She moved to the Trevor Day School on 88th and Central Park West and began to home school while on the road in order to compete. “My friends did not understand at all. While they were all doing other activities, I was traveling and going to train with my horses before and after school. They didn’t get it at all,” says Belmont. “I was obsessed with it. It is what I loved. I studied. I rode. I had a lot of structure because of it. I love it more than anything. I love my animals. They are so sensitive. They feel everything. They sense everything. That is how you communicate. It is the one thing I do for hours a day, the one feeling where I am completely present. Nothing else matters while I am on one of my horses. I do not hear anything else. I am very attention deficit, and this brings me peace. I am at one with my horse. They all have such different personalities. We have formed such a bond.” Laura is an Art History major and senior at Miami University, and trains most of the year out of Wellington, Florida while at college. The Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) is the largest horse show in the United States extending 16 weeks in Wellington, Florida each January through April, and she competes during that time also. Belmont is currently interning at PACE Gallery on 57th Street in the city, and spends the weekends in Wainscott. Last year, at 20 years old, Belmont qualified for the World Cup in Spruce Meadows, Calgary, Canada where Canadian Olympic Jumper, Eric Lamaze, trained her. She also competes on the East Coast of the United States and the Canadian circuits, and trains with Norman Dello Joio, an US Equestrian whom is an Olympic medalist and World Cup winner. “People do not realize the commitment, hard work and dedication it takes to be competitive in this sport. I have gym workouts 5 days per week for strength and endurance. I have a 90-minute drive to and from the stables from the University of Miami each day, plus my classes and studies. It is a lot. ”
Belmont currently is training on 6 horses, including a new young Warm blood Mare named “Sonnengirl”. “I am very excited about her because she is my personal project. I didn’t get her “made” up for me. It is exciting to be a part of her development and for us to grow together”, says Belmont. Belmont will compete in the Level 6 Jumpers at the Hampton Classic this summer. “I can’t imagine life without my horses. It made me very responsible at a young age. If a shoe fell off, I dealt with calling the blacksmith. I was booking my own travel and hotel rooms for shows at 12 years old, I managed everything. My parents were not into horses, so they made me carry the responsibility for everything. It is great character building”.
There is an old cliché that says, if you fall of a horse, you have to get right back on, and this is literal in the world of Equestrian sports. There are so many hours invested in training, invested in developing the animal, in being great that you just cannot walk away.
Santos Lamarca, 28, whom competes as a Professional Jumper and Equitation rider, is an example of this. “Some days I just say to people, I am just a farmer that made my life around what I love”. Lamarca is from Necochea, Argentina, a small coastal town 500 kilometers south of Buenos Aires. He came to the United States in 2002 with $500 dollars in his pocket and did not speak English. “My Grandfather, Father and Uncle are Cattle and agriculture farmers. They also breed horses. I grew up on farms and began riding at a very young age. I would help heard the cattle in the fields, and began riding through the dunes, trails, and as you would imagine, jumped over tree trunks, branches, streams, and everything in the natural setting” he explained. “I began to formally train and take lessons when I was 14 or 15 years old with Carlos Moratorio, and moved to Buenos Aires when I was 17 to train intensively in Eventing. The program was a government-sponsored program that was also used for the military. It was there I found any horse I could to ride. The more horses, the better” says Lamarca. Much like Laura Belmont de Gunzburg described, Lamarca, explained that his friends were simply “doing other things. They were studying to go into finance, or lawyers, doctors, and focused on having careers. I knew that horses were my life, and the way I would make a living for myself. I was not certain how, but I knew it was what I loved” he continued.
Christian Wolffer, Founder of the Wolffer Estate Vineyards had built a Stable on his 174-acre estate in Sagaponak, New York in the 90’s. Previously known as Sag Pond Vineyards and Stables, Wolffer, originally from Germany, created a beautiful environment for horses that reminded you of a stable you would see in the German countryside. Wolffer, whom died in a fatal swimming accident off the coast of Brazil in 2009, had vision for the stable, and had hired Federico Sztyrie , a trainer and former member of the Argentinean National Team and Grand Prix Jumper. “Federico knew my family well, and called and asked me if I wanted to come to
Wellington for the season, then come back to Sagaponak to Wolffer to work. I did not hesitate. I immediately began to compete, to ride, to train. Anything I could do. I began to teach, even though my English was pretty bad then. I did become almost fluent within 8 months though“ he explained. “When I arrived at Wolffer. I felt I had moved into a postcard. I could not believe this is where I lived, and that these were my surroundings. I get on a horse and walk through fields seeing such beauty. Every color. If I want, I can be in New York City in two hours time. I was making a living doing what I loved more than anything,” he continued. “We travel around on the show circuit like gypsies with the largest portion of each year spent away from Wolffer in Wellington and Palm Beach, Florida for WEF, but this is home base. It is the only home I have had in the US, and it has been my home as an adult.” When discussing his aspirations for himself as a competitor he explained that he has trained with George Morris, and began to work with Charlie Rivers on his Equitation riding also. He has mostly competed as a Hunter and a Jumper at a Meter 40. I asked him about his passion and love for the sport, and what it really meant to him. His sincerity was moving. “If you do not love the horses. If you do not love animals, then you are in the wrong place and doing the wrong thing, even if only on the weekend. This is not about looking good, getting some cute clothes and boots to walk around town in. This is serious. Everyone that lives and has dedicated their days and nights to this sport and these animals has worked so hard for it. It is so much more grueling and competitive than assumed. I am very thankful first to the horses, for without them, I have no life. No way to make a living for myself. I
respect them first and foremost. We also have a great structure and system here at Wolffer. You have to have respect for that, and for the horses. However, the horses, they are the true stars of the show.” He went on to begin to apologize for his enthusiasm, which was truly honest as we walked around a bit. We discussed how he still breeds horses in Argentina on his family’s farm. Two of my friends that ride at Wolffer, Donna Clower and Andrea Saper have horses brought to Wolffer by Santos. “One of the greatest pleasures is to see one of your horses develop.” For a
moment, he seems to be a bit embarrassed by his sensitivity revealed in talking about them. He laughs it off, and says, “I have to stop being such a farmer for God’s sake.”
Later the same day, I went back to Two Trees to train with Alex, and then drove over to visit her sister Mercedes Mann Olivier at Toppings Riding Club. Alex had just sent one of her Warm Bloods, Beowolf, over from Two Trees to Mercedes at Toppings. Mercedes took over the Toppings Riding Club in 2009 as Manager, and also trains, and teaches Natural Horsemanship. For years Emily Aspinal and Ann Aspinal owned the business of Topping Riding Club. “This is one of the original horse farms going back decades. The Hampton Classic was once here, before it was named the Hampton Classic”. Sitting prominently on the broad corners of Gibson, Sag Main and Daniels Lane in the center of Sagaponak, Toppings Riding Club still commands old Hampton’s charm and personality. “This property is the object of envy for developers” explains Mercedes. “See that road over there”, as she points south toward a few very large homes. “If you go to the left, then down that path, that is how you ride out to the beach. Tinka Toppings lives in that house, and Alvin Toppings lives over there” as she continues to walk and point into the distance. “They will never sell this place. They love it. It means something to their family’s
legacy”. Jenno Toppings, a prominent and successful film producer (“Country Strong”; “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle”) reiterates this to me later that day when we speak via phone from her office in Santa Monica, California. “The real estate in the Hamptons and in Sagaponak just got out of whack. I do not blame any of the farmers that had to sell, or for even taking any opportunity they had to profit from selling. My Dad’s family has been there for generations. We have a long historical connection. I went to school at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Sagaponak. My Dad was actually allergic to the spray they used on the Potato Fields. The horse farm was much more suitable for him” she says with a laugh. “Our entire family rode. It was part of my childhood. I rode horses, my sister, Kathy Engel rode. It was meaningful to us. It connected us to the community. I can remember our family traveling my entire life all over the world. No matter where we were, someone would come up to Dad and tell him how much they appreciated what he did for them by giving them a job at our farm, or that Dad was their first boss, or their kids
took lessons at our farm. All these stories of how our horse farm touched their lives.” Toppings went on to say that there were so many people and so many stories over so many years, that half the time her Dad didn’t actually recall the person, but always played as if he did. “He was the one that always picked up stray people without anywhere to go or not knowing their purpose. That was my Dad”, said Toppings.
Mercedes and I sat down under an umbrella alongside one of the riding rings. It was over 90 degrees and a perfectly sunny day. We had the best seat in the house, as you can see the farm in full perimeter from that vantage point. “Beowolf” was in the ring being ridden in a lesson. We talked and watched the rider in training. “Understanding a little bit helps the horse live in our world,” she said. I knew she was referring to natural horsemanship. She continued, “A horse is born without issues. It is up to the owner, rider, and trainer to understand what makes it tick. If you are not willing to understand the horse, then you are not going to be successful competitively, or even as a casual rider. The horse is not interested in how strong you are. It is actually the opposite. Everyone thinks you have to apply all of this pressure on animals of this size and power”. She shakes here head in the negative, “Not at all. They want you to be their partner. That’s what makes them such great teammates in sport. You have all that pressure and stuff going on, and then you will need a bomb to go off all the time to get them to do anything. It
shouldn’t work that way.”
I ask her the plans for this charming facility in the heart of some of the highest priced real estate in the region. “We will do some upgrades over the next year. I used to work here when I was young. We would ride to the beach. Ride to the Sag Store. This farm is supposed to be different than the others.” In fact, I have found that all of the stables, although so close in proximity, they all carry their own charisma and complexion. She continued, “We have 29 stalls, an indoor riding
facility, which we will expand, but we want to keep the feeling that it has always been,” says Mann Olivier. Toppings Riding Club is still home to the Sagaponak Horse show, which is this month on July 20th, and again on August 10th.
I made my way back over to Two Trees to wrap up for the day. I could see in the distance that a few of the Polo Players had their ponies out on the field and were practicing. In speaking with Jane Walentas, she explained how they came to have Polo next door. “We originally began Polo because we thought we could provide a new home for Southampton Polo Club after they were forced to move their low goal fields off of preserved land. They ended up going to Riverhead. We were then approached by Peter Brant and Neil Hirsch who didn’t want to go to Saratoga with their teams, and needed a location for their high goal Polo teams. We had just purchased the additional land, and very much liked the idea. They took out a 10 year lease for Bridgehampton Polo with the right to go year to year afterward, which is what they have been doing for the past few years.” She continued, “I am glad they are back again. There was much chatter among the media and in the community about whether it would continue this year or not. I am glad they are back.”
Polo, another of the many Equestrian sports of prominence here on Long Island, is arguably the oldest team sport known in history, with the first matches being played in Persia and China over 2,500 years ago. Originally thought to have been a competition among Asian tribes, it was later known as how King’s trained their Calvary. To this day, mounted police and military are an instrumental part of patrolling. Polo is believed to have been a competition among cavalries and military in training centuries ago.
Polo is gaining popularity in the United States, and is a ball sport with similarities to soccer or hockey. There are 4 players on each team without a goal tender, and each team player has 7-10 ten horses (or ponies) that are rotated. Each period is played for 7.5 minutes non-stop. A typical match is about 2 hours in duration. Horses are known to gallop at the speed of 35-40 MPH. The first US Open Polo Championship was played in 1904 in New York City where the United Stated defeated the British.
Today, the #1 ranked American Polo Player is Nic Roldan. Nic played his first US Open Polo Championship at the age of 15; the youngest player in history, and last year, Captained Prince Harry’s team, Sentebele, in the Veuve Cliquot Polo Classic. I met up this weekend to discuss the sport, and how an American from Boston came to be a prominent leader in the sport, and his love and life as an Equestrian. “I played every sport growing up. I was like any American boy, and I was very athletic. Sports came fairly easy to me. I loved Baseball, Soccer, Tennis, and Ice Hockey. I was on a Traveling Club Team for ice hockey. Growing up in the Boston area, hockey was very prominent,” describes Roldan. My Father is Argentinean, and my Mother is from Germany. I spent most of my childhood between Boston and Florida. I began riding when I was about 3 years old” “My Father played, and took me to train in Massachusetts as a kid at Myopia
Polo Club, the oldest Polo Club in the United States dating back to 1891. I began to be tutored and home schooled so I could train and play in Kids Tournaments. We began to win. One day, my Dad got a call from the US Team asking if I could substitute for a player. That is when my professional career began. We won the US Open, and I was the youngest player to do so. That was thirteen years ago now” .
Today, Roldan is a Brand Ambassador to Piaget watches and has appeared in GQ magazine. Much like his older Argentinean comrade, Nacho Figueras, he could be a change agent for the
sport in the United States. “I would like nothing more than to make the sport more mainstream. It is a great spectator sport. That is what I love about Bridgehampton Polo. It is for the spectators. It sounds more fancy and blue blood than it actually is. Yes, there is the social aspect of it. They do an amazing job with the sponsorships, and the fanfare and press. But growing increasingly is the public spectator that is coming to watch also. That excites me,” Jane Walentas agrees, “Bridgehampton Polo has become a World Class event that we are so proud happens here at our farm. More and more people and true fans of the sport of Polo are coming to watch also. You see more tailgaters, more cars on the opposite side of the field, creating their own environment to watch the sport. It is great to see it grow in popularity.” Says Roldan, “I have a project I hope I can see come to life. I want to open a Training facility and Polo School with clinics where anyone can come learn to ride and to play. I hope I can make Polo more accessible” “I have such love for the horses. They are like my children. To be able to play a sport with my horses as my teammates is a spiritual experience. I become one with them. I love the speed, the aggression. You have to have extraordinary hand and eye coordination. I feel it challenges me to be physically and mentally better.”
(Bridgehampton Polo begins on Saturday, July 23rd at 4pm when Nacho Figueras’ Black Watch competes against Peter Brants White Birch, and weekly matches continue on Saturdays at 4pm until August 27th. )
Horsemanship is as much a part of the landscape of this community and the people that are employed by the sport, and this contributes to what is here; perhaps as much as the hills, large green pastures, ocean and winding roads. The summer season is planned around eventing including theses sports, and notably ends the season with The Hampton Classic, now in it’s 36th year. The Classic is Long Island’s premier horse show, and is truly a show for the audience and an opportunity to exhibit the sport. The country’s most competitive riders bring horses from around the country, and around the world to compete in the Hampton Classic. More commercial than the typical show circuit, the Hampton Classic is a glimpse at the other 11 months of the Hunter, Jumper, and Equitation competitions. McLain Ward, a US Olympian and Gold Medalist from Brewster, New York, has won the past two years Grand Prix Title on his horse “Sapphire”.
“Horses are elegant creatures, and they bring that elegance to sports” says Shanette Barth-Cohen, Executive Director of The Hampton Classic. “I get the most amazing letters and emails from people in the community that live here, or visit here each summer. During the Olympics in Beijing I received notes from locals saying they were up at 5am watching the Eventing and Jumping because they had become fans of riders they watched at the Hampton Classic. That made me feel amazing. Many of the riders at the local stables train all year to show at The Hampton Classic. It is a world class event that also has local character.” (The Hampton Classic is August 28th through September 4th. August 29th is Riders with Disabilities Day and ASPCA
Adoption Day where you can adopt horses, dogs and cats).
Throughout the Hamptons you will find art galleries and studios featuring artists and photographers that have been inspired and touched by the ethereal world created by the horse. Joe Andoe, Stephen Klein, Robert Dutesco. They capture the strength of a creature in inexpressible moments seen through their art. “I began painting horses in 1990” said Joe Andoe, an artist that is featured in many hotels, exhibits, museums and galleries around the world, and frequently commissioned by the notorious. A very humble and preferably anonymous person, Andoe is every much as mysterious as the subjects he paints. “Horses are like my short hand for
Americana,” he explains. “It was like painting my neighbors back in Oklahoma where I grew up. Except, we never saw the people, I saw their horses in the fields. They would stand and look at me. I never was a rider, but I am an admirer. I feel like horses speak to you in so many different ways”. I spoke of this when Mercedes and I were sitting at Toppings that afternoon. She just started to tell a story returning to ‘Star’, Mr. Osborne’s Morgan horse that became equally a part of she and Alexandra’s life. “We were there in ‘Star’s last moments with us”. She took a deep breath, and I could see after all these years, it was a loss she would never forget from a creature that had given his heart to them. “Alexandra and I were sitting with him when it was his time to go. And when he went, I could see a rainbow and colors just come up from him. As if his spirit had told us it is ok. We were both very upset and crying, and as we left the barn, I asked Alexandra if she saw anything. She said she saw it too. It sounds a bit silly, but I believe Star will always be with us. I know he definitely lives in me everyday”
Two Trees Stables
Contact: Thea. Office Manager
Alexandra Talmage (facebook: Talmage Equestrian)
Toppings Riding Club
58 Daniels Lane
Contact: Mercedes Mann Olivieri
Wolffer Estates and Stables
41 Narrow Lane
P.O. Box 604
Sagaponak, New York
Contact: [email protected]
Rosewood Farm (Southampton Riding & Hunt Club)
320 Majors Path
Contact: Bobby Ginsberg
Rose Hill Farm
2035 Scuttle hole Road
Sagaponak, New York
July 23 – August 27th
849 Hayground Road
Bridgehampton, New York
THE HAMPTON CLASSIC
August 28th through September 4th
August 29th Riders with Disabilities Day
August 29th ASPCA Adoption Day
SAGAPONAK HORSE SHOW
Toppings Riding Club
58 Daniels Lane
Sagaponak, New York
ART AND PHOTOGRAPHY
68 Park Place
East Hampton, New York