From ‘57 to number 57
by Robb Fulcher
The Portuguese Bend National Horse Show was given little chance of success when it was founded 57 years ago. This month, from September 5 to September 7, the prestigious competition and family fair will celebrate its 57th year.
The horse show has become one of the peninsula’s iconic events, earning national recognition and attracting top riders from up and down the West Coast. Medal competition at this year’s show, at Ernie Howlett Park, include a $10,000 junior show jump and a $15,000 show jump.
Combined with its 25-year-old sister event, the R.W. Durham Seahorse Golf classic, it has raised $14 million for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
The foaling of the horse show can be traced to Betty Learned and her friend Betty Davidson, who at 93 remains an active volunteer and is a legendary horse show figure.
In 1957 Learned was approached about the peninsula’s debt to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which had treated 50 peninsula kids the year before, at a cost of about $8,000. The peninsula community had no fundraising mechanism for the hospital, which hoped to recoup 40 percent of those costs from area fundraisers.
“Betty [Learned] knew Mary Duque from Children’s Hospital, and Mary said to her ‘You know, you owe us $3,200, so what are you going to do about it?’” Davidson recalled.
“The Bettys” threw a “phantom party,” mailing out Halloween-themed invitations urging people to stay home, kick up their feet and write a check. They raised $4,500.
But the two friends reasoned that ghost parties would yield diminishing returns over the years. So the Bettys decided to start horse show. They roped in a few friends, and were met with early skepticism.
“Everybody said you cannot make money with a horse show,” Davidson said.
Flintridge had already established a fundraising horse show, and the peninsula friends went to scout it out.
“We noticed that Flintridge hired valet parkers, caterers and laborers. We didn’t hire anyone. Our wonderful husbands and families did it all – the paintings, the set-up, the food, everything,” Davidson said.
“We made $6,000 that year, and we never went backwards,” Davidson said.
The horse show was launched at the Portuguese Bend Riding Club. As it grew, it moved to the Empty Saddle Club in Rolling Hills Estates, and moved again a couple decades ago to Ernie Howlett Park.
The first year, most spectators sat on their horses or stood by the rail. There were nine boxes with 54 seats, one of which was occupied by a good-natured man named Lyman McPhee, until he got up to go to the bathroom, and an opportunistic Betty Learned sold it out from under him.
Horse show treasurer Lucille Houghton carried the first day’s proceeds home in a brown paper bag.
Nowadays Ernie Howlett Park is transformed with blue and white tents, horse rings and family attractions spread across the long green ball fields.
“We really come in and build a village,” said Dawn Knickerbocker, this year’s horse show chair.
“It’s very exciting what happens in the ring. But it’s not just an exciting horse show. We have boutique shopping, food booths, a children’s carnival with a petting zoo and a moon bounce. That end of the park is a real draw to families, as well as the horse show,” she said.
“We host medal finals in the 14-and-under horsemanship class, and for the fourth year now the adult finals. That’s our main attraction, that’s what keeps us strong,” Knickerbocker said.
The Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association licenses the Portuguese Bend show and gives it an A rating, the highest possible.
The United States Equestrian Federation has named the horse show a “Heritage Competition.” The designation is reserved for horse shows that have run 25 years or longer, and have made substantial contributions to the sport “by achieving, maintaining and promoting the equestrian ideals of sportsmanship and competition.”
In keeping with tradition, the horse show volunteers, their husbands, children and sometimes grandchildren spend an industrious week setting up and running the event.
A handful of husbands, dubbed the “Teen Tonkas,” drive tractors and skip loaders, and water down the grounds, Knickerbocker said.
“The kids are junior committee members,” she said. “Some of them have picked professions from learning to volunteer with people they’ve met.”
Community members lend tractors, trucks, refrigeration equipment and storage facilities.
“It’s a very enthusiastic group. We’re one big family – although we don’t fight with each other,” said Davidson, who has four generations of her family volunteering. “The husbands and kids work like Trojans through the week.”
Knickerbocker reserved special praise for “three gals that I don’t move right or left without consulting,” Vicky Lee, Melanie MacLean, who rode in the horse show as a young girl, and Val Kelly, last year’s horse show chair.
MacLean’s daughter Emily is a medal finalist rider, and helps the show stay current as she competes on the circuit. Small touches like changes to the look of ribbons, and personal invitations mailed out to top riders, can be traced to Emily MacLean’s input.
At the event, the blue-and-white shirted volunteers “are just lovely people. Everybody is willing to dig in and do the labor. Nobody’s above picking up trash, or picking up the horse manure,” Knickerbocker said. “And they’re great people to work with. They’re all no-drama.”
“The past presidents clean the port-a-potties. You see them going around with a mop and rubber gloves – it keeps everyone even,” Davidson said.
Patty Ochi, the Peninsula Committee Children’s Hospital chair for the horse show and golf tournament, said the volunteers continually look for improvements. She said this year’s horse rings will have a significantly improved look.
This year’s event also will feature exhibitions by Santa Fe West Hills Hunt, a club of riders who work with foxhounds. The exhibitions, at noon Saturday and Sunday, will not include actual hunting, Ochi said.
“The Portuguese Bend National Horse Show is in its 57th year, and it started in 1957,” she said. “That’s kind of a fun thing.”
In honor of Betty Davidson, Knickerbocker chose “It begins with one” as this year’s horse show theme.
“I look at Betty and she’s so involved, and healthy, she still brings jumps to the show in a pickup,” Knickerbocker said. “I mean, bless her heart, she’s still advising us, she’s hosting things in her home.”
Ochi said she’s “awestruck” by Davidson.
Davidson shrugs off the praise.
“They pretend they need me, and that makes me feel good,” she said.
“I do the orientation for the new members, tell them how to know one end of the horse from the other, that sort of thing,” Davidson said. “I tell you what I don’t do. I don’t lift a lot stuff, I don’t stand and hike back and forth a lot.”
Betty Learned, who passed away in 2000, used to do the welcoming orientation along with Davidson.
“We live in such an angry and turbulent world,” she told the horse show volunteers in the last orientation she gave. “But we can find gratification that gives us meaning and dignity to our lives by working for causes and institutions like Children’s Hospital.”
Davidson’s passion for the horse show has never waned over almost six decades.
“I’ve always been just as enthusiastic,” she said.
“I’m the only one left from the original group,” Davidson said. “I was the baby of the group at one time. I was 35 when we started.”
The Portuguese Bend National Horse Show takes place Sept. 5-7 at Ernie Howlett Park, 25851 Hawthorne Blvd., Rolling Hills Estates. For more see pcch.net.