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Mason Phelps goes extra lengths to make long-running National Horse Show shine

 (Photo by Elizabeth Adams)

Mason Phelps almost missed his first National Horse Show after he got caught sneaking into the 1967 event in Madison Square Garden. Phelps is now president and producer of the storied equestrian event. (Photo by Elizabeth Adams)


By Elizabeth Adams
KyForward correspondent

To get to Madison Square Garden in New York City for his first National Horse Show in 1967, a young Mason Phelps hitched a ride with a van hauling horses from Gladstone, New Jersey.

The audacious 17-year-old was able to get into the event, even without credentials. But show officials eventually found him out.

“They basically didn’t know what to do with me, so they locked me in a bathroom,” Phelps said.

Show management released the up-and-coming equestrian – with the proper credentials. And every year since, he has attended the National Horse Show as either a spectator, a board member and, today, as president and producer of the storied equestrian event.

In 2011, Phelps brought the National Horse Show to the Kentucky Horse Park with the intent of establishing a permanent home for the nation’s oldest indoor show. Phelps said his passion for the equestrian industry and the legacy of the National Horse Show pushes him to do “whatever it takes” to produce a successful show for spectators, athletes and sponsors.

“Back in those days, anything you did at Madison Square was awesome,” Phelps said. “I was struck by the competition, the magnificence of it, the ridiculously difficult situation of stabling horses, training horses and competing with horses – but we just did it.”

Phelps started riding at a young age as a junior hunter and member of a Pony Club in Chicago. He continued practicing hunter/jumper sport when, at the age of 10, he moved with his family to Southern California.


The National Horse Show is the country’s oldest indoor horse show.

His riding career took off when he attended the equestrian program at the Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, California. Vacations away from school were spent in Buffalo, New York, with his grandmother Peach Taylor, who was a master fox huntress and steeplechaser. Taylor was Phelps’ greatest supporter as he competed in international equestrian events during his late teens and early 20s.

Taylor, a woman of high class and aristocratic society, was never too proud to pull manes with the grooms. When Phelps competed at the trials to be part of the U.S. Olympic Team in Gladstone, New Jersey, Taylor removed her jewels and put on blue jeans to help groom in the understaffed barns.

Phelps learned the importance of humility and hard work from his grandmother’s example. Phelps said his parents weren’t keen on writing checks for pricey horses, so he was always working for his victories with the mounts he was given.

“It wasn’t handed to me on a silver platter,” Phelps said of his success in competition. “That taught me how to appreciate the horse and the business from the ground up.”

Phelps earned a spot as an alternate on the U.S. Three Day Team that competed in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. He was recognized as the U.S. Combined Training Association’s Rider of the Year the same year. Phelps competed at the international level at the European Championships and won the Eastern Canadian Championships twice with his favored mount Gladstone.

“I would ride anything and jump anything you’d put in front of me,” he said of his years as a young rider.

In the 1970s, Phelps transitioned to a career in training as an assistant to Jimmy Williams at Flintridge Riding Club in Pasadena, California. He later established his own training business for hunter/jumpers and retired from training in the 1990s.

In 1976, Phelps took on a new challenge of producing his first equestrian event. Modeling the show after a well-known jumping competition held in Europe, Phelps’ inaugural International Jumping Derby drew top equestrians on the major international show circuits. The social venues during the show were especially memorable as they defied the norm of black tie formality with a laid-back atmosphere.

Mason Phelps said he relishes the challenge of revitalizing the National Horse Show and will do 'whatever it takes.' (Photo by Elizabeth Adams)

Mason Phelps said he relishes the challenge of revitalizing the National Horse Show and will do ‘whatever it takes.’ (Photo by Elizabeth Adams)

“It surfaces in many different conversations,” Phelps said of the International Jumping Derby. “The social aspect and the parties were like none other.”

Phelps continued to produce top-caliber equestrian events, including the New England Horsemen’s Association Hunt Seat Medal and a major driving event in Rhode Island. Beginning in 1990s, Phelps increased his management role through the National Horse Show’s rotations in Florida, New York and Syracuse. He was named president of the National Horse Show in 2008. He successfully signed Alltech as the sponsor of the National Horse Show the year after the company had sponsored the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010.

Phelps said he relishes the challenge of revitalizing the prestigious National Horse Show, which had lost momentum and allure throughout its nomadic years.

“I didn’t want to see it die,” Phelps said of the show. “The Alltech Arena was a perfect venue to revitalize the tradition and excitement of the show.”

Bringing the show back to prominence in Kentucky meant changing with the times, Phelps said. The National Horse Show, which originated at Madison Square Garden in 1883, was once a high-society event in which spectators wore black ties and tails and women wore formal gowns.

To fill the seats, Phelps added elements to the show that will engage avid equestrian fans and non-equestrian spectators alike. He also rallied support from sponsors and attracted world-class equestrians with high-dollar prize money. One hundred more horses are entered to compete this year as compared with last year. The National Horse Show costs $2 million to produce, and Phelps Media has signed $1 million in sponsorships.

“I like to see the event be successful, if that means raising money, if that means marketing – whatever it takes,” Phelps said.

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About the National Horse Show

The National Horse Show, held through Nov. 2 at the Alltech Arena in the Kentucky Horse Park, stands as America’s longest running indoor horse show.

For equestrian fans, the $250,000 CP Grand Prix will headline events Saturday night, with all-star athletes such as McLain Ward, Beezie Madden and Jessica Springsteen entering the ring.

On Friday’s second annual Barn Night, barn kids and equestrians of all ages can celebrate Halloween with the horses as the National Horse Show debuts the Gambler’s Choice event.  

During the $45,000 Chansonette Farm Gambler’s Choice, jumps are assigned a point value based on difficulty and equestrians will choose their challenges in a race to tally the most points. As an added hilarity, the professional riders and their mounts will be dressed in a festive Halloween costume. Many prizes, including the grand prize of a golf cart from Southern Lawn and Equipment, will be dispersed to registered equestrian facilities and groups on Friday evening.

Sunday’s ASPCA Alfred B. Maclay Final, which has historically pinpointed rising stars in the equestrian world, will crown this year’s junior champion of hunter/jumper sport. Throughout the weekend, locals are invited to enjoy shopping venues around the Alltech Arena, the Gracie Street Garden, a sports pub and the option for drive-through wagering for the 2014 Breeders’ Cup, which also takes place on Saturday, Nov. 1.

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Live music will also be held during evening events, and Australian Dan James, whose sensational horsemanship skills earned him the Road to the Horse International Colt Starting title in 2012, will be in the Alltech Arena to display skills on Friday and Saturday.

Events will be lived streamed by Shownet. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance here. For more information, visit www.nhs.org.

Elizabeth Adams is a freelance writer from Lexington.

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