Let’s Horse Around
After 88 years the riding club is still going strong
Far right in bowler hat, Ada Maud Thompson founding member of the Wilton Riding Club, sitting astride with fellow equestrians.
Photo Courtesy Wilton Riding Club
It is a beautiful day and I am feeling very lucky. I have just arrived at the Wilton Riding Club to sit amid a circle of women to talk about one of my favorite subjects: horses. I’m here to capture a bit of the history of this nearly century-old site. Listening to the lively conversations and fond recollections of the group, I soon get a glimpse into the character of a place they all consider to be an important and special part of their lives.
In 1929, the Wilton Riding Club was officially founded by Ada Maud Thompson, or “Mrs. T” as she was affectionately known by her students. Mrs. T and her husband Hugh originally owned a small horse farm in town and she got her start as a riding instructor when approached by a visiting dancer who requested lessons to help her with her “equipoise” or balance.
Soon, children who had their own ponies, came for instruction and in 1927, with a growing demand, the Thompsons moved their home and farm to a larger Wilton property on Olmstead Hill Road. Two years later, the Thompsons and a group of provisional members bought a parcel of 40 acres on Riding Club Road and started the Wilton Riding Club.
Although today the Club is much more than just a place to ride horses, that’s where it all started, and there is no shortage of stories to be shared. “Mrs. T was a gifted equestrian who loved the excitement of participating in hunts all over the county, as well as in challenging contests and games,” recalls longtime member, Constance (Connie) Tate. “She was very proper and could often be heard calling ahead to me as I was riding, ‘Knees tight, Connie, knees tight!’”
Horse shows were an excellent forum for displaying the skills of Mrs. T’s students. Tate recalls the annual Labor Day show that consistently drew a large crowd around the ring and featured fancy programs and competitive classes that awarded winners ribbons and cups.
Despite the good fun, running a riding club could be problematic, as newly elected President Henry Gest discovered on his first day in 1996. It appeared that a member’s horse needed to be euthanized due to an unexpected injury, and for sentimental reasons the owner wanted the horse buried on the property. Perplexed, but wanting to honor the member’s heartfelt request, President Gest worked out the logistics, arranging for a tractor to carry the horse to its burial site.
The issue seemed solved until the tractor operator failed to show up to move the animal before parents and children were due to arrive for the day. Apparently Gest exclaimed, “What do I tell parents when their child asks, ‘Mommy why is there a dead horse hanging off the front of that tractor?’” This was just one such equine conundrum recounted with considerable laughter years later.
As much as riding was a part of the club in the early years, it also had a vibrant life aside from horses. Both Joan Kaskell and Harriet Hoskinson (Harriet being the first female president of the club) have been active members for years and describe the important social role the club has had including tennis, dances, dinners, and swims at Great Pond before the pool was built in the 1950s.
During the war in the 1940s the club played a particularly important role when gasoline was rationed by providing a refuge where families could enjoy for an entire day. Member Roberta Irving recalls the flood of 1955 that left many members stranded at the club for the night because of washed-out roads. Making the best of a bad situation they turned on music and danced into the wee hours. That led to a “Flood Party” in future years whenever there was a forbidding forecast.
Current House Chairwoman Melissa Kyle says that in addition to riding, there are a large number of activities available to members ranging from Easter Egg hunts to the annual Kentucky Derby party and Fourth of July picnic. Paddleball is also very popular. But even with the changing of times and passing of generations, Connie Tate reflects, “For old-timers, one of the happiest notes is that nothing much has changed over the years. It remains the same simple club that its founding members worked to create for Wilton and their children so many years ago.”
EARLY DAYS Barn manager Liz Hoskinson rode at the club as a girl with her father, James, who served as club president from 1974 to 1975. Her mother, Harriet, was the first woman president, from 1992 to 1993.