Shelby Bonnie, joint-Master of Piedmont Fox Hounds, returned to show jumping after an absence of more than 25 years, thanks to Joe Fargis, Middleburg-based horseman whose long and successful international jumper career includes partnership with Touch of Class that harvested individual and team gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
“Joe, who I rode with many years ago, called me in the spring and said he had a really good horse, Forever Z, owned by one of his clients, Tiffany Avon,” said Bonnie. “I have a great team at my farm, Lissa Green and Jenn Strickland, and the horse sounded like a good fit. The first show I picked was Upperville — literally, my home show — I crashed in my first round. We ended up doing pretty well and had some good fun during the summer.”
Actually, the rosettes began at Upperville when Forever Z and Bonnie pinned fourth in Low Adult Amateurs and placed third in the Low Adult Amateur Jumper Classic. They were also third in the Low Adult Amateur Jumper Classic at Loudoun Benefit Horse Show.
In addition to his support team of Green and Strickland, who bring along foxhunters and show horses that are for sale at Clifton Stables, Bonnie began training later in the summer with Matt Holmberg, based in Middleburg. He competed in shows in the Virginia area, including two Twilight Jumpers, invitational events at Great Meadow that raise funds for Gavin and Alden Moylan’s non-profit High Performance Equestrian Foundation, which offers financial aid to capable but underfunded riders.
At HITS Culpeper, two weeks after placing fourth in his first High Adult Jumper Classic, Bonnie piloted Forever Z to first place among 35 entries in the $2000 High Adult Jumper Classic. When he returned to San Francisco, he took two horses with him, including an ex-foxhunter named Gunther, which he has been riding in 1.0-meter classes. He planned to show on the west coast until he returned home to Virginia to pick up where he left off.
Granted, Bonnie has ridden to hounds most of his life, especially with Piedmont, known worldwide for fast runs and plentiful jumping. The pace is swift and fences stout. Horsemanship is vital in the field and the ring, but navigating fences without incurring jump or time faults makes show jumping a different challenge.
Bonnie showed as a boy and young adult, but show jumping days came to a halt when he graduated from the University of Virginia. Before earning his MBA at Harvard Business School, he worked as an analyst with Morgan Stanley. His career path moved steadily upwards. He co-founded and also served as Chairman and CEO of CNET, served as CEO of Whiskey Media and, in 2012, joined Allen & Company as their one-person representative in San Francisco.
Bonnie divides his time between California and Oakley Farm in Upperville where he spent time during his formative years in the company of his grandmother, Theodora A. Randolph, the legendary Master of Piedmont. Even after Randolph stopped riding, she continued to run the farm and the hunt until her passing in 1996 at the age of 93.
“I grew up in Kentucky and, when I was 14, my parents sent me to Hotchkiss School in Connecticut where I had a really tough time. Every spring, I spent the two week break in Virginia with my grandmother,” recalled Bonnie whose very horsey parents, Ned and Nina Bonnie, have a history of active involvement in foxhunting, showing and racing. “We developed a special bond. She drove a four-door blue Jaguar and we would go round the farm so she could survey what was going on. I really connected with the farm. I came back often over the years and hunted with her. She had a very strong personality. She was a good, committed horseman and horse owner. Although an infamously tough woman, she was a really good grandmother to me.”
Randolph’s father was Master of Myopia Hunt in Massachusetts. She was riding at three and grew up in the hunt field. During her years at Foxcroft School, she sought out her uncle, General George S. Patton, a daredevil horseman, for advanced jumping lessons. With such a genetic endowment, how could anyone field a call from a horseman like Fargis and not leap at the opportunity to show-jump again?
With his wife Carol, Bonnie has three children whom he has encouraged to find their own enthusiasms. “I’ve spent years driving a mini-van to my kids’ sporting events and shows, and I’ve turned into a good amateur photographer and videographer,” he said. “My sons, 17 and 15, play lacrosse and my 11-year-old daughter loves horses, hunting and showing.
“When I’m in Virginia, I get up early in the morning to ride, then I go to work,” continued Bonnie. “At this level, the competition is fun. It’s also mentally challenging and analytical. I’ve enjoyed the riding and the people. It also gives me an opportunity to show with my daughter, Virginia.”
Bonnie has shared the reins of the Mastership at Piedmont for 15 years with Tad Zimmerman and, since 2009, with Gregg Ryan. He believes that fox hunting is a great community activity.
“In a world where neighbors put up fences and automatic gates and don’t know each other, fox hunting has the ability to bring people together in something that honors the land and is about sharing and respect between neighbors,” Bonnie said. “I’m a big believer in supporting the local horse community. At Oakley, we have the show grounds, annual point-to-point and Piedmont’s opening meet. A stronger horse industry creates a need for more horse farms and less likelihood for housing developments. I hope to see the farm used for more things like the Piedmont Hunter Trials.
“I was blessed when my grandmother left her farm with me,“ continued Bonnie. “Besides the summer, I come back as often as I can during cubbing in October and regular season in November and December. We always spend a week in Virginia for Thanksgiving. My grandmother respected you if you rode well and you and your horse were turned out well. She didn’t care if you had money or a fancy last name. She shaped the hunt to respect good sport, good riding and good horsemanship. She set a good example. I’ve really tried to carry on with that same spirit.”